"Tired Moonlight" and the 16mm Vogue

A trend in recent low budget American indie films sees them shot in 16mm under the influence of cinematographer Sean Price Williams.
Carson Lund

Tired Moonlight, DP: Adam Ginsberg

One of the few shocks of the otherwise steadfastly low-key Tired Moonlight, a recent inclusion in New York’s New Directors/New Films program, is discovering in the credit roll that Sean Price Williams didn’t shoot it. The film arrives at a point where seemingly every new low-budget indie shot on 16mm and featuring a hitherto unsung directorial newcomer—in this case Montana-born Britni West—is graced by the eye of this particular cinematographer: see The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Kuichisan, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Christmas, Again, and several others, not to mention all the work in this vein he’s done for Alex Ross Perry.

Williams is certainly skilled (it’s hard to find a review of a film boasting his work that doesn’t mention his name—a rare feat for a DP), but as of now only demonstrably proficient in one look: handheld images that feel captured rather than composed. They’re images that take in beautiful things—magic hour scenes, animals running in landscapes, soft faces—even as they don’t look as beautiful as they could look. Roughness is part of the style. The camera might shake seemingly accidentally. Light is often flat and images may be uniformly underexposed, while other times sunlight is harsher than we expect from polished filmmaking.

Top: Young Bodies Heal Quickly, DP: Sean Price Williams. Bottom: The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, DP: Sean Price Williams

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that polish is not what Williams and his director-colleagues are after. In general, shooting on 16mm in a world where digital is far more readily available means accepting—or, in these filmmakers’ case, embracing—roughness. This is all well and good; like many cinephiles who’ve grown into a landscape where the opportunities for such pleasures were already diminishing, I enjoy admiring the textures of cheaper celluloid stock, particularly if a perfunctory use of slick HD is the alternative. But what I’m starting to suspect is that the materiality of this medium (which, tellingly, is on the brink of extinction) is taking precedent in this wave of narrative films over how it’s being put to use through visual language. To say that these filmmakers are choosing 16mm and calling it a day aesthetically is definitely overstating it, but I do wonder if there’s not a certain degree of slackness seeping into the process—a disregard for the craft of artificial lighting or a wily-nily approach to framing, for instance—in lieu of simply admiring the way the medium is capturing reality.

Which brings me back to Tired Moonlight. Director Britni West’s narratively free-form paean to a small town in Montana (the outskirts of Kalispell in the Northwest corner of the state, though it might as well be anywhere in the Mountain West) is actually photographed by Adam Ginsberg, who worked with Williams as his 1st Assistant Cameraman on Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. An acknowledgement of “Thanks” Williams receives in the credits suggests the collaboration was not uninfluential, and Tired Moonlight itself furthers the kinship. Fearful, perhaps, of coming across too picture-book perfect (one way in which this film and others like it seem to resist rather than resemble Terrence Malick’s cinema), West and Ginsberg shoot a surfeit of awe-inspiring Montana landscapes without ever giving off the impression that they’ve framed them. Open-air drive-bys or serendipitous glances, as if from the perspective of boozed-up tailgaters, are favored. Human portraiture similarly leans toward the naturalistic if not outright unflattering: face powder would never figure into one of these films’ budgets, and the up-close-and-personal framing would have you know it.  

Tired Moonlight, DP: Adam Ginsberg

With the choice of using a handheld camera, the impact of Williams’ work on Ginsberg and West becomes even more salient. Tired Moonlight is populated largely with scenes of stillness, vignettes in which its humble subjects are doing little more than passing time talking, lounging around, eating food, etc. As far as I’m concerned, the gold standard for cinematography that glows with humility is the controlled, stabilized longueurs of 1972’s Cousin Jules, and the wobbly footage gathered by West and Ginsberg, jump-cut together as if to energize moments that are fundamentally relaxed, could hardly be further from this visual approach. Granted, Tired Moonlight has more repose going for it than this offhand summary of the film’s aesthetics allows, but for the most part what’s happening onscreen strikes me less as a fitting corollary to the pastoral aimlessness of the setting than a mannerism carried over from Williams’ work, which has often reflected more frantic psychological states (i.e. the runaway murderers of Young Bodies Heal Quickly or the claustrophobic neuroses of Listen Up Philip’s anti-hero).

