By Josh Cabrita
Published in Cinema Scope #80 (Fall 2019)
With his first two features, Tower (2012) and How Heavy This Hammer (2015), Toronto-based director and MDFF co-founder Kazik Radwanski established something of a recurring archetype: sad, lonely, and horny men whose unpleasant or uninteresting qualities are accentuated by the director’s unrelenting approach of shooting almost entirely in medium close-ups. The prospect of spending an hour and a half with people lacking in notable virtue, alluring vice, or any apparent interest, may seem like an unproductive exercise in forced empathy—but consider this skepticism a function, as opposed to a fault, of these tightly orchestrated, seemingly soporific character studies. Although Tower’s Derek (Derek Bogart), an aspiring animator afflicted by premature hair loss, and How Heavy This Hammer’s Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem), a neglectful father who wastes his life on an online video game, can be entitled jerks, their motivations, thoughts, and feelings remain obscure. Who could honestly say, having spent a significant period of time in such close proximity to these men, that they truly understand them—that they know, for instance, why Derek is hell-bent on sabotaging almost every single one of his social interactions, or why Erwin, when sitting blank-faced and lightly illuminated by his monitor, experiences a satisfaction that supersedes every other potential pleasure in his life?
While much of contemporary realist cinema can be said to be indebted to the Dardennes, the parallels between the Belgian brothers and Radwanski are particularly apparent: in their concern for those living on the margins of society, in their interest in what is often referred to as “naturalistic” performances, and in their highly mobile, incredibly controlled, and usually handheld camerawork, which bears superficial similarities to the “fly-on-the-wall” aesthetic of documentary. But if we think a little harder and consider the stages of their respective artistic processes, the ways in which the Dardennes and Radwanski construct their films around first principles about the ontology of their chosen medium, what may have first been a casual resemblance becomes something a little more tangible. In a piece on the Dardennes’ L’enfant (2005), filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt writes that “all effects in the Dardennes’ films are pegged to the phenomenology of photography, to the exterior viewpoint that the photograph enforces on the most interior events. Even the performance style in the Dardennes’ movies…is calibrated to the limitations of the image in revealing inner life.” By speaking of the “phenomenology of photography,” one need not be referring to a medium-specific “essence” that can be easily contained or discerned within a genre as inflexible as, say, “realism”; rather, one could point out the simple, perhaps overly obvious fact that cinema, like the written word or the staged drama, has certain distinct properties, and that these properties allow for certain kinds of articulation, even as they limit others.
All of Radwanski’s films to date have been about revealing and respecting this limit. They are the work of a person who has answered, for himself at least, that core Bazinian question—what is cinema?—and sought to approach his subjects with that first principle in mind. Thus, while all of Radwanski’s films function as deft character studies, they are also remarkable as works of theory, in the sense that Stanley Cavell defined the term in The World Viewed: “giving significance to and placing significance in specific possibilities of the physical medium of film.” So how, then, does Radwanski employ the specific possibilities of the medium in his latest feature, Anne at 13,000 ft (premiering in TIFF’s Platform section), to tell the story of the title character (Deragh Campbell), a twentysomething daycare supervisor whose unprompted outbursts of euphoria and severe expressions of depression align with the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Insofar as the film’s vignette-like structure allows the viewer to construct a cogent timeline, Anne seems to take place over a single manic-depressive cycle—which, one is led to presume, roughly coincides with the time it takes for Anne to train for and execute a solo skydive while still maintaining some semblance of a normal life. When we first meet the protagonist, in a pre-credits sequence that juxtaposes her playing at work and skydiving at a co-worker’s bachelorette party, she is, quite literally, at her peak; some brief 70 minutes later, she will return to this same precipice, presumably in the same headspace. In between these bookends, her relationship to her employer, her family, and her friends will undergo a series of stress tests, some of which will hold (like that with her friend of three years) while others (like her casual courtship with a man she met at the aforementioned friend’s wedding) will not. Anne can be difficult to keep up with: when she’s not painting her house for no apparent reason, climbing through the windows of dwellings that seemingly belong to strangers, guzzling wine while babysitting, arriving at her boyfriend’s house unannounced, or recklessly attempting to dive from a moving vehicle, she can be caring and considerate, quite good with kids, but also more than a bit reckless.
