The word “oversimplification” does not immediately come to mind when regarding Terence Nance’s debut feature. More like “overcomplicated.” And since the effusive voice-over narrations (there are at least three) encourage an overuse of modifiers, I would add to the list “exuberant,” “narcissistic,” “solipsistic,” “mercurial,” and “poetic.” But the excess and earnestness suit the subject — the ephemeral and all-consuming nature of romantic love.
Nance plays himself, and he’s got it bad, but what “it” is is not easy to define, and he tries a lot of different ways to do so. A brief lyrical opening credit sequence (the music on the soundtrack is outstanding) follows him as he carries some boards to his Brooklyn brownstone. The image freezes, and a plummy voice explains that another film by Nance called “How Would You Feel?”, a short from 2006, will be interrupting the current film from time to time “in order to provide the necessary context for a complete story.”
The film within — or maybe beside — the film we started with relates a fateful event, or rather non-event, in which Nance, boards in hand, returns home to see that he has missed a call from his unrequited not-quite lover (Namik Minter), who says she can’t come over as planned that evening. Again and again the film and ever-nattering narrator return to the same scene, like someone besotted or bereft who can’t shake a recurring memory of some missed chance or a fatal error. With each iteration more background and details are added, from a book of Japanese carpentry found in the garbage to the pall of Minter’s other boyfriend, and the sequences multiply like a cinema equivalent of “The House that Jack Built,” ending with the question, “How Would You Feel?” Personally, I felt some of the bittersweet, overindulged sense of loss that Nance and whoever the stuffy narrator is talking about, but to be honest, I was also wondering how much rent he was paying for that apartment, which was kind of nice.
Apparently, Nance screened “How Would You Feel?” for an audience of friends, including Minter, and I think it’s fair to say that she did not feel great afterward. Fortunately, after that tortured self-analysis, Nance lightens up considerably and he demonstrates some of the playfulness Spike Lee enjoyed in his first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), as well as some of the arch collaging of texts and images of Jean-Luc Godard. Call it “He’s Not Going to Get It” or “Two or Three Hundred Things I Don’t Know About Her.” He effortlessly orchestrates styles and modes, from diaristic video to fantastic animated dream sequences, from self-conscious direct address to the camera to wry, seemingly unscripted epiphanies (a woman on the subway says to the Afro’d Nance and Minter, “You-all trying to make big-haired babies?”) and unexpected insights (Nance notes that unacted desires are “so powerful you miss things you never had”). Sometimes with beauty, and love, you just can’t simplify enough.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.