Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A girl, a bomb, a backpack, and a city.

That is about as comprehensive a pure description you are likely to find about Julia Loktev's spare, but thoroughly riveting Day Night Day Night. The film really is simply about two days and nights (hence the title) about a 19-year-old suicide bomber who walks around New York with a loaded backpack. And at the center of it is a performance of incredible power and bravery by Luisa Williams.

Structurally, the film is divided into two very distinct halves. The first takes place almost entirely in a stark motel room in which the girl (unnamed in the film, referred to only as "she" in the credits) dutifully awaits her instructions from the men who have apparently tapped her for this suicide mission. The entire section proceeds methodically. Every frame is carefully composed--usually at right angles, nearly all medium or medium close-ups, and when there are multiple characters, always a two-shot, never a standard shot-reverse shot.

The plot in this section (if we can call it that) varies between the men training or preparing her for her eventual suicide or her idly waiting in the room for them to show up--clipping her toenails, taking a bath, or just laying on the floor. There is a scene in which the men try to shoot a pre-suicide video of the girl holding a gun and reading from a script (something we may be all too familiar with nowadays). But as they try different backdrops, fit her with different clothes and tell her to hold the gun in a different way, nothing seems to work. It's comical in a way, if it wasn't so scary. And all the while all you see is the girl through the video lens, the empty vessel, the Eliza Doolittle to the multiple Henry Higgins in a type of extremist, psychotic perversion of "Pygmalion".

The second section takes place entirely on the streets of New York City. Like the first half, the second focuses mainly on incidental moments. In the first it was washing her face or brushing her teeth; here it's buying pretzels, playing with a toy dog she finds outside a street vendor, or just walking and eating an apple. But where the mise en scène at the beginning was precise, the entire visual approach outside is haphazard and indiscriminate. Where one is still, the other is shaky and hand-held.

What she does with the bomb I won't dare reveal, but in some ways that's not the point. The point in many ways is her fractured psychological state. The quiet, mathematical visual style mimics the plodding, repetitive narrative of the men steadily and systematically preparing her for the next day. The shaky camera and choppy editing is sometimes as visually overwhelming as the city, the people, and the gravity of the situation is to her.

The narrative emptiness, for lack of a better term, is something I've started to notice in a particular kind of new independent American cinema and something I find particularly effective in this movie. The movie, as I've alluded to, focuses--in the midst of this most serious event the girl intends to undertake--on the most mundane, the most banal moments of her life. These moments, unconventionally, don't exist necessarily to explain something in these characters lives or to push the plot forward in some way. They just exist, as in life. Effectively, then, the film draws you into their lives. It is to me most closely linked to cinema-vérité, Italian Neorealism of the postwar era or even some of the contemporary film coming out of eastern Europe, especially Romania--more so than, say, Dogme 95 or another strain of current independent American cinema, "mumblecore" (though I think similarities do exist between them).

The most recent movie Day Night Day Night reminds me of is Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart, another movie that gains its power from the ordinary--not from the extremes, but from the banality of the grind of everyday life. For these singular moments are not mundane to these characters, they mean something. It is their life, after all. And that means everything.

Day Night Day Night (dir: Julia Loktev; running time: 94 m)