17 September 2010
Say you’ve got a strange little nagging pain in your abdomen that won’t go away for a few days. Who isn’t going to engage in a little doomsday thinking: I’m dying of cancer and I don’t know who’s going to take care of the dog when I’m in the hospital. Or say you’re going for a swim, and you feel something brush against your leg in the dark water below: It’s a poisonous snake and when it bites me, I’ll sink to the bottom and no one will ever find my body. Sarah Watt’s deceptively sweet film, “Look Both Ways” — the winner of piles of international prizes — probes some of the ways we deal with death, over-anticipate disaster, and screw ourselves up in the meantime.
No wonder we anticipate disaster: it’s on the news all the time. In this film, it’s a miserably hot summer weekend in Adelaide, South Australia, and the news channels are preoccupied with covering a train crash so awful that they’re still searching through the wreckage for survivors (and bodies). Footage of the crash and snippets from the news haunt the edges of the film, darkening the more immediate anxieties its characters have on their minds: Meryl (Justine Clarke, above), an illustrator, is returning from her father’s funeral; Nick (William McInness), a newspaper photographer, has just learned he has cancer; and journalist Andy (Anthony Hayes), still wrestling with his ex-wife over child visitation, has just learned that his new girlfriend, Anna (Lisa Flanagan) is pregnant, which only makes their uncomfortable relationship all the worse.
You’d think that these anxieties might be enough, but the film’s lonely characters also engage in doomsday fantasies that are alternately grim and funny. As she walks home under the train tracks, Meryl imagines the train falling to crush her; entering the pool, she imagines a shark biting her in two — all displayed for us in quickie animated shorts that look like Meryl’s own watercolors. Nick’s fears of death appear as memories of his dying father and rapid-fire photo montages suited to his photographer’s eye. It’s not just that these inserted imaginary moments tell us more about each character and his/her inner life — although they accomplish that with stunning effect and efficiency. They somehow capture the twists and turns of the minds of lonely and imaginative people, and they make you think about your own imaginary scenarios. As an animator herself whose many previous films are all animated shorts, writer-director Watt turns what might have been merely whimsical or gimmicky in someone else’s hands (remember similar moments in “Amelie” and “Run Lola Run”?) into something both revelatory and familiar to those of us with our own overactive imaginations.
The characters come together when Meryl — in the midst of imagining that a man with a dog in the distance transforms into a masked rapist who attacks her — is jolted out of it by witnessing him get hit and killed by a passing train, and Nick and Andy appear on the scene on behalf of their newspaper. Nick’s especially drawn to Meryl when he finds one of her watercolors in the trash outside her apartment: a beautiful image of a stormy sea, with miniature figures both drowning and waving, so evocative of his own sense of dislocation and worry. Their conversations and their budding, tentative relationship — like so many of the other interactions between characters — seem to be marked more by what they won’t say than what they will, so it’s no surprise that Nick won’t tell Meryl that he’s got cancer. He can barely think about it himself except when he goes running — scenes that capture so perfectly his loneliness, his grasping attempt to retain some normalcy, his growing sense of despair.
A funny, sweet film about death: how did Watt do it? I can’t help but see the stamp of her animator sensibility in virtually every scene — a quirky attention to background detail, like the colors of train cars or the arrangement of warning signs on a building — indicating that her characters’ imaginations have been tilted, heightened, perverted by their circumstances. Watt explained in a 2006 interview that making animated shorts is “a megalomaniac’s –- a shy megalomaniac’s — form of filmmaking, because you don’t actually have to talk to anyone, and you can wait until it is perfect before you show it to anyone” — so making a live-action, full-length film required her to exercise new muscles. “I had to dump that personality and take up a collaborative one,” she says. She shows that transformation taking place with her characters on screen as well — moving beyond their comfort zones, failing to look both ways, skinning their knees and getting up again.
I feel as if I’m on a quest to uncover all those film gems created by women directors and screenwriters, and featuring unexpectedly magnificent female characters — films that suffer from what I’ve started to think of as the Franzen Effect. Like the overwhelming media attention to certain (male) author/darlings, like Jonathan Franzen, female filmmakers and actors just don’t get the rabid media attention of, say, a Ben Affleck or David Fincher — or even the new film “Animal Kingdom” by Watt’s fellow Australian, David Michôd. Stumbling across “Look Both Ways” on Netflix — and finding out that this unknown-to-me film had won some twenty-one international film prizes — reminds me yet again of the importance of drawing attention to films by women … but I’ll save my full-fledged rant on this subject for a later time.