Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Mood of No-Mood: "Frames" (Brandon Colvin)

by James Hansen

*Writer’s Note: As long time readers of this site will know, Brandon Colvin was a crucial part to its founding and initial success. Brandon and I got the site going in 2007-08, as undergraduates at different institutions. I mention this not because I believe it disqualifies me from writing about the film at hand – if friendship were a disqualification, then we may have a very different history of film and art – but rather just to say this has been a rather difficult piece to put together. It is also somewhat strange to see Colvin listed as the director of a film and not the author of criticism. Those were the days. Anyways, I didn’t feel like I NEEDED to write a “disclaimer” on this piece, but I did want address the “history” of this site somewhat and credit Brandon for always thinking through his writing and writing through his thinking. It shows. jh

If Frames were as simple as it may seem, one might say it gives itself away in its opening moments. The static shot reveals a brick wall taking up most of the frame. Along the left side, a sign. In front of the wall, a small yellow piece of equipment with painter’s tools. A light wind blows across, the towels hanging from side ladders whipping in the wind. The shot is held for nearly 40 seconds before a figure enters, briskly walking left to right. His face turns toward the foreground. The film cuts behind a young man, holding a digital camera, pointing towards the painter. His shot has been our shot. His film is our film. 

At some level, this meta-discourse maintains itself throughout Frames, but it becomes much more than this. Over the course of the film, Frames quietly inflates its parameters, expanding from a smart, eclectic, yet openly reference-heavy pastiche pivoting around flattened affect, emotiveless emotion, and apathetic mystery before shifting towards a somewhat brooding, deliberately paced, atmospheric vision of contemporary horror.

Indeed, this opening shot indicates a “frame” around which one could construct an entire cinematic discourse. And, indeed, the use of the frame and framing (what is left in and left out, what view we see and, more specifically, what view we don’t) is crucial to Colvin’s compositional strategy. In large part, the main view comes from Peter. He controls the camera and constructs the short documentary about his small hometown that the film returns to time and again.

As the film tracks Peter’s production of the documentary, his relationship with his filming partner, Vera, increases in importance. The (perhaps virginal) Peter shoots empty spaces, blank landscapes. He wants to make a tracking shot like Kubrick. She finds a wheelchair. He draws storyboards during school. She suggests watching Rear Window. He says he has only seen Psycho. While the film slowly swirls together many of these references throughout its first half hour, the images begin to be coded differently. Nothing has changed, but, then again, perhaps it has. “Why do you keep shooting all these shots of nothing?” says Vera. “It’s for mood. You know to catch the mood of the town,” replies Peter. “But there’s no mood to catch.” This kind of dry humor is infused throughout Frames, and, while it too explicitly delivers some of the film’s buried thematics, it sets the stage for the town’s transformation from Nowheresville into something dangerous, treacherous and terrifying. What is buried under that non-mood, those shots of nothing? 

Frames never provides a clear answer – nor should it – but it is evident that one of the answers is more shots of nothing. Or, more specifically, Frames tracks the moments when those shots of nothing reveal themselves as simultaneously nothing and something else. As Peter and Vera’s relationship becomes more serious, the film increases in intensity. Peter starts filming things he shouldn’t, turning into something of a Peeping Tom. Soon, this empty landscapes don’t seem like B-roll to “catch the mood of the town,” but rather the vision of a missing person, of a dark secret. The turning point comes when Peter films outside Vera’s house late one night, panting into the camera, a new peephole for our modern day Anthony Perkins. Or is it Jimmy Stewart? Or both? 

Either way, the camera turns into the weapon with which the disaffected adolescents confronts the strange world around them. In this way, Colvin positions himself among the likes of Antonio Campos’s Afterschool or Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park without feeling like a film school knock-off. Where Colvin (and Frames) really succeed is in the last half – after Peter’s late night film shoot – when the film consistently maintains its mode of address while increasing intensity up until its surprising and unexpected finale. Caught in the closet, Peter’s camera is his only ammunition. 

While it isn't completely radical, Frames undoubtedly demands attention. It wears its influences a bit too heavily on its sleeve, but it nonetheless transmutes them into unique and darker territory. It conceptualizes an innocent worldview that is simultaneously distanced and deeply invested in the world around it – landscapes and media. Its meta-critique suggests the means by which we now live through our media. Its traditions and stories are our stories. Its shots are our shots. Those films are us. So, of course, Frames ends with a story of its own incomplete status, its own failure. It pushes toward thinking where that leaves both audiences and filmmakers. As such, it stands as a very strong and thoughtful debut feature from a burgeoning young talent in Colvin. Frames literally reveals the process of Peter’s documentary converting into another kind of documentation, into an archive; at the same time, underlying all of this, Frames’ provocative bait-and-switch illustrates its transformation from a fiction film into yet another form of documentation – one not necessarily of its own creation, but of its own thinking, its own shattered framework. 

You can watch Frames here: http://vimeo.com/59333739

For info on Colvin's next project, go here: http://sabbatical-mossgarden.com/

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