February 3, 2013

Made in the Shade

by Steve Dollar

I Used to Be Darker

[Editor's note: due to budget cuts and internal restructuring, Steve's review will likely be my final post for GreenCine Daily. Thank you all for reading during my four-year tenure, and be sure to follow me, Steve, Vadim and Nick on Twitter for more cine-obsessed discourse.]

Notions of "the real," and the million micro-shadings of subjectivity (the perspective of the filmmakers, the characters) that are attenuated in any contemporary film with aspirations towards naturalism, consumed my thoughts this year at the Sundance Film Festival. That, and often a certain puzzlement over directorial intent: Third acts often felt like a let-down, in films that had otherwise been exemplary displays of jaw-dropping talent. Too much plot. Not enough. Phantom motivations. Underbaked cookies. Did I miss something? Why was I, on a gut level, so disappointed?

I probably should have stuck around for the Q&A. But strangely enough, my reaction when I was troubled by a film was to let the mystery be, in hopes of circling back to it later on a second viewing, away from the festival crazy. With that experience in mind, I feel even stronger about the accomplishment of Matt Porterfield's I Used To Be Darker. Like a lot of folks, I was hooked by the filmmaker's 2010 Putty Hill, a BAMcinemaFest standout that used a conceptual gambit (the faux documentary) to enter the lives of a working-class Baltimore community impacted by the drug-related death of one its children. The device gradually evaporates, by which point the camera freely drifts between characters (played by a largely non-professional cast, without a formal script), latching onto moments of piercing emotional revelation. By the end of the film, the mourners gather at a dive bar for a wake, consecrated in whiskey and a gorgeous karaoke rendition of "Wild Horses." (Unfortunately, the Rolling Stones song had to be replaced, since the film's budget was something like $7,000).

I Used to Be Darker

Darker also draws on musical inspiration. This time, Porterfield cast a pair of singer-songwriters (Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham, brother of the celebrated Will) as... singer-songwriters, going through a divorce in a socio-economic sector of Baltimore a bit more comfortably north of the skate-park/tattoo-parlor environs of Putty Hill. If you've ever been though a hefty break-up, then the lyrics (from the song "Jim Cain" by Bill Callahan) appropriated for the film's title ring bittersweetly true:

I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again
Something to be seen was passing over and over me
Well it seemed like the routine case at first
With the death of the shadow came a lightness of verse
But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzles
And I woke myself until I'm frazzled

Instead of a structural ploy, as such, Porterfield (and co-writer Amy Belk) connect the dots via Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Kim's Northern Irish niece, whose summer runaway adventure in nearby Ocean City has capsized amid some undisclosed trauma that dispatches her, unannounced, to the broken family's doorstep. (In an unusual bit of casting lore, Campbell met Porterfield along with her friend Hannah Gross—who plays her cousin Abby in the film—at a New York screening of Putty Hill and they both campaigned for roles in the new project.) Taryn becomes the spy/eye/surrogate for the audience, exploring interior spaces both physical and psychic, as the camera shifts its allegiance between multiple characters (the performers' various bandmates or putative lovers) and a narrative begins to glue together like a distressed mosaic—a few broken shards here, an unbroken plane of a brilliant hue there, a missing chunk in the middle. It's not like anything much happens. But, in fact, everything is happening: a few days in which everyone is pivoting through a suspended moment of what next. We're gathering clues, registering the swings of emotional dynamics, listening to songs, identifying, sorting out. Scenes cut in rhythms that leave notes unplayed (let us now praise Maurice Pialat, Thelonious Monk and Wallace Stevens*), and the camera—most often—hangs back like a peeper, observing interactions through doorways, from upstairs windows, at the far end of corridors, glancing up off a basement floor.

I Used to Be Darker

Porterfield isn't afraid to get iconic. The film's key image is a shot of Campbell, arms akimbo with her shoulder blades exposed at asymmetrical angles in a summer dress, seen from the back as she gazes into a lush green wood, a mop of strawberry hair falling to her shoulders. But the visual design of the film, executed by Porterfield's steady cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier with his signature clarity and poise, usually works against movie-movie imagery. Even its one romantic interlude happens pretty much in the dark. Everything is geared towards a subtlety, a hushed ambience that allows the viewer to hear the characters think. Some may call this underwhelming, a conspicuous lack of a "there" there. I'd argue that Porterfield's gift for finely attenuated tone denies that assertion. When the movie suddenly cuts off, the immediate reaction is a sustained "Hmmmm." About 30 minutes later, you're going for the Kleenex. It's a stealth bomb.

* I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

(From "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird")

Posted by ahillis at 10:35 AM