Barry Jenkins And The Argument For Short Film Auteurism (Part 2)
What Is The Worth Of A Short Filmography To A Famous Filmmaker's Legacy?
(This is the second of a three part analysis of Barry Jenkins’ short film career pre-Moonlight. To read part one, click here.)
The Middle Period — “I Love You”
A Young Couple (2009) / Tall Enough (2009) / One Shot (2009)
Both A Young Couple and Tall Enough end with“I love you.” — one of the most sincere and earnest statements a human can make.
It’s in this very choice, among many others, that we find Jenkins working very much against the isolation and alienation that characterized his first two shorts, both stylistically and thematically. Instead of endless objects acting as frames between us and the characters, Jenkins and DP James Laxton use faces and heads as the frames. This time there are several tight close-ups on couples staring at each other, leaning into each other, making intimate, human contact.
The bodies of the lovers in both shorts constantly collide, interact and seek something that exists both within and beyond each other. This constant sense of dissatisfaction, of roaming and seeking, is also picked up by the camera. In both films, the camera is constantly on the move, rack focusing, spinning or otherwise gesticulating to us its sense of discontent and desire for contact, for tactility.
With one short being a documentary project for his friends (A Young Couple) and the other short being an extended commercial for Bloomingdale’s (Tall Enough), his middle period consists of films that aren’t narrative in that traditional sense. Yet, with both happening around the time of Medicine For Melancholy — Barry Jenkins’ first feature — 2009 seemed to be the year he wanted to cinematically explore romantic relationships in all of their splendor and complexity.
A Young Couple never attempts to milk melodrama or inject fake conflict into the lives of a real young couple living together in San Francisco. Yet Jenkins still finds valuable ways to create real intrigue. He largely does it with subtle camera placements.
For example, one of the middle period’s few examples of framing within the frame happens when Jenn and John show their respective office spaces. There is no judgement made within the film on whether these separate spaces are a source of friction or relief. Instead, this framing choice visually taps into the necessary individuality that each member of a couple must hold onto (and sometimes fight for) when in any serious relationship.
Again, the choice made here is delicate and made without commentary. When compared to the heavily-stylized depictions of fragmented relationships in My Josephine, one senses a Barry Jenkins more trusting of his audience — and more trusting of his ability to use subtlety to capture a truth.
Jenkins also relies on the documentary “talking head” trope in both A Young Couple and Tall Enough to get each member of the couple’s own thoughts on the relationship, absent the partner. In both cases, by isolating the partners and having them directly face the artifice of the camera, the characters reveal things they wouldn’t have otherwise.
In the case of Tall Enough, Jenkins chooses a very commercial “white limbo” style of interview that calls attention to the artificiality of such interactions. At the same time though, Jenkins finds a clear and warm humanity (something he always seems to find, no matter the project) that contradicts the very artificiality “white limbo” videos are usually associated with.
This is just one example of many in Jenkins’ middle period of embracing paradoxes. There is a paradox in the central image of Tall Enough, the couple holding up hands in front of their faces and asking what they see in each other.
It’s the image that Jenkins said inspired the entire commercial; it certainly is a strong one. This is partly due to the racial difference of the lovers (something that’s called attention to in the film’s opening dialogue) and partly due to the strange nature of people wanting to see each other for who they really are, yet putting their own obstacles in the way. Is this not, somehow, a metaphor for relationships we’re given by this middle period?
One of the most revealing moments in A Young Couple comes from Jenkins himself, as he converses with the couple from behind the camera. When John and Jenn reveal that they moved in together at 23, Jenkins replies:
You know, I’m 29 and I’ve never lived with anyone.
This small peek behind the curtain is both a throwaway line and an essential one. Perhaps the middle period can be re-classified as an extended attempt by Jenkins to understand the nature of something in which he (up until this point in his life) never himself experienced.
If true, it would greatly reinforce the ache and longing of the camera, the attempt to capture romance every which way, to study all of its facets.
Jenkins effectively explores other paradoxes and tensions as well. Towards the end of Tall Enough, Jenkins returns to his central image of hands over eyes. The man asks the woman what she sees. The film then cuts to the man whispering to her, suggesting that what she “sees” in her mind’s eye is not a visual memory, but an aural one.
Jenkins also playfully creates tensions and paradoxes within the soundtrack cues. Unlike in My Josephine and Little Brown Boy — where the haunting music selections mostly took place during otherwise silent passages of the films — Jenkins’ middle period shorts often use music to overwhelm the dialogue track in unconventional ways. On more than one occasion during both shorts, Jenkins lets the film’s music come in and overpower the dialogue, to the extent that the words, once clear, crisp and seemingly important to the development of the film, become indistinguishable and consequently inessential. It’s a trick used by other legendary filmmakers like Terrence Malick, but Jenkins employs the style in a way that calls so little attention to itself.
Despite all of these sharp stylistic and thematic distinctions to be found in Jenkins’ middle period, you can find several callbacks to his early period work. There are still some clever frames within frames. There are also frequent cuts to black, a prominent editing choice we noticed last time.
But perhaps the greatest amalgamation of Jenkins’ early and middle period work comes in the the not-yet-discussed 2009 short One Shot. It’s a short shot all in one take. Made for a competition, the film could be deemed more experiment than film…
…but shouldn’t all short films, in a way, be an experiment?
The camera follows a young woman pressured into stealing from a local convenience store. Otherworldly sound effects and a swirling, often out-of-focus camera, take this naturalistic premise into science fiction dimensions.
The tight perspective on the main character is often obscured by soft focus, a deep blue palette and a disorienting hand-held camera. In many ways, its visual sense directly echoes that of My Josephine.
One Shot also taps into a sense of isolation and fragmentation, particularly in the way the camera withholds a full look at her face until the very end of the movie, when she makes a key, life-changing decision.
But what keeps this experimental short firmly in Jenkins’ middle period is the earnest intimacy on display throughout. Even when the camera never leaves its tight close up structure, it remains in search for human faces. The camera cuts back to the face of the convenience store owner whenever it can, as if looking for something there that can’t be found anywhere else.
The camera lingers and searches (partly because it has to as a one-take technique) in a way that the early period would never allow. Any framing with frames is gone. All the old techniques Jenkins used before disappear, leaving us with movement and bodies. One Shot manages to be both the most abstract and the most concrete short in the entire filmography.
Another paradox. We’re sure middle period Barry Jenkins wouldn’t want it any other way.