Thursday, March 9, 2017

Chazelle and Jenkins not so different

I saw Barry Jenkins' first film last night, and you know what it reminded me of?

Damien Chazelle's first film.


It would seem that the two directors share something more in common than both thinking their movies had won best picture last week. (Jenkins got to hold on to that feeling; Chazelle, not so much, but having just won best director must have helped diminish his disappointment.)

During awards season, a narrative cropped up that the two best picture frontrunners, Moonlight and La La Land, had a meaningful diametric opposition to each other. In part because of unrelated factors that speak more to our society at large, one was seen as the black movie, the other blindingly white; one as the flight of fancy that leaves behind our current problems, the other as the one that delves into them chest deep.

But having just watched Medicine for Melancholy, I have to wonder if the "authors" of those two works are really more similar than they are different.

First, a one-sentence synopsis of each. Medicine for Melancholy is about a man named Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and a woman named Jo (Tracey Higgins) who sleep together at a party, separate awkwardly after breakfast, then spend the day together when he returns the purse she left behind in the cab they shared. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Chazelle's debut, charts through song the end of a three-month relationship -- or is it the end? -- between a jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and a listless introvert looking for work (Desiree Garcia).

Jenkins' first film premiered at South by Southwest almost exactly nine years ago, but made its theatrical debut nearly a year later at the end of January 2009. Only three months later, Chazelle's debut bowed.

The films have a lot more in common than the timing of their respective releases.

Both are very clearly independent films, focusing primarily on a small-scale relationship between a man and a woman. It's not just that they obviously were made on a budget; it's that they wear their independent credentials on their sleeves, as both movies were also shot in black and white as a conscious artistic choice. Jenkins intersperses a bit of red, though I'm not entirely sure to what purpose.

Chazelle's movie is a musical and Jenkins' an atmospheric slice-of-life romance, but their forms are still very similar, both reserving a number of shots for the picturesque surroundings of the cities they're set in, Boston and San Francisco respectively. In fact, you could say the old chestnut about "the location being its own character" applies to both films.

Both movies also have a significant affection for music, Guy and Madeline very textually (Guy plays the trumpet) and Medicine subtextually (the leads discuss music on several occasions and dance to indie rock). Jenkins' use of the score in Moonlight certainly indicates that he has the same type of obvious affinity for music that Chazelle has.

And you know what? In Chazelle's movie, Guy is black and Madeline is white. That may be an unexpected result for people who were fed the very flawed line of reasoning that La La Land was somehow a racist or fascist movie. Yes, there are some problematic bits about the white guy saving jazz and the black guy selling it out, but I don't think those are quite as straightforward as they seem. From the evidence of Guy and Madeline, Chazelle appears to be very comfortable working across racial lines, and he probably would have been just as happy to cast interracial leads in La La Land if he thought he could still get the financial backing to make the project he wanted to make.

The interesting thing is that the interracial coupling between Guy and Madeline is a bone of contention for Jenkins that he addresses very pointedly in Medicine. Micah and Jo have very opposite perspectives on the role race plays in their lives, and the extent to which they must grapple with it. Micah is not what you would call militant, but he never hides his views about race and his own potential disenfranchisement -- when asked what single word describes him, he chooses "black" even more fundamentally than "man." Jo, on the other hand, considers her race incidental to her, and is even committing the cardinal sin of dating (and living with) a white man (upon whom she's cheating with Micah). Micah laments how blacks make up only 7% of the population of San Francisco, and that this leads to more interracial dating than he's comfortable with.

So I guess if Jenkins' perspective is to be taken literally, even the interracial dating in Guy and Madeline would not necessarily win Chazelle any points. Then again, that's only if Jenkins' perspective is to be considered the same as Micah's perspective. There are indications that Jenkins finds flaws in the way Micah sees the world, and some appealing aspects to the way Jo views it -- but of course he wouldn't write the characters' words in the first place if he didn't believe them on some level.

The most obvious thing the two have in common is that they very much seem to be cutting their teeth on these first movies, and it shows. Low-key almost to a fault, the movies win points for a certain verisimilitude (even though one is a musical!) but not necessarily for really sticking with you afterward. Both filmmakers have really blossomed since then, Chazelle in two near-masterpieces (Whiplash also) and Jenkins in one so far. Will be really interested to see what Jenkins offers us next. It will be complex to be sure.

To end on a difference between them, though -- there's a clear disparity in intention here. Jenkins remains interested in grappling with social ills, as demonstrated in the Medicine undercurrent about gentrification and affordable housing. Chazelle wants to entertain first and foremost, though he clearly has a lot of ideas about the struggles and sacrifices of the artist.

They aren't trying to do the same thing, but they're both really good filmmakers, and the differences between them aren't as simple as black and white.

Nor are they, in any fundamental way, even differences.

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