Answering the question asked by the title of one of his books, “What Is Cinema?” the great film theorist André Bazin wrote, “[It is a] recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.”
Unlike other art forms, he further argued, cinema can record reality without any artificial mediation. Just point the camera and shoot; no artifices such as paint or words or human intervention come between the art and the object. But there are two problems with this ideal. First, where do you point the camera? It involves a choice; the subjective element is unavoidable. Second, unmediated reality gets pretty boring. People like stories.
Ambitious young filmmaker Matthew Porterfield tries to minimize these problems by employing a vérité style to suggest an elliptical, oblique narrative, one that demands a lot of participation from the viewer, who must piece together what’s going on – like any other observer thrust into the midst of strangers’ lives.
I USED TO BE DARKER
Porterfield’s previous film along these lines, “Putty Hill” (2010), was widely praised. I found it ostentatiously austere, paradoxically calling attention to the filmmaker’s efforts to conceal his presence. But his new film shows that he is becoming the kind of guy that Bazin might like.
It opens with discontinuous scenes from a beachside resort, shot in long, roving takes from discrete spots, as if perceived by some voyeur following the action. A young woman confronts a man at a party; they are behind a glass door, so what they are saying is inaudible. Next, somewhere else, an estranged husband and wife are going through the grim ritual of dividing up belongings. The phone rings, the message machine kicks in – it’s the woman from the scene before, who is asking if she can stay over for a while.
The identities, relationships, and back stories of these characters emerge indirectly through snippets of conversation and other details. The young girl is Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a waiflike runaway with a Northern Irish brogue and a backpack bigger than herself. She has descended on the couple, Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), her mother’s sister and her husband, at a bad time, and it doesn’t sit well with her cousin Abby (Hannah Gross), who greets her at first cordially, but with growing animosity. The rest is best pieced together by the viewer, but I will add that the style and substance evoke an overall sense of anomie and fragmentation.
This sounds like it could be austere and schematic, but the affecting, authentic performances from the first-time actors make these characters thoroughly authentic. Likewise the music underscores the emotional truths (the title of the film comes from a song by bard Bill Callahan). Kim and Bill are both musicians, and their eclectic, haunting numbers underscore the bits and pieces of their lives on display, and that’s about as real as film like that can get.