If the trajectory of Anne at 13,000 ft is as tightly telegraphed as the above description makes it appear, the frantic manner in which new characters and problems are introduced serves to underline one simple, unfortunate fact of Anne’s life: that the world mostly maintains a state of stability while her wildly unpredictable behaviour follows an erratic track from depression to equilibrium, equilibrium to euphoria, euphoria to depression, and so on, ad infinitum. Anne has clearly gone through these cycles many times before, and she has, in the process, received the support of many people around her; by contrast, the viewer, who has no familiarity with her emotional dynamics, is unable to have such a perfunctory relationship to her destructive coping mechanisms. So as to even further distanciate the viewer’s perspective of Anne’s life from her own view of these same events, Radwanski continually constructs his scenes around missing or partial information. When the (single) father of one of Anne’s babysitting charges catches the protagonist downing a bottle of wine while on the child-watching clock, our initial reaction is an expectation of a conventionally outraged response, and vicarious concern for Anne. When the dad doesn’t bat an eye at this trespass, however, we are compelled to consider a new range of possibilities: e.g., that he and Anne have had some romantic interactions in the past, that he is planning a pass now, or perhaps something entirely outside this field.
As in Radwanski’s previous films, in Anne at 13,000 ft the close-up is never a window into a subject’s soul, and possesses no explanatory power. Instead of being a lugubrious exercise in the most facile form of humanist filmmaking—a limited register wherein all that matters is the director’s and viewer’s supposedly generous response to an apparently difficult person—Anne takes a purely external viewpoint that allows for the contemplation of various surfaces. It is all fine and well for us to identify with the protagonist’s plight, but only insofar as her intentions derive from our own speculations. Anne’s “essence” or her “psychology” are not this film’s concern, and are in many ways antithetical to the film’s formal approach. Yet as inscrutable as Anne’s inner workings may be, it is they that shape the film’s structure. There’s clearly some sort of causal relationship between each scene, but the precise nature of that cause—whether it be mood, or circumstance, or some combination of the two—cannot be known.
This dynamic obviously introduces a problem for how Radwanski can depict the character. Beholden on the one hand to a protagonist whose psychology becomes progressively foregrounded, while on the other hand seemingly committed to a view that cinema is incapable of revealing the mechanisms underlying an individual’s behaviour, Radwanski finds a solution by synthesizing two fundamentally distinct traditions. There is, firstly, the staunchly materialist mode of Bresson, which so strictly adheres to the external parameters of photography that it essentializes human life to a series of mechanistic, pre-planned movements. Secondly, there is a certain school of realism—often associated with the films of Cassavetes—which seeks to reveal supposedly knowable being through an interplay of signs that indicate “the truth of the moment.” These two (perhaps artificially dichotomous) traditions are typically thought of as incompatible: while the former reorients every aspect of its form (particularly the performances) to adamantly acknowledge the limitations of photography’s exterior viewpoint, the latter uses the peculiarities and eccentricities of its actors to signal the existence of their apparently knowable essence. The reason that this synthesis works so well in Anne at 13,000 ft is because of the indefatigable performance by Campbell, who is best known for her highly affected, deliberately uncanny turns in micro-budget Toronto productions like Lev Lewis’ The Intestine (2016) and Antoine Bourges’ Fail to Appear (2017), as well as for her ongoing role as Sofia Bohdanowicz’s onscreen surrogate in Never Eat Alone (2016) and this year’s MS Slavic 7 (see Cinema Scope 78), which she also co-directed. Without any knowledge of her prior work or how other directors have made use of her distinctive diction in the past, one could very well suspect that Radwanski has, once again, found a non-professional actor whose real-life traits coincide with (and help determine) those of the character. But even though Campbell is a professional, her diligent attempt to create a sense of her character’s internal consistency across time and space, when integrated with the film’s other signs of the unguarded real (e.g., the classroom scenes, which are full of spontaneous actions and delightful little interruptions), provides the forceful impression of an indivisible person whose only constant is change. That being said, even if we could convincingly posit that, somewhere, an independent and persisting self may exist, in the terms of Radwanski’s studiedly modest (and increasingly masterful) filmmaking, we must also acknowledge that it can and must remain an abstraction, a potential illusion, and ultimately a subject outside of cinema’s purview.