Bright Lights Film Journal

In Passing (2011) and the Remodernist Film Manifesto

“It is the tunnel vision, the burrowing into specific obsessions, of In Passing’s individual filmmakers, combined with the broad scope of the collaborative form, that constitute the film’s unique allure.”

In Passing is the first feature-length film (75 minutes) inspired by the Remodernist film manifesto (although Bela Tarr alluded to the manifesto in the production notes for his The Turin Horse at the Berlinale last year). As such, In Passing constitutes a kind of manifesto itself; an opening gambit rather than a checkmate. Remodernism, in short, is a rejection of what is perceived as the cynicism of postmodernism and its endless recycling of images and tropes, divorced from context, urgency, and pungency. The movement’s roots are in painting (and the notion that an artist has to paint, as opposed to creating conceptual works), but the its ideals have been transplanted to film by Jesse Richards, who wrote the Remodernist film manifesto in 2008 and produced In Passing.

With an omnibus film — the directors include Heidi Beaver (U.S.), Christopher Michael Breer (U.S.), Dean Kavanagh (Ireland), Rouzbeh Rashidi (Iran/Ireland), Roy Rezaali (Netherlands), Peter Rinaldi (U.S.), and Kate Shults (U.S.) — one expects a title card separating one director’s work from another. It says something about the Remodernists that in this film, one filmmaker’s work tends to bleed into the others’, and while there are distinct shifts in mood, style, and even medium throughout the film, it’s not always clear when one section has become another.

The film begins in a strangely stilted fashion; there’s something about cinematic depictions of waking and going about a morning routine that never quite works. But then we see our protagonist at breakfast; the framing emphasises the table, crudely cutting off her face. A tiny crustacean begins crawling around on the table. Suddenly, an element of the uncanny, of the unpredictable, has been introduced. This opening strategy recalls Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This Is Not a Film, which also has a stilted beginning; it’s a solipsistic self -portrait of Panahi until the director realises he just isn’t inspired, and so calls his friend Mirtahmasb, asking him to bring his camera and participate. From here on out there is a marked difference in the way the film feels. This Is Not a Film and In Passing are two of the most recent celebrations of film as collaborative art, in an era when auteurist assumptions still run deep.

The Remodernist manifesto celebrates the Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi (the aesthetic of the imperfect, hence the film’s recourse to scratchy 8mm footage) and more importantly mono no aware. The Japanese celebrate the bittersweet transience of life through the latter concept, focusing on objects rather than emotional states of characters. In Passing celebrates this transience too; there’s an awareness of life’s passing and the sense of urgency and the fearful status that can create, but there’s also an interest in transient places; there’s the girl who seems to live in a picturesque cottage, but right next to an enormous foreboding grey wall, or what seems like a (mostly depopulated) California suburb, with unsettling musique concrete announcing the arrival of a new resident, seemingly from nowhere.

In one sequence, two men meet in a park. One is hiring the other to collect a debt for him. They discuss the details, and it becomes clear that the man doesn’t really care what his hired hand does in order to recover the money; his debtor might be beaten, even killed. We watch their conversation unfold at a distance, as though eavesdropping from the undergrowth. This is one of many hints at the more disturbing themes that lurk beneath Remodernism’s purported aim to restore beauty to the forefront of the filmmaker’s agenda. Toward the end of the film, there’s another sequence that deals with the transience of life directly. A poignant portrait of an elderly man, confined to his bed. It’s bookended by 16mm footage of a young, handsome man, his clothes and car emblematic of a certain kind of nostalgic Americana.

At the risk of breaking a butterfly on a wheel, it’s worth demonstrating just how much of an achievement In Passing is by contrasting it with the recent, Ridley Scott-produced Life in a Day. The producers canvassed the public for footage that would demonstrate the rich variety of life on the planet in a single day. Falling over itself to “celebrate” life, it merely reduces it to a series of stock images that have always already been plundered in stock commercials. It is the tunnel vision, the burrowing into specific obsessions, of In Passing‘s individual filmmakers, combined with the broad scope of the collaborative form, that constitute the film’s unique allure.

In Passing‘s final section is its most self-reflexive, but also its most successful section. A woman’s voice complains about the strain her relationship seems to be under — her mate is obsessed with filming her, with filming everything. A kind of creepy irony sets in as we see her enter her apartment, captured on a hidden camera, as the voiceover continues. The film the man is making just isn’t working. But when a passerby gawks into the camera, talking to the filmmaker and disrupting the planned shot, it’s only in this disruption that the film seems to come alive. There’s one final image of lovers on a beach (clearly not during summer), and then the film ends. In Passing seems to come full circle in that the tabletop crustacean and intrusive passerby both seem to vindicate the unplanned, the collaborative, and the minute, poignant detail. Ultimately, In Passing proves that a consideration of the medium’s properties is not incompatible with a powerful emotional experience.