16 November 2007

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT

A little while ago, I was approached by Canadian indie director Brett Butler, asking if I would be willing to review his and his brother Jason's most recent project, Confusions of an Unmarried Couple, and I said I'd be glad to. That's the full disclosure part.

Reviewing a micro-budgeted indie calls for a different approach than usual. Allowances must be made, expectations must be shifted, and pragmatism is called for. My snark, I think, is best put away in favor of a more clinical analysis.

The unmarried couple of the title is made up of Dan (the selfsame Brett Butler) and Lisa (Naomi Johnson), although "couple" is at least a bit misleading: in fact they have been broken up for quite some time, ever since Dan caught Lisa in bed with another woman a couple of days after proposing marriage. The narrative plays out on two levels: first, there is the real-time account of what happens when Dan goes to their once-shared apartment for his stuff, closure or a reconciliation; second, there is interview-style footage of the two sometime in the interregnum, psychoanalysing themselves and each other.

Without a doubt, the film has its fair share of flaws, although all of them save perhaps for one can be mostly explained by its exceptionally brief shooting schedule. This raises a question: if a flaw is completely explicable and forgivable, does it cease thereby to be a flaw? In other words, since it's almost certainly not the Butler brothers' fault that they had to film a 73 minute film in one weekend, is it fair to judge the final product without considering that limitation?

Yes and no. A film professor of mine once pointed out that a director can't stand up before every screening and explain what the problems were on set, and I can't help but agree: a film has to stand up on its own. But the flipside is that I can hardly imagine a better project of the same length under the same conditions, so I would just as soon not be too big of a bully.

In a nutshell, the film suffers from having far too few set-ups. Except for the first couple minutes and the interspersed interview footage, it all takes place in three rooms in a single apartment, and each of those rooms is covered in just a few camera angles. There's a great deal of visual repetition, and lest we forget, film is a visual medium. If the repetition serves no purpose, and I can't see how it does, it is a liability, because it is so very obvious and attention-grabbing. (I'd be remiss in not pointing out that the scenes in the bathroom - the closest the film gets to having something happen, rather than just talking - are much more interesting to look at than the rest).

As a corollary, in an evident attempt to cut down on the number of separate shots needed, a great many of the dialogues - and the film is almost exclusively comprised of two people talking - incorporate pans from one speaker to the other. When the words start to fly fast and furious, the effect is precisely like a tennis match. Perhaps this was deliberate - conversation as contest - but I cannot help but be reminded of Godard's similar trick in Contempt, where a very similar technique was explicitly part of that film's overall scheme of being anti-cinematic. Nothing about Confusions of an Unmarried Couple leads me to believe that it is by design anti-cinematic.

So back to my original question: if you've only got two days to shoot a film, should you be expected to fuss over the compositions and camera set-ups and all that? No, probably not; but I think that the lesson here is probably that one should not try to shoot a feature in 2 days.

Now, I began with all of the negativity I had for the movie not because I think it is terribly bad, but because these are not incidental issues, and they crop up constantly in contemporary indie filmmaking. It's to Unmarried Couple's credit that it has some incisive and truthful observations, which is much more than I can say for a great many of its fellows - I shall not name names. Brett Butler's script (the last part of his hyphenated tasks on this production) is certainly on a wavelength all its own, but once you've adapted to its distinctive rhythms, there are some fairly weighty observations on the boxes we put around other people in order to fit them neatly into our lives.

There's also a unique sense of humor throughout the script, maybe a bit too indebted to Kevin Smith's scatalogical poetics, but a great deal subtler. Subtle enough indeed that it's easy to miss, but there again is that question of wavelength. Make no mistake, the film will draw you onto its wavelength, but slowly. That is both blessing and curse - a blessing because the film is not aggressively obvious like those other indie films I'm not naming, a curse because it seems aimless for quite a while.

Leaving us with the actors; and here we run into rocky territory again. It's another quirk of the indie scene to cast non-professionals, i.e. the director's friends, for they are both cheap and readily available. But in a talky film - and the DIY community is all about the talking - that's a dangerous game. Actors know how to act; that is why they are called "actors." Unmarried Couple doesn't have things quite as bad as those other movies I'm diplomatically not naming, but it only has two performers, and Naomi Johnson is simply not very good in her role. I am torn between blaming that on her, the writing (like so many male screenwriters, including your 'umble blogger, Butler cannot write an authentic female, or at least he has not done so here), or the short schedule which doubtlessly did not admit for much rehearsing or extra takes. Whichever of those was the case, almost every single one of her line readings comes across forces, sometimes a little, sometimes a great deal.

Butler himself is another story altogether: he has a weird and mildly scuzzy sort of screen presence, but he clearly has a good handle on the comic tone of the script (which makes sense, really), and generally seems more comfortable in the character's skin. A lot of the film's success relies on his performance, functioning as a sort of tonal Rosetta stone to get us into the film's mind and delivering thematically-laden dialogue with a great deal of conviction.

I want to reiterate: this is not a bad film, and for the kind of film it is, it's very good. But a microbudget is a microbudget, and there's only so much you can do to get around that. The Butlers clearly have interesting things to think, and I'd love to see what they could do with $50K and two or three weeks to spend it.

8/10 (in the world of low-budget indies)
6/10 (in the world at large)

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