Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Unseen Images: gravida

I usually designate this space in my Unseen Images articles for feature films that have not had the recognition they deserve. They are usually films that have been in release for decades without any substantial notice from the critical community. My current entry is a little different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is not a feature length film, it is a short film, coming in at just over twenty minutes. Secondly, it has not been in release for decades, in fact, it was just released this year. But like many short and feature length films that are the result of dedicated young artists who still don't have the time, money or recognition to get their work into Sundance, it deserves to be seen, if only to remind us that truly independent filmmaking still exists and that in an artform as expensive and time-consuming as this, it is possible to express oneself without a multi-million dollar budget. Such is the case with gravida: a Study in Loneliness (2007) directed by Lucas McNelly.

The film focuses on Kristen (Rachel Shaw), a women alone who longs to reach out to someone, anyone, and have them reach back. The film gives us brief glimpses into her life and work before taking us to the main thrust of the story which will involve a delivery service employee played by Adam Kukic. As for a detailed plot synopsis, unlike past entries, I will provide none here for important reasons. The purpose of this entry is not to break down and analyze the film but to call attention to the work of those involved and the talents of its writer/director Lucas McNelly - and to get people to see the film. A detailed plot analysis of a twenty minute film would most likely negate that last goal so instead I will concentrate on the performances, music, camerawork and direction.

In any character based drama or comedy, the performance is the thing. If the lead doesn't work, the film doesn't work. Here we have a lead performance by Rachel Shaw that is more than servicable, it is excellent. The weight of the film is on her shoulders and she succeeds without a shrug. Throughout much of the film she is required to act alone, without benefit of a fellow actor to play off of, always a difficult task. When getting my degree in theatre, I always disliked having to do the monologues for acting classes, much preferring scenes with a fellow actor. Rachel Shaw's task is doubly difficult as only one brief scene has her even speaking to herself. The other times she is alone she must communicate to the audience silently through movement and facial expression. As Shaw approaches the climax of her character's hopes and doubts she draws the viewer in with an honesty of emotion that is at once cathartic and disquieting.

Joining Shaw is Adam Kukic as the messenger service employee who eventually becomes intertwined in her life. Kukic does a fine job as well but is required to do much less than Shaw so a comparison between the two would be unfair. For what he is required to do he does well, particularly the blandness of his awkward small talk, which Kukic makes feel real enough that you almost squirm a little, wanting to interrupt and help him out. His character's final emotional reckoning is played with an off-the-cuff indifference that is perfectly suited for the part.

Both Shaw and Kukic make their way through the film aided by an impressive song score supervised by Margaret Welsh and understated camerawork by David Eger. The music is never overwhelming, distracting our attention from the characters or story on the screen, but like all good music employed in films, becomes a background rhythm to which the camera moves. The camerawork itself is employed to tell the story, not become it. Often, when one starts noticing too many clever angles or cuts, it can be an indication that the director is padding, trying to visually compensate for a weak story. That is not to say one cannot have extraordinary angles and cuts in a movie, it is just that in the best movies, the extraordinary angles and cuts go unnoticed while were watching, as we are enthralled in the story. Later we can think back and marvel at them. In a weaker film, it's all we notice and we notice while we're watching. Here the movements are simple but effective. I didn't realize there was any movement in the final scene at all until I watched it again because it's intention was to draw us into to Kristen, and it did so quite well.

That leaves Lucas McNelly, the director. In many ways, I have already discussed his work before arriving at this point. A good director gets good performances and works closely with his cinematographer to achieve the proper look of the film. The performances of Shaw and Kukic and the camerawork of Eger are testaments to the talents of McNelly. And the film itself is testament to McNelly's dedication to his craft and desire to be a filmmaker. He has produced a film of understated elegance and thoughtfulness that allows the viewer to glimpse, ever so briefly, a moment in time that will be burned for eternity in the heart and mind of its protagonist, Kristin. He has done so on a limited budget and without a studio backed marketing campaign. He has done so because of a desire to become a filmmaker that will not be quelled by someone telling him it's too much work, it takes too much money. He's the best kind of filmmaker there is, the kind driven by a love of the art not a desire for a contract. Money would be nice of course.

gravida is not a perfect film but considering the budget and time limitations it is quite an achievement. If I were doing a scene by scene breakdown I would highlight more of what I thought was right and even a couple of things I thought could be better. But my purpose here, for now, is to get recognition for small films like this into the public eye. In an age when major studios are pumping millions of dollars into film projects based on board games like the recently confirmed Monopoly movie to be directed by Ridley Scott (I think I'm going to be sick) it becomes even more important for the indepedent directors to make themselves known through festivals, local theatre bookings and by people with a shared love of film spreading the word across that beloved series of tubes, the internet. We understand the studios need for hits, it is after all a business as well. We don't have to see the big budget studio excesses if we don't want to, but a part of their purpose is to bring in money, money that can be distributed to filmmakers with larger ideas that yearn to be expressed. Seeing gravida reminded me just how far-reaching this artform is, how often we forget how much work is out there that doesn't come from Hollywood. Since I can sum it up no better than Orson Welles, I will close with his words, from his acceptance speech at the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Honors in 1975, speaking on the very differences noted above between studio films on one end and independant work on the other:

Let us raise our cups then, standing, as some of us do, on opposite ends of the river, and drink together to what really matters to us all, to our crazy and beloved profession. To the movies. To good movies. To every possible kind.

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