Though filled with flashes of incredible immediacy, each one of Robert Greene’s documentaries seems less interested in mapping concrete environments, narrative arcs and motivations than plunging the viewer into an impressionistic hyper-reality. The aesthetic he’s developed and refined over the 4 features he’s directed creates a sense of spatial and temporal disorientation: choppy, elliptical editing; handheld, grainy cinematography; a playful flexibility of focal length; regular fluctuations in shot scale (often lapsing into extreme close-ups that cut off part of the subject’s face); complex in-camera abstractions; sound design that often foregrounds ambient noise; extended lyrical interludes. Both Kati With an I and Actress begin with a mundane premise—a high school graduation in the former, a year in the life of a retired actress in the latter—roughly structured around a troubled relationship, but they each dial down narrative momentum to a bare minimum. Instead, these stories are used as starting points for deeper investigations of their chosen milieus, questioning the extent to which environment shapes mindset and how the introduction of a camera affects self-presentation.
Greene’s camera is agile and intuitive, always on the lookout for stray details and gestures. Real situations are fragmented into graceful montages of glances and impressions, radically compressed and organized not so much into scenes as passages. This unique approach transforms quotidian, interstitial moments—bullshitting with friends or doing dishes or going to a strip mall—into the stuff of smudgy poetry. These stretches are intercepted with the action often vacillates between different levels of visual abstraction, but never feel like mere stylistic exercises; each movement is incredibly expressive, always motivated by a desire to evoke the sensation of being within this particular place with these particular people. Eschewing the temptation to stuff these lives into rigid narrative arcs, what’s created is a low key, ebb-and-flow rhythm that initially seems off-the-cuff but gradually reveals itself to be carefully controlled, the major dramatic focal points only resolving into view after a considerate portion of running time has elapsed.
Orchestrated around the very social rituals that structure his participants' lives, both large (graduation, auditions) and small (after parties; Kati’s last pool party with her high school friends, off-handedly mourned as their “last hurrah”), both films explore intersection between private and public life, questioning how deeply an individual’s identity is determined by the institutions that surround them. Greene’s closeness to his subjects in their personal lives—Brandy Burre is his neighbor, Kati his half-sister—encourage them to treat him as a confidant. But, though they appear uncommonly relaxed and open in the presence of his crew, Green also never seeks to efface the artifice inherent to any filmed documentation, as he treats this as merely a heightened form of the sort of social performance we all engage in daily.
Greene’s most recent film, Actress, most skillfully fleshes out his established aesthetic and thematic preoccupations. Early on, Burre abruptly halts a seemingly totally off-the-cuff interview when she decides she’s dissatisfied with her previous delivery, then spends a while experimenting with different vocal cadences and body language. From here, it goes on to interrogate how deeply this performative mentality bleeds not only into her on-screen persona, but every aspect of her lived experience. Greene frames this as an activity everybody participates in on some level, though Burre’s professional background make her especially self-conscious about manufacturing her own roles. At one point she explains that she still sees herself as an actress, but now she practices her art only in her private life. These semi-affected personas are largely informed by wider social codes rooted in traditionalist views of class and gender. When we first see her, Burre’s centred, in a symmetrical medium-wide composition, in formal dress, washing; a transparently stylized, slow-mo tableaux that has been rightly described as deliberately reminiscent of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. What’s established here is Burre’s tendency to see herself in relation to a vast artistic heritage, which both lends a sense of weight to her ritualized duties (at one point, she describes household chores as creative acts in themselves) and allows herself to mentally detach from them, as if always engaged in an extended intellectual exercise. She often verbalizes her worries through the lens of melodrama tropes—concerns about her increasing age, juggling the professional and the domestic, stifling suburbia—in a way that suggests her view of life has largely been shaped by the art she’s consumed.
But these roles she’s complicit in perpetuating are not only liberating, but also circumscribing, as they lead others to view her as a broad type. Brilliantly, Green coaxes the viewer to make similar assumptions with his elliptical editing, sometimes withholding significant narrative information in order to purposefully misdirect the viewer’s assumptions. In one stand-out sequence, we see a tableaux of Burre with a black eye, over which faintly ominous music plays, leading the viewer to infer from the barest of clues that she’s become a victim of domestic violence, only to reveal that the injury was simply caused by a drunken fall. To further highlight our socially ingrained impulse to pick up information selectively, Burre then explains that a large number of people she’s met recently have made the same assumption.
Upon deciding, mid-film, to re-kindle her acting career, Burre prepares by going through a process of drastic self-reinvention. Lengthy scenes illustrate her running through ads for auditions, trying to figure out whether she has the potential to pull of certain parts (“Am I the neighborhood beauty?”, “I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that I don’t get the “nice girl” roles”). She talks of struggling to balance the headspace of a professional actress and a mom, each of which requires a great deal of independent maintenance, both physical and mental.
This sense of unconscious theatrically extends to the film’s mise en scène, which highlights the designed nature of private spaces, organized just so as to put across a particular image of personal life to guests. Most of the interiors are over-stuffed with bric-a-brac to the extent that they begin to feel oppressive. Every scene is subtly infused with a sense of cultural history, which makes his slim narratives seem particularly expansive; the age-old systems that conceptualize human actions perpetually serving as a contextual framework that—to a certain degree—shape the characters’ perceptions of themselves and their surroundings. This becomes a trap that pigeonholes people into pre-determine moulds, particularly coming to light when Burre comes to the realization that the reason for her marriage’s breakdown was the fact that she and husband automatically started taking on the roles of playing mother and father once they had children, and in the process failed to see each other as individuals. Here, the potent feeling of isolation is directly tied to being part of a community, which brings with it confining traditions and collective misconceptions.