Barry Jenkins And The Argument For Short Film Auteurism (Part 3)
What Is The Worth Of A Short Filmography To A Famous Filmmaker's Legacy?
Late Period — The Impressionist Becomes Storyteller
Remigration (2011) / Chlorophyl (2009) / King’s Gym (2012)
Barry Jenkins is on the record saying he intentionally went for a more classical style in his first (and currently only) sci-fi short film, Remigration. The shots are wider, smoother, more objective. The scope is huge compared to his past shorts, and the wide format used enforces this well. In most cases, the film either glides along in unobtrusive dolly shots or remains completely still.
Most importantly though, Jenkins is relying on genre, and a high concept story, for the first time. Does Jenkins betray his former strengths and attributes here? Is this the classic example of a director trying to go for something more “Hollywood” and then losing the things that made his or her directorial style so unique in the first place?
In a way, both yes and no are true. For those used to the visually energetic, and curious cmaera movements of Jenkins’ earlier work, Remigration will feel like a big left turn. Particularly during its plot-heavy opening, where one of the characters carries the burden of explaining the world to our main characters (and to us). Jenkins does his best to keep things interesting throughout the talk, but one feels him and longtime DP James Laxton trying to find that same spark of spontaneity and life that felt so easy in the earlier two periods.
Nonetheless, with Remigration Jenkins officially made his start as a more classical storyteller. And while he’d never be conventional, the Hollywood smoothness of this production seems to signal a clean break from what came before. In a certain sense, no director can ever go back home again; though Jenkins certainly allows himself to refer back to shooting methods he employed earlier in his career.
For example, Jenkins re-adopts those searching, agile camera zooms from the middle period during one scene where former San Francisco residents are explaining how they were forced out and why they’d like to return.
The panicky zooms. The disregard for sharp focus. Jenkins offers these moments (once standards in his previous films) as stylistic disruptions into an otherwise classically-shot film, all as a way of doubling down on the documentary nature of the situation. The way each person (besides the main actors) answers the questions hearkens back to Jenkins’ interview segments in A Young Couple and Tall Enough. This makes perfect sense when you know that those interviewed were themselves victims of gentrification. Jenkins can’t help but find the reality in his futuristic premise.
Jenkins also chooses to treat his sci-fi world in a radically unconventional way; he refuses to see the future as completely apocalyptic or completely utopian. It is instead a subtle amalgamation of these types, and just slightly off-center from the San Francisco we already know. The frame looks hazy with pollution. The city at night looks like an urban jungle. Except it also looks like neon yellow paradise, a place of humming progress and excitement.
There is both danger and wonder to be found here; the music in this scene shares both sentiments too. Despite anchoring his film in a familiar genre premise, it becomes quickly apparent how disinterested Jenkins is in firing up all the old cliches. His future is one still very near and dear to our present.
Jenkins does, however, capture an “apocalyptic” feeling when showing us what it will look and feel like for those remigrated to work and live in San Francisco again.
Jenkins perfectly captures cinematically the very life being sucked out of those tasked with taking on jobs they never wanted, and living in a city they know doesn’t really want them anymore. In these instances, the future looks scary, even nihilistic.
Though Remigration is perhaps the strongest example of Jenkins plowing forward in his career, Chlorophyl is a film that simultaneously looks backwards and forwards. First, like Remigration, one finds more classical leanings. Shots are very intentionally composed, held onto. Any camera movement is soft, subtle.
Jenkins also makes choices that allude to classical filmmakers, like Yasujiro Ozu. These choices typically call outright attention to the depth and space of a room…to what’s disclosed and what’s withheld.
In other ways though, Chlorophyl makes choices right out of Jenkins’ early period. Ana’s voiceover mirrors the voiceover in My, Josephine, particularly in its matter-of-fact delivery and its focus on the specific minutiae of a particular process…which is always meant to be a metaphor for something larger.
Both voiceovers are even spoken in non-English languages. There’s a symmetry to the interior lives of the main characters from these two shorts, suggesting Jenkins is back to his old tricks of creating formal ways of expressing fractured isolation from lovers and from the world.
Yet, Chlorophyl takes chances My Josephine doesn’t. This can be found particularly in the graceful, balletic swirling of the camera as Ana dances. It’s a scene that takes its time to develop, a concept Jenkins would return to in the opening shot of Moonlight.
Yet the short film in Jenkins’ filmography that best blends what came before with what came after is 2012’s King’s Gym. This short, wordless documentary is both a cinematic capturing of an historical place and a love letter to boxing.
Its trademark visual sense owes much to Jenkins’ late period, with many classical aesthetic choices on display.
Yet Jenkins can’t help but go back to his early period by creating frames within frames in which to tell this poetic narrative.
The film is simultaneously saturated with life and de-saturated of color. There is both a story being told and not being told. The subject, boxing, is both about individual isolation (the lonely grind of training) and about the intimacy of a game made just for two.
In this way, King’s Gym is the perfect farewell letter to short films (or until Jenkins returns to the short form again someday…).