A Freeform Discussion Of Jake Burgess’ Making Of Waves
NOTE: Though much of the below may not be easy to follow without having seen the film (I highly recommend a viewing here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/makingofwaves/198298687)—and though I am somewhat loathe to introduce ideas (either my own observations and philosophies or simple facts having to do with the film) to any viewer before their initial experience of the film—I nonetheless feel any typical “review” of Making of Waves is quite pointless and so instead present this somewhat freeform response essay. After all, how would one review Lars von Trier’s Epidemic, for example? This film, similarly, does not need a Review or a Tease, but to be recognized as an Art piece, one that Audience ought interact with quite personally and in a manner free from ambition or aims beyond investigation of their relative perceptions of reactions to it.
We could start, of course, by pointing out that Making of Waves is an example of a nesting doll film—a movie within a movie…within a movie (and then, to my interpretation, within a movie, again). We should start with that, as it is important.
We could add that it is a film about Watching cinema, disguised deftly as a film about Making cinema—but if we do this, we would have to quickly stumble over ourselves to point out it is, simultaneously, a film about Making cinema disguised as a film about Watching cinema.
A regular Schrodinger’s film, so to speak.
From there, it would be good to point out the film is an indictment of Audience and Creator, as much as it is a gameplay with and for both of these abstract parties. On the Spectrum of Indictment it is something, we could say, less abrasive or confrontational than a Cache or a Man Bites Dog (it is not a spiritual or moral indictment, no no, but is not without its teeth) and on the Gameplay side we could say it is something more than the Sleep No More episode of series nine Dr. Who (it is not a mere for-superficial-effect playground of point-of-view and trope-reveal/inversion, yet it does have a sense of glee in baiting its traps).
What all of this preamble means to drive at is that the film is New, though perfectly willing to let itself be seen as Old—is a commentary perfectly content to be misunderstood as a reiteration, a first-stab well aware it might be considered just another-example-of. It is Art actually willing to take a risk—a boring, non-flashy risk; the exact risk that all Art should take. It is the teetering-on-oblivion it knows it has no choice but to be and, in so, is miles ahead of the teetering-on-oblivion film which refuses, under pain of torture, to admit itself such.
BUT: before we expound on the film’s intricacies, it might be best to explain, briefly, its superficials.
In my previous review of writer/director Jake Burgess’ film Saturn’s Rings, I mentioned small touches which (in that film) carried more positive impact than the larger strokes of the feature, had a spirit that made up for some slightly wobbly aspects in overall structure and rendition. From the Titles onward in Making Of Waves, it is quite evident that these deft touches are an ammunition in Burgess’ arsenal he did not accidentally pop-off last time around, but well knows how to aim and to fire to precision effect.
This touch of the filmmaker is made evident in the Opening Titles, most potently, this time around. All seems straightforward as we begin—even flatly, across-the-board dull. Clean-framed talking-head shots of individuals explaining, documentary-style, their participation in a movie (we assume they mean This movie…in reality they both do and do not). Then, mid-sentence, Title Cards interrupt, actor names and abrasive but melodic sound of distortion intruding. Then, shock-cut back to talking-heads, mid-sentence, continuing on from some bit of dialogue we had not been given the start of.
Little touches like these, to myself (as both Audience and Filmmaker) are the teasing assurance that I should stop assuming I know what I am seeing. And the film proves as it progresses that this pleasant warning was not given for nothing.
The speeches the characters give go on and on, giving the lullabying, even get-ready-for-disappointment, impression that there is nothing up anyone’s sleeve here. The performances are naturalistic—indeed, so much so that the length of each speech is brought to the threshold of “Couldn’t this have been trimmed down a tad?” before relived by intrusively smacked Title Card and audio distortion.
I am aware I am being subtly conditioned, though. And my very awareness of this is what makes the snare so effective.
