In every instance of human interaction, of communication, there exists the possibility of violence, the potential for it. Little, if anything, is needed by way precipitating event, because the undercurrent of every unconsciously experienced moment of one’s life is constantly at tension against the undercurrent of every unconsciously experienced moment of everyone else’s life—there is an unavoidable weight and stress of invisible circumstance inside of which everyone is immersed.
So often, the few moments where conscious regard could be given to a circumstance one is participant in go by the wayside.
Tarun Thind’s short film English is an exploration of these flits of conscious regard—of moments that could result in either mere thoughtless reactions or in empathetic communications, these two options separated from each other by a hair’s breadth. It is a film built of the constant rearrangement, the inversion after inversion of circumstance and perception in which all of the potential for violence bubbles and bubbles while at the same time eyes dart looking for some reason to not let the final eruption out.
The eyes, specifically, belong to a young man named English, played with brilliant understatement by Leon Wander. They are eyes both feral and timid, and they are eyes that seem finely tuned to pick up on the subtlest vibrations in what they observe—this quality at once their power and their potential threat.
English is a film of what could be considered little incident, at first glance, but this is part of the deceptiveness it requires—that is, to announces itself too soon, to be ready to brandish its technique would be the very thing it, as art, seeks to caution against, in life.
It is the precise control over atmosphere and suggestion that gives English its uneasy verve. The characters seem to be in an endless flux, the camera eye, by mere attitude, focus, movement, keeping the roulette of Potential Victim/Potential Victimizer always at spin. And underneath of this all, a sense of giddy, even irreverent philosophy seems to be at play. I was reminded of Dogville and Funny Games while just as much I was reminded of Down By Law or an episode of Louie.
For example, we open on a youth observing a woman packing belonging into her car, the youth’s eyes tightening, his hand gripping an object unknown inside his sweatshirt pocket. The camera makes us voyeur, makes us antsy for the confrontation, for the collision of the unassuming (the woman) and the calculating (the youth), the very aspect and duration of shot, of position of camera eye emanating a sense of impending criminality that audience is rather conditioned to expect. Indeed, I would personally go so far as to say the shot is designed to linger and break in such a way as to have the audience understand that confrontation is what is largely desired by them.
And as the film progresses, the repeated release of tension from each “close call” seems meant to reinforce and bloat the desire for the next, more potentially violent outburst.
In the world, it might be said, people don’t observe each other, ever, just for the sake of observing each other—we observe for the sake of attack or defense. English seems to embrace this, and does so in presenting moments-out-of-the-banal so deliberate and individual it almost seems they have no need to exist—the playing field the films sets up for its confrontations is one comprised of moments and circumstances most people would forget about by the end of the day if they had lived through them without incident. The film suggests an absurd, but entirely undeniable, sense of isolation and alienation within a world overcrowded and, in this world, suggests that violence, perhaps entirely, is what comprises everything normally unregarded, suggests that any person might, at any moment, be set upon and that every person, in their core, knows this as Imperative Number One.
Of course, no incident results from the youth’s vigil over the woman, or none of conscious consideration—a harmonica drops to the pavement, the youth taking it up and going on with his day.
And the films proceeds in just this fashion—incidents that are poised for obvious confrontation pivot on a dime, objects are given suggested weight only to have these suggestions rotate until they fully invert.
The object gripped in the youth’s pocket, for example?
We are given three lead-ups to suggest it is perhaps a gun, maybe a shiv, but certainly a tool of some violence, so that by the time it is pulled out (a pencil, in fact) we are ready to immediately side with the man who asks “You think you’re going to hurt me with that?” as he snaps it in half.
The pencil, a tool of communication, is of course quite intentional.
What impacted me the most with this film, though, was the fact that it did not ever try to sum up in a neat (or even wry) way a simple philosophy. Or, better said, it let a philosophy be self-evident, it let no single character have dominion over enlightenment, posited no party as completely misunderstood any more than every party was completely misunderstood. There is an aggression present in the titular character English, as well as in his friend—we see this; there is a goading, volatile aspect to the homeless man, as much as there is a brokenness, a defeat—we see this; there is a rightful fear in the shop owner, a reason he reacts the way he does.
And when most impactfully, this shop owner is confronted with what he thinks is actualization of his fear (a rotten bagged banana he believes to be a pistol is pointed in his face) his understanding is as profound, as proper, and as much his own as it is something revealed to him, brandished at him, made to instruct him.
The philosophy of the film is: Observe. The philosophy is: Think. The philosophy of the film is: React in proper measure to only what is actually there.
And this philosophy, as much as it is a potential balm for the stress and the tension of the world and a compass for navigating its waters, is also the cause of the unease, the wind that blows the waters calm to choppy as if by random caprice.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.