Barry Jenkins And The Argument For Short Film Auteurism (Part 1)
What Is The Worth Of A Short Filmography To A Famous Filmmaker’s Legacy?
Prolific video essayist Kevin B. Lee (we’ve covered him before) put a spotlight on Barry Jenkins two years before Moonlight was released. In his deep-dive into Jenkins’ work, Lee did his best to construct a directorial authority from his short films and commercial work following his first feature, Medicine For Melancholy.
Despite several years of “absence” between features, Lee’s thesis with this video was to prove…
“…Jenkins hasn’t been in hibernation. On the contrary, he’s been prodigiously productive, though not in areas that cinephiles tend to notice.”
These “areas” turned out to be short films and corporate branding films.
While an artist-in-residence at the Harun Farocki Institut, Lee wrote a blog post reflecting on the value of this video post-Moonlight.
In the end, though, Lee believed questions raised by his video remained important, and worthy of further exploration.
What kind of body of work — or works within that body — are worth our attention? How much work should be considered in telling the story of a filmmaking career? Especially for those who may never make a feature film? Who are the greatest filmmakers who never made a feature, and how are their legacies considered differently from those who have?
These are admittedly complex questions that no one article can answer, but when it comes to Barry Jenkins (as of 2018), short films still dominate his filmography. His newest feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, has yet to go wide, his upcoming TV adaptation of the best-selling novel, The Underground Railroad, remains in pre-production, and any projects beyond that remain hypothetical.
So, to further Kevin B. Lee’s experiment, we’ve decided to run a three-article series on Barry Jenkins’ short films, studying the career within a career, or as Lee put it, “works within that body” of work.
By dividing Jenkins’ short film output into three distinct stylistic and thematic periods (just the first period covered today), we hope to show — using Jenkins as an excellent case study — that a short filmography is as worthy (and fruitful) a place for cinephiles and scholars to explore as a feature filmography.
The Early Period — Framing Isolation
My Josephine (2003) / Little Brown Boy (2003)
Barry Jenkins was experimenting plenty in this period, flirting with different styles, soaking up directorial influences and trying on every type of shot and angle for size. But what stands out best is the way Jenkins’ formal choices consistently intertwine with his impressionistic pursuits.
This comes out most assuredly in Jenkins’ insistence on frames within frames. It’s a tool in most great filmmakers’ toolboxes, so one can perhaps chalk up the obsession with framing to a Harold Bloom-ian anxiety of influence. However, it turns out to be the perfect choice, as nothing looks and feels more dynamic in a restricted shooting location (as is the laundromat of My Josephine) than inventive framing in camera.
Cement walls, dark hallways, circular dryer doors and more make up the frames Jenkins and longtime DP James Laxton playfully create. Yet, we suspect more than film school hubris at work here. This is because the choices directly connect to the characters’ sense of isolation and alienation.
By constantly feeding us frames within frames, Jenkins makes a clear formal choice to keep the characters at a noticeable distance from the us, the viewers. Objects, moving or otherwise, often get in the way, obscuring any good look at the characters we are being asked to identify with.
Even when nothing is between us and the main characters, the camera refuses to shoot them straight on, but rather catches them at angles, further reinforcing the alienation they feel from the post 9/11 America they find themselves in. Unsurprisingly, we feel this too, right along with them.
Jenkins also finds more abstract methods of formalizing this sense of isolation and disconnectedness from the world. In both films, he chooses a pivotal emotional moment (both with deep, aching soundtrack cues behind them) to shoot out of focus. Not only are his human subjects fractured, they almost disappear completely into unrecognizable shapes…a cinematic move with frightening (or exhilarating) existential implications.
These two films also frequently cut to black throughout, providing us a new image, scene and cadence on the other end. This repeated move, particularly in My Josephine, may have more to do with the necessities of how the film had to be cut, but it does create a haunting sense of fragmentation nonetheless.
When this happens in Little Brown Boy, it’s usually to contrast a scene or moment of great intensity with a more subdued one. Not only does this help with continuity, it’s a smart way to navigate a short film — a form that may need to establish many different tones and colors in a short amount of time.
Every formal element analyzed here works so well because it remains rooted in the perspective of the characters from both films. In My Josephine, neither Aadid or Adela interact with the other humans flowing (literally) in and out of the laundromat. They barely interact with each other. Whenever they are together in a scene (with one exception), they choose not to talk but instead stare ahead, or down at the American flags they are washing. Aadid prefers to ponder in thought-narration, lacking modulation or feeling when he does. He’s trapped in his own mind, perhaps subdued by the world around him.
In Little Brown Boy, the boy spends most of the film on the run, and in absolute isolation. The city streets are empty. So is the pool he swims in. Even when he tries to make a connection by phoning his mother, he’s unable to reach her. This short subverts the idyllic nature often attached to a child’s perspective in movies, especially a child getting to exist in a world without adults (or other people entirely).
Though Jenkins’ early period may be best read as a documentation of isolated, alienated and fractured lives, he does manage to find a cinematic sense of grace and closure to end each film.
In My Josephine, we are given a sense of completion in finally witnessing a cleaned and folded American flag. For Aadid and Adela too, the act of folding doubles as an act of noble acquiescence, a decision to go beyond the negative xenophobia often attached to that symbol.
Of course, the film still ends with their backs turned to the camera, staring out and ahead. But the laundromat’s front doors are open to the outside world this time, a clear and cathartic response to the film’s opening image. Yet, as if to offer one last twist of ambiguity, Aadid and Adela stand farther apart at the end than they do in the beginning.
In Little Brown Boy, Jenkins finds closure amidst the confused and disoriented the journey this boy has taken on. For most of the film, the boy is on the run. It is only at the end, alone in nature, where he lays in the grass under a tree.
It brings to mind Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (the first installment of the famous Apu Trilogy). Towards that film’s end, Apu’s sister, Durga, also finds herself under a tree. She dances in the rain, an action both purgative and poignant in the moment, but will eventually lead to a fever — and her death sentence.
In Little Brown Boy, the camera dances for him, circling around the tree and conjuring a sense of peace we logically know can’t last…but by the final fade-out, we emotionally accept as everlasting anyway. Perhaps the titular character in Little Brown Boy is headed for a kind of death sentence, if not a real one. We never find out what happens to the boy and how society handles the action he’s taken. Instead, Jenkins leaves us in nature.
Barry Jenkins’ early period of short films presents complicated situations with alienated characters; yet both times he chooses to resolve the formal and thematic crises not with a new plot development but with a poignant and lasting cinematic image.