Better Things and the Emotion of Artistry

Duane Hopkins’ first feature-length film has, rather unsurprisingly, been butchered by the press. Not butchered in the sense that it has received bad reviews; in fact, most of the reviews have been more positive than not. I use the term butchered more for the act of separation, dissection and castration that it suggests. The film has been pared down to its most base and accessible elements, and the beauty of the beast as a whole has been utterly neglected.

Better Things is described, almost unanimously, as a social-realist film, to be shelved alongside Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and the Dardennes. But there is nothing kitchen sink about this film. There is nothing mundane. The content may belong to this genre, but the film’s style distances it from it greatly. The description can only hold, it seems, if one were to posit the film as the protagonist of a social-realist text, rather than the text itself: the complex and tragic character striving for ‘better things’ but being held back at every step by ignorant, exterior forces. Think of it as Billy Elliot, being forced to engage in violence when all it wants to do is dance; being pigeon-holed as ‘social-realist’ when really it is art.

Variety criticises the film as ‘obfuscating’ the plot and characters due to ‘overwrought editing’ – an argument perfect for elaborating -this point. Better Things should not be read as a classical narrative text with plot-driven editing and a denouement. A much more useful reading would treat it as a series of almost still images, edited together in a rapid, photomontage fashion, similar to that of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. This reading is supported by, and partly stems from, the predominance of the film’s painterly references.

Artistic quotations come thick and fast throughout, and build a collage of association, a cadavre exquis, if you will, of possible readings. The English countryside drifts from pastoral scenes – reminiscent of Gainsborough or Constable – to grandiloquent, tempestuous shots, evoking Caspar David Friedrich and the bold style of other late Romantics. Our concept of the Cotswolds as a quaint holiday destination is subverted and mutates into something new. The landscape becomes bold, savage and overbearing – a notion in fitting with Gail’s agoraphobia – and serves to isolate the impotent characters in a merciless world. Nature, as felt by the Romantics, and as suggested here, is violent, untamable and all-powerful; the influence of the individual dwindles in its presence.

Interiors are also subjected to artistic reference; this time to subvert their status as sanctuary and render them cold, impersonal and surgical. Bearing striking similarity to the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi (and his most important influence, Vermeer), they are saturated with a steely blue light. Sharp angles and stark composition dominate, rendering any personal touches (ash-trays, dog-eared books, assorted trinkets) appear absurd and incongruous. A stillness is at work in Hammershøi’s art, as it is in Better Things; but it is not a tranquil stillness – it tingles with anxiety, regret and melancholia. Shocking, devastating events have occurred in these rooms and the inhabitants can no longer remain within them without being constantly reminded of the past. With both film and paintings these events are only hinted at – the audience receives no explanation, no depiction, no flashback. But the memory of pain, and its present articulation of sadness, becomes part of the spaces themselves, held rigid in the geometric solidity of light and air, forming an inescapable atmosphere of melancholia.

The notion of death is also imbued with significant meaning due to the film’s use of artistic reference. Its ever-looming presence is not the frightful, tragic end that awaits unsuspecting fools – as it would be in a social-realist film – but a rapturous vision of freedom and escape. Numerous shots bear striking resemblance to religious iconography, most notably the Maria Dolorosa, whose glazed eyes and beseeching expression are readily apparent on the faces of the victims of heroin overdoses. Gazing towards heaven, they dream of better things. The use of drugs in the film is in fitting with this concept, as it becomes a means of achieving release and is imbued with a transcendental quality. It is less tragic than cathartic and serves as an act of martyrdom in respect of a melancholy nature; of characters bursting with sadness, crushed under a looming sky, trapped in prisons of regret, with nothing other than escape to achieve. It is no surprise, therefore, that the final shot should end on the film’s most vivid and direct quotation – that of Henry Wallis’ Chatterton.

The crescendo of associative editing that leads to the film’s emotional cadence (made all the more devastating due to the actor’s subsequent death in real life) uses this painting as a final round-up of its themes. Thomas Chatterton was an 18th century poet who struggled to gain recognition in his time and took his own life with an arsenic overdose at the tender age of 17. He was canonised as a martyr to his art, who exemplified the melancholy temperament of youth. Rob’s death, when drawn in comparison to Chatterton’s, and when juxtaposed with so much religious iconography and inhospitable realms, becomes a glorification of release; the crushing weight of the world dissipates into a pure, brilliant void of whiteness, weightless and calm.

Whilst a reading of Better Things certainly benefits from knowledge of the numerous works that it quotes, an analysis relating to specific works should not be a requirement. Variety‘s failure to recognise the film’s artistry, and engage with it on any other level than the pedestrian, articulates the manner in which feature-length films are treated by many publications today. A lack of patience and a reluctance to read further than that which is explicitly decreed will render anything but the most banal cultural products, through cynicism, indolence and a lack of emotional awareness, null and void.

By Rochester_C_Quipps


~ by Mary J Bilge on February 13, 2009.

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