Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act

Today sees the release of my friend Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act on DVD (and for rent on iTunes!), which remains one of my favorite films of the year after a recent second viewing. Originally, I was planning to do a longform dialogue with another writer for a publication on my thoughts as well as his two other films, but the circumstances between my relationship with Dan when I first saw the film and now are quite different. Before, I had only met Dan once and only spoke to him briefly. Now I see him quite often, and feel it would be improper, especially given “recent” fights about the relationship between filmmakers and critics, to write about the film for a publication without a very long disclosure. (There’s also a case of I’m currently working a paid project assigned by one of the collaborators on The Unspeakable Act, meaning now I really should recuse myself from writing about the film professionally).

However, there are a few things to say here. First of all there’s the Cinephiliacs episode Dan and I did back in February, which is a very excellent listen.  Secondly, I did excerpt some notes I had from my discarded piece on it:

The Unspeakable Act deals with what seems like a very troubling narrative: the longings of a young girl toward her older brother to the point of incest, but like all three of Dan’s films, he treats it with reverence and respect to actually explore the psychology. In a way, all three films are sort of about the problem of incestuous relationships. Honeymoon tells the story of two best friends who finally decide to break taboo and get married, and then find themselves utterly (and often hilariously) confused when the sex turns out to be terrible. All The Ships At Sea follows two sisters reuniting for the first time in years after one has spent many years in a cult. The three films thus manage the territory between how much you know about someone so close to you, and how much you often really don’t know about them. Even our closest relationships can be distant from us in ways we can’t even expect.

The framing in his films can be harsh, but they’re also honest. His compositions are often very flat and pointedly centered, so what is revealed is often through color (both Unspeakable Act and All the Ships at Sea have some of the best choices in clothes that express the state of the character I can recall in recent film, as to opposed to simply “pretty” clothes), editing (ping pong match shot-reverse shot done right), lighting (simply look at the two last confrontations between Jackie and Matt and how distinctive the lighting changes, despite being the same room). Watching the sex scene in The Unspeakable Act a second time proved even more revealing: a dark-lit long take in which we have to endure the entire awkwardness, but because nothing explicit is shown, there is tenderness present as well (as opposed to the confrontational approach in Swanberg’s nudity).

The performative aspects of Jackie – her voiceover*, her doe-eyed stares, and the way her vocal inflections are decidedly more enunciated than the rest of the family – seem to be the key to unlocking the film. For example, there are three scenes that address Jackie’s bulimia/anorexia: her vomiting with the door open (so everyone can hear and perhaps see) during the first dinner, her sitting down to lunch with her mother and sister and then announcing “I’m not hungry,” and then her sneaking food in the middle of the night (so no one can see that she only refuses to eat for the “performance”).What troubles her is how little interest her audience seems to take – Matt seems to be the only one that indulges in her “narrative,” her sister and mother mostly absent. And what The Unspeakable Act’s narrative seems to really focus on is how Jackie and Matt negotiate this territory—how far will she push him, and how far will he play along.

That’s all you get, but here is what is important.

THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT – On DVD here and on iTunes here.

ALL THE SHIPS ON SEA – Included in the Act DVD, but you can also watch on Amazon Instant.

HONEYMOON – On Amazon Instant.

*I also have a theory that Jackie’s entire voiceover is actually what we see her mother writing, but that’s probably a reach.

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