Abruptly: the aspect-ratio of the film changes. So much so that it seems another film altogether has forced its way in. A character (we recognize him as one of the talking-heads we have already seen, the Director) is now filmed in cool-as-ice thriller style, shown readying a tripod, some lights, a camera—he does this in what seems to be a dingy room where a hostage would be held. The camera is positioned, the Director looks down its barrel. He puts to his face a paper mask of his face.
The movie begins.
But that is the first big trick of Making of Waves. I believe I have watched a Prologue. I believe I have been given a flash of “where all of this is going”.
I have been given neither.
The film returns to the standard-framed talking-heads. The same people—as in to say the same actors and seemingly the same characters—are portrayed exactly as before (almost). Introducing themselves. Continuing (it seems) to explain their participation in the film we are watching and giving some more specifics of what this film is.
But now: the aspect-ratio of the film has gone square/fullscreen and the photography a crisp Black and White. This is back to the beginning—or else this seems to have never left the beginning—or else the beginning seems not to know when to end.
The film goes on, for a long stretch unwavering in Black and White and single style.
But let me pause in such commentary here, for a moment, to address a few things.
First and foremost: the performances (and, though a careless eye might fail to notice while watching the film, I utilize that plural in double respect—for each Performer gives multiple and differentiated performances, even while, in relief of more overarching aspects of the film, they seemingly only give one).
Performances are the keystone to any of the other virtuosic elements of this film holding together. There is no getting around that, as nicely written a thing as the script-on-paper no doubt is. Had less able, had more ham-fisted (and, most important, had less intelligent—either in performance or in understanding the larger scope of the film, entire) Performers been cast in these roles, this cinematic exercise could have been (however well meaning) an indecipherable and miserable ordeal to wade through. Instead, through the performances, the thing is an easy captivation it was quite pleasant to be reminded Cinema can be.
I will not break down in blurb-ready praise tick-by-tock of what I feel is individually phenomenal about each Performer, but cannot help gush that it is the Actress (Holly Keus) who steals the film, multiple times over—this is not to say, though, that she would have been able to accomplish her scene stealing without the ensemble and pitch perfect calibration of the Actor (Isaac Brown) and Director (Marcel Smith) who are nothing short of made for their roles and exemplar of how to be iconic and mesmerizing without need for overt flash-bang. But yes, as it is my privilege to self-indulge, being the writer of this piece, I suppose I will single out Holly Keus as something of a band apart, an actress who seems to delight in milking nuance from nuance, her performance reflecting such inwardness I could not help but wonder, at times, if the film’s actual director had fed her an entirely different set of motivations and told her to keep secret from her cohorts the fact they were not really ever playing the same scenes.
Let me refocus, now.
The Performers succeed so well, in fact, in the primary goal of giving breath to their portraits, that the film being about something beyond their characters could easily just be ignored.
In the case of Making of Waves, though, that strength-of-portrayal plays into the hands of Jake Burgess, moves him easily nearer his goal as filmmaker. I feel it important as essayist, though, to point out how it would have been a pure joy to watch the film even if not. I just wanted to observe these people. I bought part-and-parcel into the Reality of them, the nuance, the naturalism being presented.
But in that, we find another trick. Because in this film, Naturalism is bisected—made itself and not itself, all in one appearance. For if everything being depicted is a put-on (and it is) is it appropriate to say the performances are naturalistic?
Let me explain my thoughts here:
The Black and White, square-ratio film is what is, for a long stretch, being shown. So much so that the widescreen of the talking-head shots during the Title Cards (these Full Color) and also the ultra-widescreen, camera-in-motion style shots (just before the switch to Black and White) slipped from my memory. What I got on board with was that I was watching a Documentary. And this Documentary is telling me it is about a Filmmaker and two Participants who are investigating the use of a computer algorithm to match lovers.
Simple. Unaffected. A very easy to follow set-up.
The Participates introduce themselves; I see them have their first face-to-face meeting; I see their comments afterward; I watch them have their first date, proper (which goes disastrously). And in every moment, I don’t doubt what I am seeing and my mind goes right along for the simple pleasure of seeing if these two young folks will hit it off, in the end. When they don’t? I earnestly am affected, I share the frustrations, I am baffled by what is going wrong!
