Note: this review is of an earlier version of the film than the one that is available currently. Once I have gotten around to seeing the new cut, my thoughts on the revision will appear.
One of my biggest problems with independent film in general is that there is hardly any experimentalism, and most movies just feel like typical Hollywood movies, which is just crazy to me because we have the freedom to do whatever we want. == Joe Swanberg
I'm not sure how Amir Motlagh is going to feel about me opening an analysis of his first feature whale with a Joe Swanberg quote, as he's expressed some ambivalence, both in public and private, about certain independent filmmakers, Swanberg included, whose films have been grouped together as part of a "movement". I felt opening with that quote was apt, however, because Motlagh's film is full of experimentalism, feels nothing like typical Hollywood (or even independent) movies, and shows a full awareness of the freedom that independence gives low-budget filmmakers: the freedom to eschew traditional plot structure, the freedom to sidestep confrontation and deny pay-offs, the freedom to use both sound and picture expressionistically to arrive at first-person-cinema, camera-stylo.
whale is formally structured into a prologue and five chapters. As if to set it apart from the film proper, the prologue and credits run in a tiny widescreen box in the center of the widescreen frame. In that tiny frame is our protagonist, Cameron, played by Motlagh himself and leaving a couple of nasty voice messages for the girlfriend he just broke up with. (Motlagh's short films knock knock and Plain Us both center on romance-gone-bitter; a recurring theme?)
The first chapter to fill the entire frame, "Return to the O.C.", finds Cameron returning to his parent's home. Cameron finds something to eat and feeds beer to the dog. Then he heads into the bathroom and undresses for a shower; his nude buttocks blur as we get multiple overlapping exposures. We see Cameron's father, owner of a sad moustache and sadder eyes, as he splashes water on his face and begins to shave. The footage speeds up, almost unbearably so, and we then get a remarkable bit of voice-over from Cameron that begins, "my father says I'm wasting my time..." He shouldn't be writing, "or thinking", he should be making money. It's the only time he hopes his father is wrong about something. A touching moment between Dad and Mom follows; Dad starts to head off to work, notices the shower running in the other bathroom, and rightly intuits that Cameron's returned home. They talk briefly through the door, the shower still running; Mom does the same. This is the last we see of the parents. Cameron never shares a frame with them. There's never the big scene where they come to understand each other or where they come to some kind of confrontation. The entire conflict, if you could call it that, is encapsulated in that voice-over. There's something so simple, so confessional about it-- at once a directness and an obliqueness that so many other filmmakers would be afraid of. And the sped-up footage of Dad prepping for his day works as an ironic counterpoint to the words being spoken: Cameron may be wasting his time, but Dad isn't.
The second chapter, "The Homies", begins with a phone conversation between Cameron and one of his friends and follows with another conversation with another friend. In both cases, however, we never see Cameron; there is no intercutting between the two sides. We only hear, and only see, his "homies". Such an interesting choice, cutting the "main" character out of his own film for a while. It is, however, an apt choice: Cameron is primarily an observer, so what makes more sense than for his film to observe others? This passiveness, this sense of him being apart from others, is emphasized by scenes like these and the previous sequence with his parents. By decentering the film's focus away from Cameron, Motlagh gets us away from our need for "plot" or "character", thus enabling us to take in the texture of things, the feeling of this moment or that one.
I don't mean to misrepresent the film, however; it's not as if Cameron never interacts with anyone on-screen. After those two scenes on the telephone, Cameron goes skateboarding with Darren (Darren Oneil), talks girls and life. And probably the best scene in the entire picture is a conversation between Cameron and a previous ex-girlfriend (not the one behind the break-up that begins the picture) in the third chapter, "The Ex". There is such exquisite cruelty in that scene-- the way both characters use the word "no" to wound the other, the way Cameron hides his face with his hand, occasionally turning his face away from her, away from the camera, away from us, as if this observer doesn't want to be observed. It's a remarkable little scene.
The first three chapters are all concerned with a different kind of relationship: Cameron and his parents, Cameron and his homies, Cameron and his ex. The last two put the focus squarely again on male friendship, with chapter four being "the reunion" between Cameron and his homies and chapter five documenting "the escape" of Cameron and Darren up the coast. It's an interesting structural move, and while each of those chapters has its moments, I'm not sure if they're quite as compelling or interesting as the first three chapters.
In chapter four, there's a strong emphasis on words that is underlined by shifting the emphasis away from the visual element. A conversation in a car is rendered not in crosscut close-ups but in abstract snatches of light and road, muddy and at times indecipherable; Darren delivers a remarkable monologue that is shot in the dead of night, his face for the most part blending in to the darkness until, near its end, we are blessed with a red-lit close-up. To trust that the words will be interesting enough to hold our attention during this abstraction is an act of both bravery and intelligence, a mark of strong instincts on Motlagh's part. Occasionally during the film the moving image will be replaced by a series of still images; sometimes these are just photographs (memories, impressions) and in one nice sequence during the third chapter, it's a series of stills from a single shot of the ex-girlfriend. This moment: is it idealizing her?, scrutinizing her?, or simply observing her?: I'm not certain. But it still works, and that's as it should be; film, like all great art, should defy our ability to explain it in rationale terms.
Most of Motlagh's experimental touches work: they make the film feel personal and emotional. Sometimes, they don't work nearly as well: for example, I thought the speeding-up of some of the skateboarding footage wasn't nearly as inspired as the speeding-up of the father footage.
On the whole, however, the film works. It has talent and ambition to spare; Motlagh knows exactly what he wants and he knows how to get it. He's not afraid to be personal, to be slightly obscure and elliptical, to use the freedom that independence gives him. whale is definitely worth seeing and considering for filmgoers and filmmakers alike.