Comments and Critiques
A few years ago I got a request to buy a copy of Coming to Terms. On sending it off, as usual, I asked that once they’d seen the film, I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments, good or bad. A few weeks ago, the following arrived in my email (I asked for permission to post, and got the nod to do so):
I hope all is well. I ordered “Coming To Terms” from you back in 2014, and as per request (and my promise) here is my humble film buff review just 2 short years later!
Here are random thoughts:
The first thing I thought of as I was watching ‘Coming To Terms‘ was Tarkovsky’s ‘Nostalghia‘, because both films require that you put away all preconceptions about what a film is supposed to be in terms of structure/ 3-act format/ pacing and rhythm conventions. As a result I found myself settling into the film’s own internal rhythms and ‘storytelling method’ and as such, received a much more rewarding experience. Both films are exquisitely photographed, breathtaking in many of their vista shots and beautiful lighting. And both films require that you bring something of yourself to the table in order to appreciate what they have to offer. What I mean by that is, for me, ‘ ‘ will not allow me to just sit back and wait for the film to tell me what to think. It respects me enough to work things out for myself. Example: after the beautiful opening of the bright, expansive clouds, a man (James Benning character) is seen sitting at a breakfast table eating a bowl of soup or something. He is in thought, but about what? There is no other context in the scene for what he is thinking, why he is alone, what is important about this shot, etc. Similarly, the external shots of the town where they live, which are intercut between scenes of interaction with the other characters, also offer no explanation, but taken as a whole, works to immerse me into the world of the characters both internally (spiritually) and externally.
The individual shots of various locations around the city are incredible. My eyes are allowed to take it all in, absorb the world of the characters, and in a sense feel the environment that they left years earlier. I get an idea of the soul of the place, and the soul of the characters, without one word being spoken. Something that cannot be described, just felt. As I was watching it I felt myself ‘peeling away’ any resistance to want to speed things up. The benefits of ‘resting’ into this rhythm was great.
Also, the placement of the camera and blocking of the characters in the discussion scenes emphasizes (for me) the strains that exists between them, and– along with the rhythm of their conversation– represents an emotional reality that is deeper than anything that can be done in the conventional 2-shot angle/reverse angle format.
The beautiful slow dissolves of the painterly deep rich tan mountainsides, and the tall trees in the forest alternating from soft to hard contrasty lighting as the Benning character moves from life to death, along with the patterns of light through the veil-like ‘cloth’ overlaid on his face, is an example of something that has to be seen to be appreciated for its beauty. It is poetry in images. No exaggeration.
The various dissolve shots of the white curtain slowly fluttering in the gentle breeze by the window near the end of the film with the voiceover of the Benning character was a brilliant visual that -again, for me, represented a picture of a veil coming down from between the remaining four characters, forcing them to deal with each other in all of their ‘naked’ feelings about what just happened. I hesitate to look at this as a representation, because I don’t want to abstract an image or a scene that wasn’t meant to be forced into some sort of meaning, however, in the spirit of this non-conventional approach to telling a story, this is what I gathered from it.
There are a ton more things I can say that I loved about it that I can put in bullet points if interested, but I wanted to get these main points out first. First rate film. Now, I’ll have to order others. I already have Homecoming and Sure Fire (yet to see them).
Question: what equip did you use to shoot this with? Would love to know….
(Answer: Sony XDcam1)
Anyway, should be ordering more stuff soon.
G Curtis Wilson
I then encouraged him to send along other thoughts, and received this:
A few more points:
-James Benning as the Father was perfect, a dead-on perfect match. As was Ryan Harper Gray, Roxanne Rogers, Kathryn Sannella, Stephen Taylor. There seems to have been a lot of room given for each of them to contribute their own understanding of their characters (assumption mine) because it felt completely unrehearsed, natural, an extension of the unforced pace of the film.
-The characters interaction with one another in terms of their placement and angle of view contributed greatly to the emotional impact, and was in prefect harmony with all the other elements within the shot(s): the lighting, the dialogue, their movement, all of which would fall apart if one emphasis was placed above the other.
-There are very few films I see that can convey the emotional power of the close up without relying a lot on the actors ‘convincing’ the audience to ‘feel what they feel’. Some masters of the close up for me are: Robert Bresson (‘Pickpocket‘, ‘Trial of Joan of Arc‘, ‘Mouchette‘), Tarkovsky (‘Nostalgia‘), Bergman (‘Sawdust & Tinsel‘, ‘Persona‘). A bad one for me would be Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. It occurred to me that it is probably easy to screw up a close up. However, while watching ‘Coming To Terms‘ I was really taken back by how effective your use of the close up was, and wondered just what went into your decision to frame them in that way. I suspect a lot of it was organic, as you worked out what the actors should say, how they should say it, pacing, etc. Anyway, LOVED the close-ups.
-This film is for me a cinematic version of Jazz, dissonant jazz music in particular, in that it is best felt rather than being guided through wth a melodic (conventional story) line. (‘The Cinema of Dissonance’? Hmmm…)
-Even though there still is very much a story with a beginning, middle, and end, the emotional impact is expressed in the ‘discordant’ phrases : the shots surrounding the characters relationship with one another. I just loved(!) the bold choice of remaining on James Benning in the beginning as he ate his meal.
In the 3 years since Coming to Terms was finished it has shown at a handful of smaller festivals around the world, and at maybe 15 to 20 in-person screenings, most of them very thinly attended. I’d guess that well less than 1000 people have ever seen it in that time. This in part owing to the cultural moment we are living in, in which the Magical Market Economy warps everything, and the value of all things is measured only in money. It has bent the current American election like a pretzel (the Donald = eyeballs for TV = $ for advertising), just as it long ago warped the arts world into the dazzle of celebrity and the ever so important matter of big big money. I accept that is the world as presently constituted – I accept and think it is a serious pathological situation, which expresses itself across our culture, and if not checked, is in effect our collective death notice. Coming to Terms obliquely addresses that.
Making work like this film, in the measures applied today, is more or less a thankless and losing endeavor. As little as the film cost to make – a few thousand bucks – I think I am still in the hole on it. And the actors didn’t get paid, etc. So certainly in those terms it is a loss. But, when receiving notes like the one printed here from Curtis – and it isn’t the only one – I get, and I hope my friends the actors and others who helped in making it, get a kind of reward. For me it isn’t a matter of ego, but some kind of indefinable satisfaction in making something serious about our lives, and knowing that the manner in which it was done penetrates others, so that it is shared in a profound sense.* So my thanks to Kate and Rox and Ryan and Steve and James, and to Marshall and Hal, and a handful of others, for helping make this work possible, and to the writer of this for having written these comments and sending them on to me. It does really make a difference.
* I really dislike superficial plaudits, which are endemic to the film world, and being uninterested in pats on the back, have sharp antennae for BS.