And—yes yes—as an Audience member, I cannot help but note there is a “written quality” to some of what I am seeing, a dark-comedy flavor; oh yes, I can point to some small moments where I think “Hmn, it’s evident that this is performance, a real date wouldn’t go X or Y”. But here is the thing: I know, at the same time, I am watching a movie artificially depicting reality, so these glitches do not detract. I take them as, so to speak, flaws in the depiction of what should be smooth, flawless actuality.
I keep watching.
I am thrown for a bit of a loop when a kind of fiendish undertone enters the Documentary—when manipulations on the part of the Director are revealed, when absurd contracts demanding specific behaviors are discussed, when the Participants begin being forced into unethical situations, demeaning activities.
Things start seeming…Unreal. And this wounds me, because I had been so along for a ride that has now taken this most unexpected fork. (It’s much like the moment that can come in a fine horror film where, as good as the thrills may become, one cannot help be disappointed that the casual storyline of the couple driving cross country or the friends going out to a cabin in the wilderness is interrupted by the reason one knows the film exists for in the first place.)
And just as things are pushed to the point where I am wondering if I was right in what I thought I enjoyed about the film to begin with…everything changes. And these changes change the changes that had just changed.
Black and White goes away. Back comes widescreen, Full Color.
But what is shown is still presented as Documentary. And the people talking are all still the same Performers as before (though are now given title cards with their real names and the names of the Character’s the portrayed in the Black and White). And they are all talking about a movie, the same movie they talked about during the Opening Titles—only now it is revealed that this movie they are (and were) talking about is not the one being presented, here and now, In Color (which is also the one first depicted) but rather they are meaning one I just watched.
To be more clear: the Color Film is referring to the Black and White film. And in so is revealing that the Black and White film was all utter, scripted, unreality.
Which returns me to my observation about Naturalism-in-performance.
Those little glitches I mentioned earlier? Those times during the Black and White film where I felt the Actress smiled a little but shouldn’t have been, where the rhythm of scene played out a bit wonky, not quite passing the smell-test of seeming authentic?
Well, now I am made to question: were these rightly glitches in the performances if the performances were of a performance?
Not at all, I have to admit. In fact, these previous-blips, these seeming-breaks with Reality are now made even more deftly real. The Performers were performing performers-playing-to-the-camera. And they were doing so exactly as such a thing would be. They are being Naturalistic in depicting someone being unnatural.
This is made especially apparent as (in the Color Film) we now understand the Performers had compunctions about the project they were performing in and had disappointments with it (the same as did I while watching along with them). All of the glitches I noticed—the odd bumps in the storyline, the character details that seemed a touch less than real?—the Performers, themselves, now share these same exact thoughts about. The Actress, in fact, thinks the film she participated in was utter garbage; the Actor is perfectly pleased, though does not quite understand what the aim of it all was (and I, just to mention, am in the exact space between them, agreeing with neither, arguing with both).
The questions they raise are vital. Was the Black and White supposed to play as a real Documentary? If so: it failed (no one watching can disagree, however one might mitigate the degree of the failure). Was the Black and White supposed to be a mockumentary? Say it was: What would be the point of it? How is the Black and White going to get out there, be distributed? Does it matter? How should the Black and White be presented, when, regardless, it will be at the mercy of the opinions and reactions of the Audience, regardless of the Maker’s intent?
Arguments begin between Director and Performers, between Performer and Performer, and I sit watching them, wonderfully entertained. It is as though I am viewing a Documentary about the folks who made the Black and White film. Super fun! I, as Audience, settled comfortably in to thinking the veil has been lifted: This is now Reality, This is now meant to be presented as the Actual here-and-now.
And yet…why is what is filmed (the Color Film) being filmed—what is the aim of the thing? Some of the footage makes sense: the Documentary is about people making a Fake Documentary. But other aspects of what I am seeing…only kind of make ready sense.
