The relatives of realism

Jake Wilson

“Isn’t truth enough?” asks Robert (Paul Jeffrey), talking passionately at a party about the autobiographical films he wants to make. Warming to his theme, he defends his commitment to realism above escapist entertainment: “What goes on in my life has relevance to what goes on in everyone else’s. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to be loved?”

Heartfelt as these sentiments may be, they’re not having much impact on his main interlocutor, a chain-smoking swine who responds to trigger words such as “vulnerability” with grunts of rage. But it’s clear that to some extent Robert is speaking for Paul Jeffrey himself, as the writer-director-star of the Australian DV feature In The Moment (2003). As the title implies, it’s a film that puts a high value on authenticity—the full engagement with reality that comes from living in the present tense. A sometime drama tutor, Robert tells his students that if they’re asked to enact emotional devastation, faking it won’t do: “You’ve got to be emotionally devastated.”

Apply that principle to the film itself and you’d have to believe that it’s literally Jeffrey up there on screen, baring his soul. Yet it would be just as easy to describe In The Moment as a quintessentially artsy 20-something movie in a long and sometimes noble Melbourne tradition, complete with characters who work in a video store and a would-be aphoristic voiceover somewhere between Godard and The Secret Life of Us. In fact neither straightforward confession nor ‘postmodern’ flippancy is the name of the game. For Robert as well as his girlfriend and muse Christine (Tania Lentini) identity is not fixed or fluid but plausibly problematic. Thus it’s hard to say whether fulfilment is a matter of realising the self or escaping it; “change and randomness and openness” may be stars to steer by, yet a truly spontaneous course can’t be plotted in advance. “It’s so easy to remember your face. It’s so easy to imagine your face. But to actually look…”

Actually, the relationship between Robert and his alter ego is not that crucial: of these two impatient idealists, it’s Christine who mostly draws the camera’s attention, and ours. She’s dark and stroppy in contrast to his default mode of easygoing goodwill (which shades perhaps into an innocent egoism, a willingness to take the pleasures of life as they come). She wants him, but she also wants autonomy, integrity, a free and private self, none of which is easily compatible with love. Skirting self-pity, Lentini’s characteristic note of wounded bravado doesn’t encourage immediate identification: rather, her intractability directs our attention towards the existential puzzle of filmmaking itself, as we’re left to wonder how far it stems from a real reluctance to yield herself to the camera or viewer.

Something similar could be said for In the Moment’s quasi home-movie style, both asserting and belying the transparency of video as a medium. With some scenes composed of long shapeless takes, others of rigidly alternating talking heads, editing ingenuity shows through mainly in the ordering of episodes, asking us to follow several chronologies at once. The leaps in time suggest that the real narrative is the adventure of filmmaking, the artwork’s own activity of piecing itself together. Indeed, as Robert moves closer to realising his artistic goals, In The Moment turns increasingly reflexive, as if the fiction were another prison the characters willed themselves to escape.

Is it Christine or Lentini who grows increasingly resentful of her director’s male gaze? (“This film is supposed to be about our relationship,” she complains, “but both the characters are you.”) Proving his cinephilia goes more than skin deep, Jeffrey triangulates Hitchcock, Godard and Cassavetes, less as formal ancestors than as men filming women, or fantasies, or both. It hardly needs to be spelt out that Christine’s tantrum over Vertigo stems from her own refusal to become a cinematic fetish: “I’m not just some hole for you to fill,” she tells Robert as he goes for another take.

Again, complexities emerge. Christine may insist that Robert shares her anti-Hitchcock stance, but it’s doubtful the same applies to her sister Adriana (Andrea D’Onofrio), who with her bright eyes and brighter lipstick might be the heroine of a different film altogether, perhaps the “romantic comedy” someone proposes, or a glossy thriller (like Kim Novak, she’s dark and blonde by turns). Struggling not only with the definition of a “couple” but in the equally confining matrix of the family, Christine denounces Adriana as “the epitome of falseness and contrivance.” Yet such meticulously staged innocence has its own attractions—for Robert at least. Unable to feel other than betrayed, Christine is trapped in her own high-minded logic: when the devastation is real, can freedom, respect, acceptance survive as more than mere words?

No easy answers. Still, to the end the film keeps faith with its understanding of creativity as an ongoing process that joins life and art, an activity that extends well beyond the results that are fixed in the editing suite and shown to the public. Or so we might presume from the final scene that Christine and Robert—by this point scarcely “characters” to be distinguished from Tania and Paul—create between them, as they sit on the verandah improvising different ways the story could go, until time or tape runs out. Indeed, this is one of the few movies I’ve seen that shifts not only its focus but its authorship as it goes along. The opening credits announce In the Moment as “written and directed by Paul Jeffrey”, but a final title gives both he and Lentini equal status as writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors and producers. So, 2 filmmakers to watch.

In The Moment, directors/writers/ producers Paul Jeffrey and Tania Lentini, 2003

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 19

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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