Sunday, June 28, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Ryan Andrew Balas's CARTER

Ryan Andrew Balas's film Carter is being touted by its creator as an "experimental narrative", and so, in that spirit, we'll start our consideration of Carter with an experiment. I'm going to sketch out the plot of the picture and then we're going to try and imagine what the film might be like using our general knowledge of "quirky indie gems" and their accompanying filmic grammar. Trust me that the reason for this little thought experiment will soon become apparent.

So, that plot: Jebediah Sminch, three days shy of twenty-five intends to carry out a suicide vow he made when he was seventeen, despite the fact that he is, in his own words, happier than he's ever been. The vow: if he's not married by twenty-three, he makes his exit at twenty-five. His lady-love, the titular Carter, is understandably concerned, as are his friends.

From the male lead's name to the vow itself, there's quirk to spare, so let's see how this would all play out if, say, Jason Reitman was directing it. We might get a scene at the start of the picture that spells out the vow. There'll be a scene where Sminch meets Carter, perhaps a Manic Pixie Girl, and begins to realize that, gee, maybe he has a reason to live after all. There's the scene where Carter discovers Sminch's vow, just in time for one of those late second act romantic crises, and the monologue (it's always a monologue) in which we finally discover the reason for the vow and then her monologue that finally convinces him that life is worth living. Let's throw in a pussy-pop song and roll the end credits.

It should provide the reader some relief to know that none of the above describes Carter. She is no manic pixie girl. They have been dating for some time when the film begins. Said beginning is, a brief prologue aside, nearly eight wordless minutes of the title character waking up and getting dressed. We don't meet Sminch until the next scene and don't learn of his vow until shortly after that. His motives are never really explained and there's no scene where "the power of love" makes everything all better, insipidly ever after, amen.

The reason for my little thought experiment, then, is to put the film's experimentation in some context, namely: this is all the ways it could have gone horribly wrong. These are all the normal, traditional, usual ways of approaching this sort of character and story. Carter approaches things sideways, reinforcing the innate unknowableness of its suicidal protagonist through a structure that keeps us at arm's length.

And it's important to note that Balas's experimentation in Carter is primarily structural in nature. Godard and Motlagh conduct experiments in form and film language; Carter is an experiment in time and the arrangement of time.

This is perhaps at its most apparent in the aforementioned opening scene. To say that the scene is pointless misses the point and yet is actually quite accurate, as the scene has no "point", no nugget of information to take away from the experience, no zeroed-in moment that speaks volumes about her character. It is simply and wonderfully eight minutes of time and space, body and motion, clear white digital light interacting with a human face, human arms, human legs. The "point" is the thing itself.

I tried, and failed, some months ago to write a review or at least an appreciation of Philip Groning's Into Great Silence. What I did manage to say there applies to this opening of Carter as well. Please forgive any redundancies:

Here is a film that has no narrative and indeed no "characters", no "point", no "ideas". Here is a film that just is, that merely exists as space, image, sound, and time.

What a wonderful conception of the art form of film-- how freeing and yet how frightening: for a film with no point, no theme, and no story is a film completely without room for authorial comment or style. While like all film it is a "shaped" experience-- composed of shots married together and cut short by the magic of editing-- Into Great Silence doesn't really give you a sense of that shaping. There is never the sense that our eye is being directed to this aspect of a shot or that one, or that a point is being crystallized by a telling detail.

The film simply is and, surprisingly, that is more than enough.

Groning's "documentary" (though it is quite unlike any other documentary I have ever seen) doesn't have any voice-over or, more importantly, any music. Film is rhythm and music is rhythm; when married, the second tends to overwhelm the other, subverting its nuances, perverting its structure, violating its integrity. This is why the great master Dreyer insisted on making The Passion of Joan of Arc a true silent film; music can impose a rhythm that runs counter to the visual and temporal rhythms of the film.

Well, all that is great, Tom, but what does it have to do with the opening of Carter? That opening, it should be said, has wall-to-wall music. And while that music helps the scene "move" faster (of course it does, an aural rhythm is always faster than a visual one), I think it does subtract from the essential mystery of the scene. And I would say, over-all, my strongest criticism of Carter is that there's so much music and that that music, to my mind, often seems to work counter to the visual elements on the screen.

Carter's first scene is defined by white natural light, by the gangliness of her legs/body, and the openness of the apartment. By contrast, Sminch is introduced to us in dismal office lighting, a cramped and compressed figure squeezed into a cramped and compressed space. When one of his coworkers comes in and begins describing, in graphic detail, some Bang Bros.-esque pornography (with some bestiality thrown in for good measure), Sminch quite literally has his back against the corner. He has nowhere to go, no way to extradite himself from this conversation, and so he just responds noncommittally, content to wait it out.

Indeed, it is only when his co-worker suggests that they start their own pornography website centered around breaking into houses and raping people in their sleep (he claims it'll be the "Marlon Brando of porn") that Sminch asserts himself. The co-worker is such a ghastly character and the scene such an abrasive one that it feels at first like a mistake, a tonal mishap on par with Tyler Perry.

But Balas's abrupt switch in tone is by design and has a purpose that is highlighted by its place in the film's structure. I would argue that the main character in that scene is not Sminch or any of his co-workers, but rather Carter herself, despite the fact that she doesn't actually appear within it and that she's never mentioned in any of the dialogue. To wit: that first scene, that glorious eight minutes of time and movement and nothing else, introduce us to Carter but tell us nothing substantial about her. The scene that follows is completely different in terms of framing (open if still somewhat afflicted by close-up-it is versus cramped and hedged in), the size of the room (big vs. small), the way the characters move through the space they have available to them (freely and forward vs. hesitant and backwards), the type of light (sun vs. office), and the aural elements (wordless music vs. non-stop profanity). In juxtaposing these sequences, Balas asks us to compare them and, somewhat more importantly, the people in them.