Who assembled this footage, I cannot help but asking while I watch. Because while I Feel in-the-moment (i.e. watching a Narrative Film) there is a sense I just cannot get shut of that the scenes, the order of their presentation, all of it was Chosen (which of course…it was).
A question kept gnawing at me while I watched, trying to get a handle on whether this Color Film was meant to be Verite Style Narrative or Documentary Proper: “Who is making the Documentary about making the Fake Documentary?”
And as though sensing the growing pierce of this inquiry, the Director of the Fake Documentary (this is just after a catastrophic debate with the Cast and Crew of the Fake Documentary wherein it was basically decided to scuttle all artistic integrity and put out a film none of them were interested in and which they felt would be of interest to no one) looks directly down the barrel of the camera trained on him, accusatory finger pointed, telling (or so it seems) Me, the Audience, that “If I don’t get my movie, you don’t get yours, either!”
But…was the Director pointing at me—personally or as Collective Audience? Or was he pointing, flatly, at the Fictive Cameraman, at the crew of filmmakers who have been following him with their camera, their lighting and boom mic, documenting his attempts as a filmmaker?
Is this moment part of a Documentary I am watching or is it a forceful break from the faux-conceit of the film-in-the-film-in-the-film—is it a decisive moment of making me, as Audience, aware of myself, or is it just the depiction of something the Documentary crew captured in the “film’s actual-reality”? Am I watching the footage assembled by those who have been filming everything? Or is this a reminder that nothing I have been watching was meant to be ever taken as real?
Oh, it is a fun moment, no problem there: Am I watching a Fake Documentary about a Fake Documentary…or not? Was I ever even supposed to think Any of this was real? Headlong, ruthlessly and with giddy abandon I—and Audience-writ-large along with me—am thrown into meta-conversation of meta-cinema about meta-reaction.
(ASIDE: As not just a viewer of Cinema but a filmmaker, myself, I have to admit such quandaries as this moment presented are absolutely delicious—and when they come upon me unexpectedly, a special kind of thrill shoots through my veins. To be Invested, then to have that Investment betrayed, to become Reinvested, and then have this Reinvestment brought into question is absolutely delectable! It’s like feeling lost without feeling lost—which could well be the definition of imperative Underground Cinema)
And much in the same way as things got shaky in the Black and White film, motivations behind and reasons for what we have been witnessing start teetering toward disappointment and unraveling in the Color film, as well. With increasing agitation the question returns: Who IS filming all of this? Why ARE we watching it? What is the angle, the aim of the TOTAL FILM called Making of Waves—not the film-within-it or the film-within-the-film-within-it—and how are we to process and find footing with all of this?
For me, about the same time this tension reaches the point of shatter…
Suddenly, the film snaps and I am presented with something decidedly non-documentary in style. Two characters I have never seen before (portrayed, again marvelously, by Shari Nicholl and Travis MacCarl) look out the screen, speaking to each other, but seemingly fixated on something over my shoulder. It is disorienting and, with more aggression than the film’s previous breaks, it seems meant to personally agitate me. This new photography is stylishly composed, colored and lit to be unquestionably Cinematic—this is as far from Reality as possible, no bones, while at the same time claiming to be what has been reality, all along. Slick and polished, moody and on purpose, I find I have been yanked from the world (the worlds) of all I have been watching and forced (in multiple ways) to understand I am (and have been) watching a movie this whole while.
And these new characters? What could be the meaning of them? Mother and son kidnappers who seem to have been watching the film I have been watching, along with me, right up to the exact point of their appearance in it (though not in it), too. And the two entities seem to have been taking what they watched very, very seriously. And, more alarmingly, they seem to have been taking it (without having broken it intellectually into the two films it was) entirely Literally. And something else: it is difficult to tell, from the way they talk, how they understand their own identities—they seem to see themselves more as the Camera-that-had-been-filming (imbued with personality and omniscience) than as the Audience-who-had-been-watching all that has been shown prior to their arrival (invasion).
