“A line does not occupy space; it defines it.”
In the advertising world, there’s something the scares the crap out of clients: blank space.
“Can we put something in the top half? It looks a little empty,” they might say. “Shouldn’t we make the discount burst a little bigger?” Or even, “It’s great, but I think it could jump out a little more.” And that’s how a strong ad concept turns into an instruction manual.
Clients become terrified that customers will not interpret a message in a specific way, aiming all manner of doubt at their audience’s intelligence. Yet some of the most effective campaigns in advertising history were practically bare: The Economist, I’m a Mac, Nike’s “Just do it.” Incidentally, none of these companies bothered to offer discounts.
In art, negative space is the space around a subject. In certain exercises, students are taught to see that space as an artistic entity in itself. It adds weight to the subject. It defines its role on the canvas. It allows you to zero in on an idea.
There were two movies at Ebertfest that struck me with a penchant for riffing on that negative space, not to mention a palpable faith in their audience: Tiny Furniture and 45365. Neither of these felt the need to take you by the hand and guide you through their narratives, and these pictures were so tightly focused that it wouldn’t have been necessary anyhow.
It’s fitting that one of my fellow Far-Flung Correspondents described Tiny Furniture as a series of “white people problems.” Of course, he was right. The main character Aura, played by writer-director Lena Dunham, returns home to NYC after completing her Fine Arts degree at a college in Ohio. She’s also just been dumped by her hippy boyfriend, who’s going to work on a hippy project involving trees. Her mother is a famed artist, whose success managed to score the posh multi-level apartment Aura comes home to. Her life screams privilege and culture. All that’s missing is refinement, as evidenced by her bratty behaviour.
Aura is surrounded by blank space, literally. Her mother’s apartment is rife with white surfaces, from the walls to the floors and counters. It frames the characters and amplifies their proportions. It lets the dialogue’s constant subtext cameo its way to the surface. For instance, when Aura asks her mother where the scotch tape is, her mother tells her it’s in the white cupboard. What’s funny is that there are, of course, about 15 identical cupboards to choose from. What’s telling is that Aura knows exactly which one to open.
The white space also serves to highlight Aura’s isolation. It’s here that she works through her post-graduate confusion, disobeys her mother’s reasonable ground rules, and loses an existential turf war against her younger sister. In the same way, her romantic endeavours fail because of a her inability to assert herself, because she keeps using the words that exist outside the ones she should say.
The documentary 45365 comes from the vérité tradition, which has become a rarity in the past few years. Lately, it seems documentary funding falls mostly in favour of political exposés with talking heads, panning still images and little room for free association. There isn’t anything wrong with that – like most people, I enjoyed Supersize Me and what should be its companion, Food Inc. - but this trend looks less like cinema and more like a special report on the nightly news.
Directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, 45365 takes place in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, bearer of the eponymous zip code. Having left that town years ago, presumably to pursue motion picture dreams, it would have been easy for the Ross brothers to portray Sidney with an air of condescension or to turn it into a message movie. Some of the perennial ingredients are even there: poverty, drug deals, an election. Instead, 45365 chooses to show us the intermingling realities of this small town. It follows certain people and their story arcs, it captures clips of non-contextualized conversations and it eavesdrops on intimate moments. There are no gimmicks or scandals, and it’s riveting. The Ross brothers are enchanted by their hometown, as are we.
In this film, negative space is everything we don’t know about these charming little vignettes. It’s everything we have to imagine or infer. Once we’ve gone through the exercise, we realize that what was in the final reel is all we really needed to understand the story. And not a drop more.
Both Tiny Furniture and 45365 rely heavily on pitch-perfect cinematography to heighten the viewing experience. It may seem like a given, but when you consider that a stunning movie like Inception spent most of its time telling rather than showing, you have to wonder.
What I especially appreciate is how the directors of both films trusted us with their experiments in rustic storytelling. Do we need their help in grasping some of the finer points? Not really. And we got there anyway.