Considering the scope of the story presented in Jessi Shuttleworth’s FEBRUARY, the short-form of the film—and its use within of brevity versus relative-elongation, incident versus time-between-incident—is an interesting choice that pays off profoundly. An examination not of the slow-motion of trauma experienced (in this case a multi-victim school shooting) but of the eye-blink passage of time post-trauma speaks to the broken nature of Life as perception-of-life in an at once impressionistic (even abstract) fashion and a hyper-realistic one. How something can at once seem instantaneous and slow-burn is a trick, indeed, and one that Shuttleworth handles deftly, the method delivering perfectly the haunting nuance of the larger ideas the film explores in a way that a long-form narrative would not. Indeed, to compare to just one full length example: a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts result is achieved by Shuttleworth to a kind of reductive, isolating bottling in, say, Gus van Sant’s Elephant.
In Shuttleworth’s film, nothing in life changes. Scenes are presented (concerning the violence itself) in staccato punctuations of image and sound, not only because there is no time for them to otherwise, but because (the film’s language suggests) it is impossible that any amount of time could allow change—too much perspective given to audience-as-observer would allow artificial insight, diminishing the connection to the characters being observed. In the film there is an Absolute which dissection or detailed examination of might dilute irrevocably, even while giving the impression that some understanding has been attained. Through the short-form, there is no comfort, no remove, no philosophy or search-for-meaning; there is Incident and Result…and Time (or any force) can do nothing to make the world more than these two states.
Between the briefly shown (suspenseful even in its inevitability) murder of the students and the inevitability (an inevitability that is even photographically noted—shot structure and pace repeating, driving home all the more the “nothing has changed”, indeed the “nothing else has even happened” stab of the film) of the murder of the gunman nearly two decades later, the film dwells on a series of incidental moments in the lives of certain participants in these acts.
The sister of one of the victims (now a police officer) grabbing a bite to eat, beginning her shift the day before the gunman’s release; the gunman waiting in his cell then signing out of the prison (in an especially mundane long-take, nearly dialogue free). And then sandwiched (and lengthiest, in themselves) within these two experiences, two equally externally quiet sequences: the sister driving her patrol car, emotion slowly encroaching upon her until she must pull over and scream; the gunman dressing in his cell (still absolutely child-like in appearance) wordless, a weight of the at once known and unknown reality of what awaits him outside of the penitentiary tattooed onto the ordinariness of the moment.
The pronounced difference in the screen-time spent on Incident and Time Between, the unequal distribution of the noise of the two capping acts of violence to the moments of “normalcy” between is a wrenching thing to experience—suspense reduced to the fleeting moments between two preordained things perfectly mirroring the lack of hope, the abject horror of the victims (and victimizers) of both deeds.
And, to me, what most profoundly raises February above a harrowing exploration of senseless violence and ultimately meaningless vengeance is the writer/director’s choice to present, subtly, that there did exist possible variances in “what happened” and “what was bound to happen”. Variances—but not Alternatives.
In the opening violence, there is a kind of dreadful “selectiveness” to which of the young women and men we are introduced to will be killed and which will be left to live on; and in the crowd awaiting the release of the child-murderer we are made to glimpse multiple parties who could have been the one to pull the trigger on him.
Someone was going to die; someone is going to kill—the particulars of either/both scarcely matter and the presence of alternatives only reinforces the grotesque tragedy, the aching void of it all. Even down to the (in the school shooting) male/female coin flip (there were multiple victims, of course, but the film clearly draws a “will He or She die?” even as it indicates “perhaps both and more will”) and then (in the moments leading up to the gunman’s murder) the same coin-flip (with another ripple of “will This Victim’s Father or That Victim’s Sister be triggerman—or, indeed, will both—added to things) very particularly renders out the falseness of seeing “difference” in one outcome or the other. That is: individuated more specifically, we see how few differences the alternatives present.
And in this, also, the aforementioned brevity of the film adds to it continuing on past its conclusion—an audience’s desire to find different meaning depending on which version of the same horror leaves a miserable feedback loop in a viewer’s head that a more long-form dramatizing would have spared them.
February is a film dedicated to respectfully presenting it as a Trauma, as much as a dramatization of characters who have experienced on, and achieves the powerful (though uncomfortable) feeling of something at once senseless and specific, fleeting and lasting forever.
Information (including Trailer) on this film can be found here: http://www.scablandproductions.com/
PABLO D’STAIR is a novelist, essayist, and filmmaker (among other things). His films include A Public Ransom and Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo. Information on his work can be found here http://pdstairfilms.wordpress.com
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