The difference between these two Characters and me? They have confuted the “reality” of what has been portrayed to them—they’ve “fallen for it” in a sense—believe more that they are Witnesses to Events than Audience to Scenes. And from this they feel they are entitled to Agency—to treat what has been shown them as Real and to utilize what they “Know” for their own purposes.
They think themselves blackmailers and conspire to ransom the Director. They have kidnapped the Actress (which the film does not give concrete commentary on, reinforcing through inaction the new terrain and rule-set the Cinema has now entered) and plan to use the filmed evidence (the movie I watched with them) of all of the Director’s dark and transgressive acts (both from the Black and White and Color films, they make no distinction and see no contradictions) against him.
Yes. We have landed in an avant garde film. Yes. We have landed in a Film, period, no more rhetoric of Real or Unreal. We are being told to only think of things—including OURSELVES—in symbolic, storyline terms.
Because: what do the kidnappers want?
A copy of the film.
Why? What on earth can this mean?
Well—in the truest sense, it doesn’t matter one damn bit. Because the Director we are watching being blackmailed, having demands made of him, is no longer the Director we have been watching (or the Director we thought we had been watching before that). Nor are the Actor or Actress still who they were. None of that world (those worlds) exist anymore. This movie does not touch on those movies—and even while it doesn’t, every frame of this movie positions those movies as part of the single movie they all are.
We have landed in Utter Fiction; the kidnappers have taken over! This is fiction informed by false reality which in turn was all presented by the same mind trying to give a semblance of reality through Art. We are watching a film watch itself, judge itself, and misunderstand itself—and we are, in tandem, doing the exact same thing.
There is no point explaining to anyone who hasn’t watched what happens in this third movie-in-a-movie. And to those who have watched, well…you already know: A beautiful, surreal, exquisitely photographed, terrifically symbolic showdown occurs (another essay could be joyously written breaking down all that could be unpacked from this sudden, intrusive, utterly unreal scene)—Gun fire! Death! Secret loves! Absurd heroics and amorous embraces! (another essay could be enthusiastically penned commenting on how each level of film-within-film stays separate but infects is successor, each overlap informing this impressionistic dazzle of a confrontation of theme and anti-theme)
No. There is no point explaining. And so the film and we along with it…
But: we are not done.
The film returns now, to that scene a viewer may recall from the end of the Opening Titles. The Director sets up a tripod and camera, the atmosphere is of Horror Cinema, of Celluloid Menace. The Director holds a paper mask of his face to his face.
And, symbolically, the camera takes the point-of-view of a screen looking out at a Viewer (in this case a young girl) and then switches to her point-of-view as she stares in apprehension at what is displayed in front of her: a grotesquely distorted voice and an image of face-masked-with-face gives a soliloquy on the reason behind all that has happened up to this point. On and on goes the Director’s goblin-esque voice—pontificating about Art, about Purpose, about the Necessity of Audience to give life to Creation.
Oh, we have all heard such things, before. And so many times over! Indeed (like with everything else in the film to this moment) almost to the point we want to roll our eyes, tell the screen it is prattling on a bit longwindedly, not showing or telling us anything new. Yes, for a tense minute or two this all seems a self-indulgent fart from a Director and Writer who will simply not let the Audience (which the voice is so belaboredly singing the praises of, so deifying) just be a fucking Audience! It seems like this is our Writer/Director telling us, as Audience, how to be an Audience. It is noia. Mistrust. It is villainous–and oh so much moreso than the kidnappers, who were mere Audience proxies who took their interpretation and ran with it.
But then it strikes me…this is not actually our Writer/Director making a statement. This macabre hobgoblin face glaring out at the little-girl-who-is-us is not the maker for Making of Waves moralizing to us how specifically we should appreciate his work. This Director is just another character, another mask over another mask over a Performer performing a performance.
