Judge Rafael Gamboa is wondering where the kissing will be in the hypothetical sequel to this movie.
"Raw. Honest. Naked."
This is a movie made by, for, about, and with real people. It's part narrative, part documentary, part experimental, part improvisation, part—ah hell, it's a mess. But it's a good kind of mess, the kind of mess your mother never seemed to understand was benevolent. It's the piles-of-random-junk-in-familiar-places mess, the notes-and-worksheets-stuffed-haphazardly-into-my-textbook mess, and the I-refuse-to-make-my-bed-because-I'll-probably-take-a-nap-in-five-hours-anyway mess. It's a very real and very human sort of mess; I'm not sure how much of it was intentional or due to amateur inexperience, but it doesn't matter, because it works.
Facts of the Case
This is a film about post-college life and relationships, mostly about the latter placed in context with the former. Ellen (Kate Winterich, LOL) is sleeping with her ex-boyfriend Chris (cinematographer Kevin Pittman, Welcome Back to the Barrio) just to scratch her sexual itch, but he is more interested in reviving the emotional connections they used to share. She hides her actions from her roommate Patrick (Joe Swanberg, LOL), who disapproves of Chris and who seems to have some sort of attraction to her and her close friend Laura (Kris Williams).
The thing about this film is it's so different that it's difficult to describe it in a cohesive way. While it has a scripted story, the film feels almost entirely improvised. Part of this is due to the lack of "acting," and by that I mean intentional non-acting: no melodrama of any kind. The players act exactly like real people; they have awkward interactions, difficulty articulating what's on their minds, they repeat themselves, etc. The other factor is the film's visual style, which is essentially cinema verite taken to an extreme. Handheld, jerky camerawork with awkward framing and almost intrusive motion heightens the sense of immediacy by creating an alert tension. It certainly feels like the filmmakers were capturing most of their footage much like a war correspondent would, desperately trying to point the camera at all the important things as they were happening. And finally, some of the scenes in this film are things so personal and unflattering it's almost a shock that you're allowed to see them in such graphic and natural detail, things like trimming pubic hair, masturbation, and condom application. These are things that people do on a regular basis, shown without compunction and with respect to their intimacy and mundane reality.
While those techniques enhance the illusion of captured reality, the editing techniques reveal the artifice of the film. The use of jump-cut crosscutting to show the sexual fantasy that one of the characters is masturbating to, for instance, is a highly subjective and artificial technique that is very much a narrative rather than documentary tactic. Other examples of this artificiality are playing an audio track to allow the audience to listen to what someone is hearing through a pair of headphones and shooting a conversation from both over-the-shoulder angles; these techniques reveal preplanning and expose the contrived nature of a scene.
On top of all this is the added experimental element of the real-life interviews conducted with random people who exist in the film only as voice-overs providing tangentially relevant commentaries and analyses on their own failed relationship experiences. These provide the bridge between the narrative and the documentary styles: they are generated narratively as the result of Patrick's vaguely defined project, but the content of the recordings is sincere and completely unscripted. Without this element, the entire film would probably be unable to sustain itself for as long as it does.
The the end result of all this is a unique collage about relationships, not necessarily trying to analyze them, simply desiring to talk about them. Think of this film as the visual adaptation of every supportive conversation you have had with a friend going through relationship issues; it's not so much about analyzing the problem as it is about getting a weight off the chest.
The DVD comes with a good selection of special features, including deleted scenes and some rehearsal footage (each with a short introduction by the filmmakers), a pre-production interview with Kate Winterich, and a commentary track featuring all four filmmakers. The enclosed booklet also features some excerpts from Joe Swanberg's production journal. For being such a low-budget production, the content of the DVD is fairly impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Almost everything I mentioned about the movie as being positives could easily be taken as negatives. The inconsistency and graphic honesty of the film could easily be interpreted as amateur incoherence and adolescent shock value. The unpolished and roughly crafted photography could likewise be seen as a childish lack of skill and poor aesthetic sensibility. The awkward non-acting could be taken as an inability to properly portray realistic characters. This film, more than most, depends heavily on your own attitudes regarding filmmaking; that is the extent to which this experimental film blurs the line between brilliance and imbecility.
I, for one, feel this film is a finely executed and original work that manages to survive its unstable experiment surprisingly well. I also feel that this film is incredibly difficult to talk about analytically, seeing as it obviously would prefer its audience to simply watch and absorb, with the goal of perhaps gleaning some unspoken, wordless truth or emotional connection from the experience. This is why my review is as short as it is; it is a film that is remarkably focused on the individual's reaction to it. It invites you to add your own relationship history to the mix, just like those who contributed their time to record interviews for the film. You, as the viewer, help to complete the film, as much as a project like this can be said to be complete.
Guilty of being raw, honest, and naked; not guilty of being artless.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Heretic Films
• Commentary Track with Joe Swanberg, Kris Williams, Kate Winterich, and Kevin Pittman
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