I’ve long favored films that feature smart, articulate characters battering each other with words. I like screwball comedies. I like Judd Apatow. I adore BROADCAST NEWS and I’m a sucker for an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
It’s not hard to understand the hegemony of dialogue-driven, plot-heavy films. Movies begin with screenplays, and screenplays come from writers. But to proceed from the written word can push a visual medium towards acting like literature. Or radio theater.
These days, I’m finding myself more exhilarated by films that act like something else. Movies that move less, and linger more. Where characters may follow smaller dramatic arcs, but they are more finely observed. Films like Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (or last year’s AMERICAN HONEY), and Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN.
I will admit to some see-sawing in my seat during CERTAIN WOMEN. The film teetered on the line for me at times, probably crossing it during Michelle Williams’ arid little segment. But then Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone came along and more than redeemed things. Their silent horseback ride may be the most sublime thing that happened at the movies last year.
AMERICAN HONEY is probably an hour too long, and it doesn’t have an ending. But I kind of loved it. Even if at some points I felt like I was trapped in that van with those kids. Road trips require patience, and a taste for staring out the window just watching things go by. Your mileage no doubt may vary. But really, any film unspools as a collaboration between the filmmaker and you, the viewer. The less that happens onscreen, the more time there is to ponder what does. The question is, how much work do you want to do? How active a collaborator do you want to be?
In the past year I’ve also been catching up with the work of the late Chantal Akerman. After JEANNE DIELMAN (3 hrs 45!) and JE TU IL ELLE, I’m thinking Akerman may have gone too far toward rarefaction. With her long, static takes and prolonged silences, her narratives advance in such tiny increments they sometimes feel like a dare. I watched both films in a state of amazement, commingled with boredom and antagonism.
Enduring a three-minute shot of woman’s back as she scrubbed a bathtub, I wondered if I’d be a hopeless philistine if I called bullshit and turned the damned thing off (I didn’t, and made it all the way to the meager, if startling, climax of JEANNE DIELMAN). Akerman’s films are like homeopathy, there’s so little there. And like homeopathy, if you feel like they are working, it’s probably all in your mind.