Joseph Johnson’s seven minute film, Something Blue, depicts a strained, difficult conversation between a husband and wife at breakfast. The dynamism and potential of the medium, so often ignored in favour of reliable narrative routes that traverse familiar territory, are realised here in ways that bring the immediacy, the tension and the power of what is not said to the fore.
Resolution or Explosion?
Something Blue is overtly fictional, yet in an intriguing way. The naturalism of the couple, played with measure, restraint and feeling by Pippa Winslow and Ric Law, is evident in the longeurs, the fearful, exasperated tones and the unanswered questions which at the same time, appear to be staged, as though they are being read for the stage.
Both seem equally deliberate for here are a couple who find it hard, after what happened, to ask questions of each other, so fragile is the understanding between them. The wife asks questions at a distance: repeatedly, as though reading lines from a script, she attempts to physically divest her words of emotion to avoid the inflammatory. But paradoxically, the dramatic tension is only intensified… and in a naturalistic way.
Here, the audience becomes the ultimate uncomfortable voyeur, squirming on the edge of resolution or explosion, it could go either way. As such, this snapshot of domesticity is a masterclass of suspense and therein lies its genius. This is a micro-moment in a much wider, unseen story. No answers are provided to any of the questions it raises. We are given scant information about either of the characters. Yet again, paradoxically, all the reasons why it should not work are all the reasons why it does.
The Real and the Ideal
If the meaning of Something Blue was confined to its on-screen content then it would be a most mundane waste of everybody’s time. But as is so often the case in films that endure, films that are powerful, films that transcend the duration of their running time and enrich our lives rather than simply occupying our attention against the background of ever-diminishing heart beats and eye-blinks… the meaning is located in a precarious place, elusive and enticing.
Here it seems that content and form are in symbiosis. The marriage is faltering, after what happened, yet in ways that are simultaneously mechanical and touching, the couple try to enact some of the conventions, each attempting to show the other that they still aspire to the ideal of married life. They appear to be at the bounds of trying to convince themselves at times, both in their own commitment to the pursuit and validity of that ideal and to accept hints from each other that their future is reliable, familiar and secure.
This is mirrored elegantly in the presentation of the narrative itself. Johnson begins his tale in the middle. Signs point back towards earlier, mysterious events and forward to the dinner party, arranging for someone to scrape moss off the roof and the suggestion of a shared future beyond. A courageous move, audacious in fact, but that’s all the information we need to be right there in the moment, at the breakfast table, entangled in the couple’s uncertainty.
And that’s exactly where cinema sits, doesn’t it? Somewhere between the real and the ideal. Fictional narrative cinema articulates the shadowy outlines of the many different types of ideal that motivate us, with carrots or with sticks. So often, we are presented with the same ideal over and over again. Despite the fact that its profile may be specific to a certain period of time, skewed towards one part of the world and a small sample of the population, the ubiquity of the Hollywood ideal is such that we forget that it is one amongst many.
Johnson’s Something Blue is situated in a very different cinematic universe that, despite first impressions, seems fresh and urgent because it is neither glamorous nor gritty, luxury nor ghetto. As the only exterior shot of the house reveals at the end, like the couple themselves, it is semi-detached.
Of course, cynics will complain that we don’t know what happened to lead to this faltering relationship and we don’t know how things are resolved. But this films works by its economy of narrative. Whatever the audience supposes could be better or worse than the truth for the fictional couple – we can’t know. That is one of the reasons why audiences will be engaged and invested in this film. Some may feel ultimately exasperated, but Johnson’s innovative approach and the compelling performances of Winslow and Law more than redress the balance.
A minor, perhaps technical qualm, might lie in questions of why the couple were sat next to each other rather than opposite each other at the breakfast table. This seems to be purely for expedience in terms of how Something Blue is shot, with the couple both looking directly into the camera for large parts of it. One could argue that this unlikely arrangement is synthetic, breaks with the naturalistic aspect of the film and jolts the viewer out of their suspension of disbelief. However, it could also be argued that they deliberately sit side by side to avoid frontal confrontation – which always seems seconds away.
A lot of things, important things in general, seem to be happening off screen in the movies and in the world at the moment – another paradox, as arguably we have never been more immersed in screens of various purpose. I recently wrote about the enduring power of Mulholland Drive, cited by some critics as the greatest film of the century so far, lying in its ability to slip beyond the noose of a single interpretation because it’s fragmented and we cannot see the whole narrative.
I also wrote that the genius of the non-narrative film, Homo Sapiens, lies in the fact that there is not a single human in any of the shots. Something Blue should be added to the increasing list of films where absence, of one sort or another, is at the vigorous heart of the film itself and as the cliché says, it makes the heart grow fonder.
Do you think that distinctive cinema of the 21st century is forging a radical path away from conventional narrative? Have we reached the limits of story telling as we know it?
Is this exciting, presenting new forms that perhaps reflect changes in contemporary society… or is this the death throes of cinema? Let me know in the comments below.
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