I’ve been at the Sundance Film Festival for barely a day, but it’ll be hard to match the intensity of the festival standouts so far—two films that, while infinitely different, are both riveting in their reverence for image.
“Image is worth a thousand words” is probably a cliché that we too rarely examine; at least in our image-mitigated age, it’s quickly becoming one. But not in cinema; or, not always. Because unlike the pictures we take on our iPhones and upload to Instagram to attract likes, measured out in gratifying insta-seconds, the image in cinema can last, and in its duration, it can amplify, and contaminate.
In the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, image is nothing if not duration. A beloved Las Vegas bar is closing down, and on the very last day of its existence, the local regulars file in, around 11am, to kick off the festivities. We start innocently enough—with one of them, Michael, washing up in the bar’s bathroom. Clean-shaven, Michael announces his point of pride: he “ruined his life while sober,” and turned to alcoholism later, only when “already a failure.” But this later turns out to be an awful long time for many of the folks who frequent the place. There’s Bruce, the introspective, quietly wounded African-American war vet, and his lingering bitterness over having been treated “like trash.” There’s Pam, the foul-cursing gentle soul, whose own losses make her emphasize with others, until she’s so drunk she’s filed out the door, with “Fuck you all. I love you.” Somehow the bar’s entire ethos is encapsulated in this oxymoron. Its bathroom sign announces, “Please don’t throw cigarette butts in the toilet, it makes them soggy and hard to lit,” and its farewell cake says, “You sucked anyway.” It’s an uneasy attempt at being both a “loser”—not having made it, in America that’s increasingly less a baby-boomer’s dream (as Michael deadpans, “I overslept one day, and the floor fell out from under America’s manufacturing”) and more heartless gig economy—and a badass. To stay a badass in this ole’ country takes a whole lot of denying—blunting—of one’s perpetual bewilderment.
A bit like Joycean prose, the camera in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets wants to fill in every inch and void, until it is the world. It sneaks into the bathroom not only when Michael shaves, establishing his intimacy with the place and his sense of belonging, but also when another customer takes a piss. It slides in and out the door as it snoops on a bartender’s son, Roy. It shows Roy peeping in a few times, checking in on the adults. Then it peeps on Roy and his buddies’ swiping beer and downing it in the parking lot. Inside the bar, it’s stable at times, establishing the regulars as a group—their intimacies and barbs, a crush of bodies when they dance, a sense of stillness and isolation when it catches them unaware, half-drunk in the early afternoon, then much drunker, as the night goes on. But it also wants to be them—under their skin, from the back, in extreme close-up, blurring lines, as if we’re in an impressionist painting at one of those infamous boat parties. It’s not silent; on the contrary, anyone who’s ever loved a Cassavetes film, particularly Minnie and Moskowitz, will recognize the urgency, the rush and slur of words, that particular elision of language and thought as alcohol levels rise. It is volubility, but also numbness when words suddenly fail. Disjointedness and increasingly, noise, as the bar fills with a younger crowd, and the generational divide creates tensions. Who wins the dubious title of having ruined America, for all? The film’s cinematography, in which the world outside is shot through with unwelcome flat light, and only the semi-dark of the bar offers some level of intimacy, has already told us much. The words fill us in: with the television set delivering news about Trump, immigrants, tornado (climate change), or local businesses closing, a world in which jobs are not recyclable.
There’s perhaps no more crushing moment than the one when all of the film’s image-worlds collide. Around 5am the next day, the bar still bathes in reddish warmth, but now empty. The television set has been playing classic black-and-white movies all night (one of the lines goes on about wanting to stop still, hide away), but now we also catch the cool and grainy picture on the mini security-camera screen, which shows Michael as he walks out, spewed back into the cruel world. More than Michael’s partying words—“you really don’t know much about me, do you”—it’s the colossal drop in temperature between the two images that makes a heart cry out.