Sminch is trapped, his body language folding into itself, his face hidden by glasses and a moustache like pieces of a costume. He's almost a caricature of a nebbish, even down to his nebbishy, pinched-in name.

Obviously, yes, Carter is not a nebbish. She has a normal if masculine name and her face is unadorned. We can deduce all that with just that first sequence, no comparisons necessary. But once we do make those comparisons, qualities that are present in the first sequence but hard to "read" without some degree of manipulative authorial comment are highlighted: Carter's body language might not register her casualness, her comfortableness with her own body, her freedom of movement, without boxed-in Sminch to act as a foil. Because Sminch is dingily lit in a dingy little room, sad and ordinary, Carter is that much more idealized by the clean white light of her window. A later scene of Sminch in his underwear emphasizes the essential ridiculousness of the male figure, while Carter's naked back and long bare legs are beauty incarnate. Sminch might be inundated by pornographic profanity, but Carter is blessed with meditative music.

And while I do still think that that music weakens the sequence and perhaps the film as a whole, I do have to admit that it works in terms of our conception of Carter. Balas has stated that he decided to tell the story of Carter the film from the point of view of Carter the person because he thought it would be more interesting, but I'm not sure if it's completely accurate insomuch as, (a), we don't follow Carter exclusively, Travis Bickle-like, but rather divide our time in the film's first third between both protagonists, and, (b), the character of Carter, even in those scenes in which Sminch does not appear, seems to my mind to be viewed through his eyes: an angel in white light, silent and at peace, moving free and lovely with soft music-- so very different from the pinched-in Sminch.

Indeed, this process of idealization is present in the "perfect day" the two of them share. More than once, the dialogue stops and the natural sound is replaced completely with music as the two lovers walk and cavort and play. These idylls are not particular, specific, or prickly; rather, they are very much like every other "perfect day" we've seen in films (the dialogue sequences in-between them that focus on Sminch's vow being the exception).

The first two times that I saw this film, I singled these sequences out in my notes as weak spots. But, thinking about it now, they do serve a purpose in further highlighting the ways in which Sminch perhaps takes Carter for granted. That he sees her a bit less as a person and more as a Girlfriend, that she makes him happy because they hold hands and climb on cement sculptures and he twirls her around, dipping in for a smooch. (Now, whether or not Balas might have been able to get this across using the time-sculpting of the opening or through the compare and contrast of the first two scenes, is a perfectly valid question; I could have done without the twirl-dive-smooch and the music myself.)

There's only one scene in which Carter and Sminch discuss his eminent suicide, and it is likely the best scene, acting-wise, in the film-- my favourite over-all scene involves Carter giving another woman (a lover?) Sminch's clothes, presumably after his demise, a digression that tells us important things about Sminch and the dynamic of his relationship with Carter despite the fact that he is nowhere to be seen. (That sentence is, in and of itself, a digression, but, hey.)

Anyway: the confrontation. Sminch is hesitant to talk about it, and Carter bristles: "Just dismiss me." And she's right, he has been dismissing her, her love for him, her say in the relationship. "Why are you going away?" she says in perhaps the saddest, simplest line in the film. "You make me want to live longer."

His best answer is that it's like leaving the party after you've told the funniest joke-- a variation of "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse" for the nebbishly-inclined. It is an answer that disregards Carter and the pain that his death is likely to cause her. It's also an answer that he's probably not fully convinced of; before he offers it up, he tries to evade Carter's request for an explanation by saying that it is enough trying to making himself get it.

There's an essential and inherent nihilism in Sminch's apparent lack of self-worth, one that manifests itself, again foil-like, through Sminch's (and the film's) beatification of Carter. (Perhaps he feels unworthy of her.) He does seem to be acting under a compulsion, a desire not his own over which he has no control; his suicide vow is a strangely Catholic one, justified in an earlier interior monologue: "I made a vow. I made a promise. And those things are holy." The irony of a holy suicide vow is perhaps lost on Sminch but not on the film; even when we burrow deep inside his head, we find ourselves outside of him.

That is, of course, by design; Sminch is a deliberate cipher, protecting himself with his moustache and glasses. Which, come to think of it, might be how Carter sees him. It's a double-portrait, Carter-as-seen-by-Sminch and Sminch-as-seen-by-Carter, that could only be accomplished through Balas's structural experimentation. But neither protagonist really understands the other, and so our own understanding is limited.

A more straightforward narrative might have given us more insight into Sminch, might have gotten us past the glasses and the moustache, might have deepened the mystery and the irony behind his vow, might have explored his complexities in a more satisfying manner. And yet, had it gone that route, the film wouldn't have accomplished the things it does; it might have been a work of "quality" (in Truffaut's sense of the word) but not nearly as interesting or as memorable. That's the trade-off with any experiment, whether structural or formal: it can go some place extraordinary but it might not all come together as a satisfying whole.

If Carter is perhaps not completely satisfying, let it be said that it is unsatisfying in its own way and on its own terms. Certain sequences, particularly the scene with the two women and the clothes, the twenty-five or so minutes before our two lovers share the same frame, and the sudden appearance of a pussycat, mark Ryan Andrew Balas as someone worth watching even if, my structural explanation aside, the idyllic sequences aren't quite as interesting or revelatory.

I look forward to his next experiment.

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