Scaled-Back Indie Is A Great Film-As-Art Primer

Jan 25, 2023

For those used to approaching movies as entertainment and wanting to branch out into engaging with them as works of art, Andrew Bujalski’s There There is not a bad place to start. The film is as stripped back as it gets, structured as a series of two-person scenes in single locations (with semi-musical interludes between them) and very little else provided to distract from them. The consequence of this approach is to bring the most essential artistic questions inherent in the cinematic medium to the fore, making it virtually possible not to experience it as an artwork. Mileage may vary between the vignettes, but even if There There isn’t a life-changing experience, there’s something exciting about being activated in this way as a viewer, and something admirable about the ease with which the film does it.

Perhaps the earliest questions it sparks, those that light the fire of an inquisitive mindset, concern acting. All of its scenes explore critical moments in different kinds of relationships as they are mapped out in real time, but the first is also one of its strongest, jumping in with Lili Taylor and Lennie James’ characters the morning after their first night together. They both, it seems, had a great time, somewhat surprised at the sudden intensity of their connection. But, plagued by the lack of access to the other’s thoughts, they also worry about how to proceed without “ruining it” — if, indeed, they can agree there’s something to ruin.

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Lili Taylor in There There

All focus is placed on these two people, these two performers, and the viewer is asked to pay close attention to their expressions, gestures, and intonations as the ways through which emotional truth is made legible for the camera. One reason for this scene’s early success might be that the scenario comes complete with an understanding that words are only part of the story. Sure, that’s what they say, but what are they really thinking and feeling? Being primed in this way to consider what it is that actors actually do to communicate and elicit emotion makes drifting through the remaining vignettes an interesting exercise, even if the situations provided don’t always reach the same height as the opener. Molly Gordon is another standout, channeling the same sense for awkward comedy she displayed in Shiva Baby, and Jason Schwartzman does some nuanced work with his loser of a man on the precipice of his life crumbling beyond repair.

But outside their individual merits, the film’s structure also asks viewers to consider how these stories are connected. This can be narratively, as a few threads and characters overlap to form a web of unwittingly interconnected lives, or thematically, as the parallels in these two-handed engagements become clear through repetition. Much like with the acting, these elements, foundational to artistic interpretation, are foregrounded in a way that is peculiarly inviting without being forceful. There There is not reveling in its own constructedness so much as showing its work, being open about having no motive beyond provoking thought on the most basic tenets of not only human interaction, but its own medium.

Molly Gordon in There There

Of course, in cinema, there is no connectivity without editing, and here the musical interludes come into play. In the film’s very first moments and between each scene, Bujalski returns to the same musician, Jon Natchez, who plays a series of different instruments, ranging from bass clarinet to mandolin to a glass of water. The opening solo might initially strike the audience as an opening credits of sorts and so go by unnoticed, but when Natchez returns, and his presence is established as a motif, There There invokes that all-important question: What does this mean? At times, the music seems to follow the emotional beats of the dialogue that just happened. Could the opening, then, have represented the couple’s night together? The interludes also increasingly capture moments of stillness or mundanity in Natchez’s life to go with the playing of instruments. Is this part of that same commentary, or a signal that the musician’s scenes, when sewn together, have their own story to tell? Is he, as the movie’s most recurring character, part of this tapestry of interactions, too?

Those hoping for a clear answer will have to be content with whatever they come up with on their own, because, as before, the movie is more invested in the questions being asked. If moved enough to do a little research after the credits roll, however, viewers will find their inquisitiveness rewarded with some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights. Embracing pandemic-era challenges and protocols, Bujalski filmed There There entirely remotely; none of the actors in these two-person scenes were ever actually in the same room. And yet, in the space created by the edit, their characters are. This experiment is as fascinating for those already familiar with the Kuleshov Effect as it is for those who have maybe never considered that, even in the most unremarkable of moments, movies and their viewers’ brains conspire to create meaning where there once was not. There is a modest feeling to There There, and the emotional impact of its actual content might display the limits of this extreme methodology, but its (smartly brisk) runtime is hardly too steep a price to see a small movie explore such big questions with such clarity.

More: The Wonder Review: Florence Pugh Is The Miracle In Netflix’s Haunting Movie

There There is available in theaters and on demand November 18. The film is 94 minutes long and is not currently rated.

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