Eliza Hittman’s understated film Never Sometimes Rarely Always may at first seem galaxies away from the Ross brothers' maximalism, but here too an image has its own DNA and emotional intelligence. And “understated,” or “minimalist”—words often applied to Hittman’s work, even in her own telling—seem strangely inept when the subject is indeed so vital. The uncanny emotional charge is in no small part thanks to Hélène Louvart who, with films such as Hittman’s previous Beach Rats, but also Happy as Lazzaro, A Family Submerged and The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão, is proving to be the doyen of the moving image. Like any emotional intelligence, this one builds up slowly. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is an angry 17-year-old living with her family in rural Pennsylvania. At the Q & A after the screening, Hittman mentioned that she had in fact been following Flanigan’s Facebook posts for years, finding her videos to be “authentically angry.” Flanigan’s performance is restrained, which makes the drama—her discovery that she’s pregnant and then the decision to travel to New York City, with her cousin, Skylar (Taila Ryder) to get an abortion, without telling her parents—more about her inner strength, as we are drawn into her quietly simmering vortex, than about outside conflicts. There’s enough toxicity around, but the camera keeps resolutely on Autumn, who’s determined to have the procedure from the start—a maturity that makes one awestruck, but also a directorial decision that gets away from the bipolarity, so prevalent in our culture, that pitches the idea of future motherhood against the present abortion. Autumn knows that her procedure is currently necessary. She is perfectly capable of articulating her mind, even though her visit to the local clinic results in a faulty pregnancy result (which says Autumn is ten weeks pregnant; it’s eighteen instead), and then in adoption pamphlets and pestering from the local doc, who keeps nagging Autumn to come back, after showing her a graphic video when she finds out that Autumn’s “abortion inclined.”
But by then Autumn and Skylar are already on the bus. Louvart keeps the landscape muted, with faded blues and pasty browns: Pennsylvania in winter. But as soon as the two get to New York, it’s a whole different story. It’s not just that New York is loud, crowded, and claustrophobic, as you’d expect; it’s that it’s a whole other country. The camera keeps tighter on Autumn and Skylar, as they try to figure out how to use the MTA machines, how to get their oversized suitcase over the turnstile, how to pass a night in a city where you can’t sit in safer public places too long, before a guard will kick you out. And why did they pack so much? Hittman said in the Q & A that women often do, packing for an abortion as if they’re going away, an idea of alienation, of traveling, away from others and oneself, so beautifully encapsulated here, in every single detail of the girls’ journey.
Hittman and Louvart will finally let go of the grit—though it’s never seedy or gratuitously leering—when Autumn lies down on the doctor’s table for her procedure. The camera lets loose, travels fluidly to show the detail of Autumn holding someone’s hand, squeezing it, the faces of the doctors around her (all women), up and down her body, and to the impossibly blue skies. It’s at least the third time that the camera focuses on hands. The first is when the girls slip the register money through a slot at the supermarket where they work and the manager sloppily kisses their hands (clearly his daily ritual); second is when, already in New York, the girls keep contact by touching their pinkies, while Skylar kisses a boy hidden behind a pillar, and Autumn, feeling unwell after the first preparatory day for the procedure, breathes both their romance and a sigh of relief (the boy lends them money to go home); and then this third—the final release. It’s beautiful to see how these visual echoes amplify—indeed, give birth to—a whole new world, replacing numbness with care.
On the other hand, Autumn’s world has always had clear demarcation lines. Hittman is brilliant in her script at showing how the performance of masculinity and femininity seeps into our DNA. When the teenage boy who may or may not be the father of Autumn’s baby calls out during her anguished solo musical performance, “Slut!,” with the whole auditorium hearing it, it lands flat: it stops Autumn short, but no one’s particularly phased. The camera sweeps the audience, their faces still—merely boys horsing around. The word “slut” will come up again, in Autumn’s home, as her father pets the family’s bitch, and calls her “Slut,” grumpily complaining that of all the family members (all female), the dog’s only one that loves him. That pattern of shaming, leering, taking advantage, demeaning is like a beat that keeps up each and every day. Not as loud as a drumroll, it instead sneaks into the fabric of the girls’ lives, and tears it, again and again. But Autumn isn’t rended asunder, even though it’s only at the New York clinic—when the title’s words, “never rarely sometimes always,” come up as part of the routine checklist, done by a gentle counselor, who asks questions about partner abuse—that she can come full circle, and acknowledge what else has been troubling her. That her world has given her no proper words—not until now—to name nonconsensual sex as such. But when she’s finally done—equipped with a new vocabulary, indeed a new world—and she and Skylar are sitting in a deli indulging in fatty food before boarding their bus back home, she has this to say about her procedure: that it feels like nothing much, and that she’s tired (without money for a hostel, they haven’t slept in two days). The lukewarm temperature of the girls’ conversation—this is not a watershed moment, there will be others, real achievements, dreams, we can imagine—is emphasized by the film’s final image. On the bus, Autumn finally dozes off; her normally withdrawn face suddenly gloriously lit, beatific, her youth shining through. We don’t know if she can wish away that whole image world she leaves behind—all the ugliness it summons—just by closing her eyes, but for now, she has earned the protection and the grace of sleep; she is safe.