24 October 2012

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '12: AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY (TERENCE NANCE, USA)

Screens at CIFF: 10/21 & 10/22 & 10/23
World premiere: 21 January, 2012, Sundance Film Festival

There are movies that are perfect, or close enough thereto, and that is why we love them; there are also movies that are not remotely perfect at all, and that is why we love them. And in the latter category, we have An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the debut feature of filmmaker Terence Nance, a beneficiary of the Sundance Institute that is almost maddening in its indulgent, frequently brittle aesthetic that presents one of the most incredibly overworked theses in the history of independent film - a young heterosexual male tries to figure out why he has such a flawless ability to drive away the women he's sexually and romantically attracted to and gentle but clear-eyed self-laceration ensues - as though it were somehow bold and new and insightful, instead of subject matter that hasn't really been given a new lease on life since Woody Allen's magisterial Annie Hall way the heck back in 1977. It is at times a sloppy and unclear film, and it would be extremely easy to tell that the director was a recent graduate of the NYU film program even if he didn't proudly flag that fact, along with his unmissable New York hipster credentials, at every possible turn. And yet it's for partially all of these reasons that the movie is so incredibly heartfelt and sincere and urgent, a film in which the artist unashamedly lays his soul out on the screen and does not fear our response - the kind of filmmaking that is rare always, but especially in an age when cinema generally, and independent cinema in particular, is perpetually wrapped in a thick layer of protective detachment, cynicism, and irony.

The movie blurs the lines between fiction and documentary to an uncommon degree, for unlike most scripted films that strive for documentary-like realism, An Oversimplification... doesn't ape the aesthetic of documentaries - handheld camera, jagged editing, chronological disjunction - but the whole technique of documentaries, cobbling itself together from found footage, interviews, re-enactments, and second-person confessionals, and at least some of the material making up the film is very probably actual, untouched non-fictional footage. But clearly not all of it, and so it's never absolutely clear where to draw the line about "what happened", though if we take the movie at face value, it begins more or less in 2006, when Nance, then a student, began to make a short called How Would You Feel?, a pantomime about a young man - played by Nance - who was extraordinarily disappointed to have a date cancelled at the last minute, with an unseen but highly officious narrator explaining the context and asking how we, the viewer, would behave in a similar context. The film wasn't completed until 2010, following a great deal of personal turmoil between Nance and his star and friend, Namik Minter, a fellow filmmaker who was Nance's ideal woman both physically and emotionally, and who didn't respond to him with the kind of ardor he'd have preferred. Years later, having ruined whatever he had with her, in part because How Would You Feel? struck her as a personal betrayal of private moments between them that had not been intended for a mass audience, Nance began a personal quest to deconstruct the short in the context of an exploration of his Problem With Girls, and that is what An Objectification of Her Beauty is, if we take the Nance onscreen to be identical with the Nance who exists in the real world; or, it is what AOoHB "represents", if we take the movie-Nance to be a fictionalised variation on real-Nance.

Either way, what the film is to the individual viewer who does not, ultimately, need to care about Nance's personal life, is the attempt by a discordant mind, used to thinking in terms of visuals, to make sense of it all. Y'know, All Of It. In essence, it's a personal diary in cinematic form, made by a man who only knows how to make sense of the world via cinema, giving him not one but two separate personal tragedies being enacted in the film: first being the question of why he can't be sincere with women, second being why he must process his emotions through making films about them. The project that has emerged here in 2012 presents all of the footage from How Would You Feel? presented as a VHS tape that is continuously paused and ejected as Nance and his Narrator chase tangents of thought brought on by that snippet of the film; those tangents taking the place of unused footage from Nance and Minter's projects, and of a kaleidoscope of animated sequences in all sorts of different styles, both graphic and stop-motion, each style pertaining to a different girl in Nance's history who he fucked things up with on the way to the greatest fuck-up of them all.

It's messy as all hell, as it almost needs to be, given that the film is, ultimately, meant to be the real-time document of a man chasing down thoughts as they come to him and giving them visual form; it's also repetitive, also as it almost needs to be, and for the same reason. Reasonable or not, it's not a very user-friendly movie, and rumors of a three-hour cut that was trimmed to just about half that length are positively bone-chilling: what is exhausting but fascinating at 94 minutes would, I suspect, be disastrous and completely unwatchable at much greater length. Even as it stands, I think that the film's "natural" length is closer to the 60-minute mark, but of course that's not a length American cinema knows what to do with.

All of this, while true, and while pertinent - there is a better Oversimplifiction of Her Beauty than the one we got, beyond a doubt - is also missing the point, a little bit. The chief charm of the movie (and it is charming, lightly self-deprecating, with a good sense of humor) lies not in its precision, but in its openness and sincerity; in the fact that Nance is sharing his feelings without apology or mediation. It is the film that it is because it is sloppy and rough and full of stylistic flourishes that are both exciting and odd by turns, and surely not everybody's cup of tea; once upon a time, it was the existence of singular, uncompromising visions that was meant to be the reason American independent cinema mattered, and movies that approach that ideal this well are to be treasured all the more for their latter day rarity. There is no disputing that Nance has a striking voice, and I for one eagerly look forward to seeing where he goes next.

8/10

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