At the risk of belaboring Tired Moonlight’s visual patina, it’s worth noting the film’s resemblance to another crop of movies for which the comparisons are less tangible than a shooting medium and a DP: films in which a camera crudely tracks a character across a beautiful landscape at dusk and it’s just a matter of time before a non-diegetic voice recording—sounding sourced from an 8-track—kicks in atop an understated bed of ambient noise. Films in which blurred visions through a windshield at night or pillow shots of small-town kitsch (carnival rides, fireworks, department store facades) break up chunks of “delicately observed” human drama. A part-Malickian, part-Charles Burnett form of regional Americana, it’s a practice that can be traced roughly through a number of releases in the past decade: Matt Porterfield’s Baltimore studies, Aaron Katz’s early suburban rom-coms, the upper peninsula snowmobiling documentary Northern Light, the aforementioned Young Bodies Heal Quickly, and more that I’m probably forgetting. Tired Moonlight is a pretty effective example of this kind of film—some of West’s tastes and instincts in the editing room outclass those of her contemporaries—but at this point this kind of film, so concerned with seeming poetically nonchalant, is starting to feel a bit codified.  

Top: Northern Light, DP: Nick Bentgen. Bottom: Young Bodies Heal Quickly, DP: Sean Price Williams

Poetry, by the way, is literally inscribed into Tired Moonlight in the form of one character’s (Paul Dickinson) maudlin verses, which are intoned here and there in an angsty murmur over shots of galloping deer, road kill and children playing around in fields. The sentiments expressed are those of a longtime local waxing rhapsodic about his familiar grind. (Emblematic line: “Beware the snarling wolves behind every door and the combustible dreams that never ignite.”) How these poems fit into West’s own conception of the Kalispell lifestyle is left ambiguous; they more or less just sit there as part of the film’s empathetic tapestry, which shares attention between this blue-collar poet, a single woman (Liz Randall) who may or may not be the object of his tacit affections, a young mom (Hillary Berg) and her daughter, a thirtysomething man (Alex Karpovsky) with a Russian immigrant mother and small business aspirations unsupported by his hometown’s shaky economy, and several other local boys seen grilling, swimming and smoking throughout. But whether or not the actual content of Dickinson’s character’s word soup plays into the narrative in any meaningful way, it’s apparent that West admires its overarching romanticism, if only because it’s a tonal register also evoked by her filmmaking.  

It’s arguably with this romanticism that West compromises her film’s final impact. Tired Moonlight offers a vivid collection of faces and personalities, all bound together by mutual economic hardship, seeming existential boredom, and chronic loneliness but in no way limited in their similarities to those fundamental woes. What irks is the repeated, specificity-destroying implication that these people are paragons of the American spirit simply because of their modest resilience. West heroically frames her characters regularly against that old staple of patriotic visual iconography—the bursting fireworks display, now inseparable from feel-good advertising symbology—as if to cement the implication, a device that swells to an extreme during the film’s montage-heavy final act. Slow-dancing, firecrackers, impressionable faces, cowboy hats, balloons, dogs, French fries—God Bless America!

Top and middle: Tired Moonlight, DP: Adam Ginsberg. Bottom: Young Bodies Heal Quickly, DP: Sean Price Williams

As a white, All-American male raised in the suburbs, it’s hard not to be moved by these images. But in being moved by them, I’m disengaging from the world of the film and entering the world of memory, nostalgia and myth. This degree of universalism will appeal to viewers to varying extents, but in a film that otherwise logs local texture and psychological eccentricity in more targeted ways, it’s a letdown. This tension between the particular and the schematic is felt in other cases as well: the most oddly affecting shot of the film, a slow zoom on Randall as she half-heartedly licks a Klondike bar alone in a café, is match cut with another shot of her would-be lover holding a dripping vanilla ice cream cone out the window of his fast-moving car—a corny (creamy?) visual association that speaks to West’s intermittent failure to let moments speak for themselves.

How does this relate to Sean Price Williams? It doesn’t, at least not directly. But if the director and her cinematographer were more concerned with composing for maximum impact and less concerned with capturing a bunch of small moments through the glory of celluloid and stringing them together tastefully, the film might have been spared some of these rudimentary chop-job linkages. Perhaps this all smacks of a bias toward Bazinian realism over editorial magic, but it’s really more of a plea for greater degrees of precision and consideration behind the camera after a fairly sizable string of indie features in which tossed-off images committed to warm 16mm is the vogue.

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Britni WestSean Price WilliamsAdam Ginsberg
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