Improvisation and its actualities

Jake Wilson

$image1063} In a market saturated with groovy angst, one asset of Australian filmmaker Paul Middleditch’s briefly released feature, A Cold Summer, is its defiantly unhip take on 20-something alienation. Here there are no eclectic pop culture references, no celebrations of the thrill of impermanence and, mercifully, no attempts to make the actors look charming or sophisticated. Instead, there’s an often excruciating rawness to the stumbling intimacies exchanged between the film’s trio of drifting Sydneysiders: an advertising agent (Teo Gebert), a self-styled jazz singer (Olivia Pigeot) and a hippie florist (Susan Prior). With some allowance made for drama workshop conventions, the 3 are all recognisable types, frighteningly so given their clear proximity to madness.

Then again, the absence of visible social context makes it hard to judge sanity or realism. Families are invisible and friendships tentative at best. Vaguely, the characters strive to lose themselves in alcohol and sex, or dream of fulfilment through charity work for Amnesty International. In the meantime, they remain in constant motion towards nowhere in particular, chasing each other down the street, across parklands, in and out of cafes and bars.

As in a John Cassavetes film, or Patrice Chereau’s comparably gruelling 3-hander Intimacy (2001), seemingly-improvised performance is both artistic strategy and subject. With communication breakdown an ever-present threat, the characters recklessly vary their modes of self-presentation, plunging into whatever hyperbolic gestures might help define the parameters of each encounter. Olivia Pigeot’s Tia is the most conscious play-actor of the 3, flaunting blunt cynicism when not trying to seduce. Bobby the ad-man is superficially more flexible, puppyish, always on the make, though there’s more than a hint of self-contempt underlying his abrupt, mocking changes of role. In contrast, Susan Prior’s Phaedra fiercely guards a private sense of self, symbolised by the shrine she maintains to her dead boyfriend. Yet the vulnerability of this ‘authentic’ identity is palpable in her rising inflections, nervous laughter and naive confessions (“Sometimes I feel like I really want to hurt myself”) that seem prompted by a repressed urge to shock or wound.

The relationships between these characters are played out mostly as a series of extended, bruising one-on-one confrontations, shot from the perspective of an anxiously hovering observer. As with Cassavetes, the style is ‘raw’ but far from transparent or artless, less concerned with plot points than with the creation of surprising physical and vocal rhythms: a kind of emotional music, with performance crescendos augmented by flurries of camera movement and by the agitated strings of Claire Jordan’s score. Jump-cuts are frequent, laying bare the process of assembling a sequence from portions of different takes, as if the characters themselves were trying out multiple incompatible options at each moment. At dramatic high points the performers are often turned towards the camera, revealing their emotions to the audience alone: another “musical” effect, like having a melodic line carried by a solo instrument rather than the full orchestra. As Tia walks away from Bobby after they’ve fucked for the first time, there’s a wordless shot lasting around 10 seconds of her almost expressionless face in the sunlight; tension builds and finally subsides when she blinks, as if dazzled by pain, and runs a hand through her hair.

Beyond such cadenzas, Middleditch is faced with the same basic problem as his characters: how to impose structure and direction on lives which show few traces of either. As if unable to imagine even the possibility of community, he ultimately chooses to account for the traumas he depicts in terms of individual loss rather than any more general malaise. It’s disappointing that the film manages to arrive at a semblance of resolution only by insisting on distinctions that it has previously put into question: between love and sex, or a ‘true’ self and an invented one. This nostalgia for authenticity may be preferable to smug anomie or the tacky melodramatics of the Dogme school, but looks a bit glib alongside the earlier scenes of babbling bodies in free-fall, snatching at fragments of meaning as they recede. Fuelled by a typically actorly fascination with performance as self-creation, these scenes often don’t lead anywhere or mean much, yet it’s just this failure to signify which conveys a paradoxical impression of emotional truth. Without purposeful narrative, existential breakdown seems a less uniquely dramatic event than part of quotidien experience—inscribed in speeches and gestures you might meet with any evening in a bar or nightclub, or even closer to home.

A Cold Summer, director Paul Middleditch, producer Grace Yee; performers Teo Gebert, Olivia Pigeot and Susan Prior

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 17

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

1 June 2004