The film: Daredevils

The filmmaker: Stephanie Barber

The Artist: Flora Coker

The Writer: KimSu Theiler

The scene: An interview in a coffee shop, which occupies more than half of the film's 85 minutes.

The interviewer: The Writer  is a very serious young woman, well-versed in contemporary critical theory.

The interviewee:  The Artist is an older woman artist, who seems to be somewhat successful, at least by her own standards: her work is known, her work is the topic of serious critical conversation, her recent large-scale projects have been well-funded, and ambitious young writers want to interview her.

The nature of the interview (first approximation): It's a real interview, not a pretext for a progression of dramatic beats, which makes it a challenge for an audience with expectations of traditional Hollywood dramaturgy.

The nature of the interview (second approximation): Well of course it's not a real interview, it's an imaginative construction of a possible interview, whose goal is to capture how such an interview might really take place.

The nature of the interview (third approximation): As a piece of writing, in other words, the interview tries to capture the rhythms and dynamics of an interview between a struggling young artist and an older established artist. What it it does not do is use this situation the way David Mamet might use it -- as an occasion for a progression of dramatic beats that advances the plot within the dialog.  (I use David Mamet not as an exemplar of bad writing, but as an exemplar of good writing -- but of a completely different kind). For audiences who expect that sort of dramatic structure, the interview will be a challenge: it will seem as if nothing happens. This interview really consists of two women talking seriously about art for a long time.

The nature of the interview (fourth approximation): Despite its defiant this is how it is and you're going to watch it attitude, the film actually does have a dramatic structure, and a very strong one--but it's more like the structure of the short stories of the early 20th century (I personally think of Joyce's A Little Cloud) in which an extended conversation leads to a crisis later in the day.

The film, in other words, asks the viewer to pay attention to a long conversation about a career of art-making in which the apparently technical issues (such as the choice of scale) become intertwined with personal issues (such as the fear of being ignored and the satisfactions of being discussed).  The takeaway, in terms of the plot, which is to say the rest of the film, is the impact of the conversation as a whole on The Writer.

(What about The Artist? Why not follow her after the conversation? Well, I'm just guessing, but I suppose it's because the filmmaker chose to focus her attention, at least in terms of the progression of this film, on the Artist in a Crisis of Becoming rather than upon the Artist Fully Formed. At the same time, most of the words in the film to the character of The Artist.)

The use of language: The interview can be seen, and indeed asks to be seen (given the blurb on the UWM Cinema's web page) as a meditation on different modes of discourse, on different uses of language.  

The language of The Writer: The Writer is a young adult, struggling with large, complex, important issues. Her linguistic toolkit for articulating these issues is largely informed by the contemporary post-graduate seminar. This toolkit gets her close to what she wants to say -- what she needs to say --but if frequently falls short, often with comic effect. She stresses certain buzz words (fraught, feral) like a smart kid raising her hand, begging for the teacher to acknowledge her.

The language of The Artist:  The Artist knows how to express complex ideas with a minimum of abstract words -- but not because she has rejected the language of the seminar room, but rather because she often has a simpler and better way to express these mater. She has read widely, and when she needs to, she uses critical vocabulary, but she always keeps her discourse grounded and down to earth. She's not talking about Big Ideas, she's simply talking the questions, problems, issues and concerns that have structured her life.

The attitude of The Artist toward the language of The Writer: Bemusement but respect. The Artists sees the seriousness and the engagement of The Writer, and looks past the younger woman's occasional jargon-filled excesses. The Artist always tries to answer the question The Writer is trying to ask.

The attitude of The Writer toward the language of The Artist: Despair. The Artist is so kind, but she has a level of self-knowledge and acceptance that I will never achieve.

Note on the casting (first approximation): The Writer (the young woman) is Asian-American and The Artist (the the older woman) is European-American, with a melodious and vaguely southern accent.  Their ethnicity plays no explicit role in the film, but cultural stereotypes and the exigencies of privilege inevitably hover around the casting choices:  it's difficult not to attach to The Writer all the baggage of  Anxious High-Achieving Outsider, or to The Artist the narrative of Courageous Second Generation Feminist Role Model with the Confident Bohemianism of a Child of the Establishment.

Note on the casting (second approximation): But we try not to see them as stereotypes, don't we? After all, they're individuals, aren't they?

Note on the casting (third approximation): Or are they really individuals? Hasn't the filmmaker defined them as generic types? Maybe not stereotypes, but archetypes?  

Note on the casting (fourth approximation): Actually, the filmmaker seems to have written a dialogue between two versions of herself: the self she used to be, and recognizes in the graduate students she teaches, and the self she hopes she will become, and glimpses in older women artists.  Then she cast the parts with actors who fit the types, but possessed the ability to find a living soul underneath the words, and suggest an individual privacy beyond the reach of the narrative. The result of this iterative, collaborative process are two remarkable performances.

Full disclosure: I appeared in a movie with Stephanie Barber (Jennifer Montgomery's Threads of Belonging), and had the privilege of working with Flora Coker in a radio show, as well as having been admirer of her work with Theatre X for many years.

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