This Director is, in effect, a horror creature. He is the inescapable uncertainty that binds Creator and Creation. He is the reminder that I—we, Audience—cannot take Art as a Statement without that statement being mine (and only mine) but at the same time cannot escape the reality that my—our, Audience’s—statement is nothing but hollow and screamed at ridiculous fantasy narratives or at a product that already exists and will forever go on existing without me (us, Audience).
No. An audience is not necessary.
This is a film letting us know that we are meaningless to it (even if we are meaningful to its Creators and their ambitions). And in its audacious cruelty, the film lets us know we have nothing to bring to it by telling us we are so very essential.
There is a moment in the center of the film somewhere (true to its trickster nature) where another message—and one which strikes me as the truth of the ambition behind the film actual—is presented. It comes in the Color film, during a sequence where the Director is breaking down, post-mortem, the purpose of the Black and White film with cast and crew. It is one of the moments where the veneer of the “reality” of the Documentary about making the Fake Documentary seems not to slip, but to blip into the satiric, one of the instances which made me wonder “Is this bit meant to be actual or is this all dark farce?” and so the statement the Director makes can play as though for its purpose in-the-moment while also touching on themes larger. The Director explains his rationale, his passionate and personal reason behind making the Black and White film and in doing so calls that film “the first movie made for His Generation” and details that its cautionary aspect of the dangers of meeting people on the internet is important, imperative, something that film—that Art—needs to begin addressing. Of course, as I could not help smirk at while watching, this is nothing new, these matters have been addressed to death in movies of all variety, and hence this moment played as a scene either of fine satire or else as a portrait of inept real-life mediocrity, desperate to find purpose.
But beyond these immediate and surface impressions, the speech also seemed to be an index. The actual film’s actual director, behind the mask of the Director-Character, was explaining, by conduit of the Filmmaker-Clown, what he, the Filmmaker-Proper, was after.
Because Making of Waves truly is a film highly for This Generation. And though not entirely singular (nothing ever is) the film is, for all intents and purposes, a new, imperative, and “first” commentary-on-and-for the world of Cinema as it exists in the contemporary moment. It is a film for-and-about an age in which every cinematic expression comes, a priori and prepackaged, with commentary and with commentary on the commentary—an age in which mere Content is interchangeable with Artistic Artifact by way of nothing more than shrugging and saying “What’s the difference? And anyway—what does the difference matter?”, an age in which there is no unselfconsciousness because one must be self-conscious even of how they express their unselfconscious aspects, and an age in which there is no way to preserve or express genuineness except through multiple layers of finely tuned façade. It is a film that says one cannot be genuine if one cannot prove they are genuine—and in this, it runs into the same trouble G.K. Chesterton (to name one) so deftly pointed out more than a hundred years ago: that it is always easier for someone who is not genuine to prove to everyone that they are genuine than it is for the truly genuine person with no reason to prove to make themselves seem genuine to anyone.
It struck me, as one viewer, that (and yes, sadly) This is exactly the terrain where the modern Audience finds itself. These are the conditions which need be navigated before one can get down to a simple, heartfelt core. Contortion upon contortion, cynical presupposition of argument-before-argument, facing the reality that only Unreality will pass for reality in the oblivion-laden straits where contemporary Art and Cinema interface with an Audience that wants to know all before experiencing anything. “Give the Audience what they want” is the New Way, it seems, with the addendum “just don’t let the Audience decided what that is or have time to process whether it is what they received.”
Yes, Making of Waves, the actual film, is a new expression (a confrontational one) of the latest head of the Hydra of disenfranchisement from ability to interface with anything other than one’s own opinion of someone else’s opinion of something. It is a rendition-of and meditation-on the endless, paralyzing, choking serpent-spiral of wanting to Have without Experiencing, wanting to Experience without Enduring—wanting to know oneself without the need for investigating who that is. It is a filmic statement of the naked terror (nevermind how humorous and pleasant to experience it may be) encountered when realizing that the fact is, nowadays, that many people prefer a lie to an actuality. That is where the hands on the clock have come to and Art has to Express this, though is under no obligation to have anything but resistance to Embracing it.
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