2018 Film Essays

Imitation of Life: The Films of Frank Mosley

The short films of Frank Mosley are miracles of economy. Finely observed, conceptually audacious and formally assured, Mosley’s filmmaking reflects a remarkable maturity and ambition rarely exhibited in the contemporary landscape of low-budget American cinema. His three most recent projects — Casa De Mi Madre (2017), Parthenon (2017) and Spider Veins (2016) — form a loose thematic trilogy, delving into the issues of performance, transference, grief and the slippery nature of memory. Although rooted in traditional notions of character psychology and emotional affect, these films are also deeply experimental in their employment of structure and abstraction of spatiotemporal relations.

Partheon is split into two halves, divided almost exactly down the middle of the 14-minute runtime. In the first section, an unnamed couple (played by Lily Baldwin and Thiago Martins) engage in playful foreplay, which escalates into something increasingly aggressive. At the height of their passion, the man playfully chokes the woman, who responds by biting down hard on his arm. He recoils in pain, and angrily begins to make his exit. She is filled with remorse and grabs onto him in an attempt to keep him from leaving, but he fights her off. In a last ditch effort to garner his sympathies, she collapses onto the ground and mimes a seizure. The sequence plays out with minimal dialogue, with Baldwin remaining entirely silent in order to communicate entirely with her body, and Martins only delivering a few lines. As such, the argument plays out less like a conventional scene than an expressionistic dance piece — the design of the apartment, with its bare white walls and wood-panelled floors, even resembles a theatre stage. The camera tracks their motions in a series of wide two-shots, capturing their body movements with striking agility and spontaneity. In this short scene, Mosley skilfully paints a compacted portrait of a relationship marred by a failure of communication. Baldwin’s character (officially credited as The Model) is willing to give herself over entirely to her lover and longs to be engaged in open, mutual communication, but he (officially credited as The Lover) refuses to engage with her on the level she desires. The major problem afflicting this relationship is revealed to be one of presence: Baldwin uses her body to express her feelings, but feels that her expressions of love aren’t being returned.

The second half of the short similarly revolves around issues of objectification, agency and the breakdown of communication. Another wordless, intimate encounter takes place, though this time in a public space, as Baldwin’s character poses nude for an art class. As a crowd of students sketch her visage, Mosley cuts to a series of close-ups which fragment her body into smaller pieces, forming a substantial contrast with the wide shots employed earlier to preserve the unity of the human form. Although they are all looking at the same model, each student produces a unique sketch of Baldwin, filtered through their own distinct artistic style and subjective perceptions of her.

The camera eventually settles on one of the students — a young woman played by Tallie Medel (The Artist), who seems unable to draw. As the camera aligns with Medel’s perspective, Mosley presents the first full shot of Baldwin, revealing her posture to be one of power and defiance. The two engage in sustained eye contact, emphasizing the fact that it is Medel’s character alone who perceives her as being an individual subject and not just an aesthetic object. The act of looking is transformed from an act of subjugation to one of empathy, as the two seem to share an emotional connection that is absent from the much more physically charged interaction between Baldwin and her lover. In the end, The Artist manages to sketch The Model, but leaves her face blank — not an act of dehumanization but, on the contrary, a reorganization of the inability to truly access the interiority of another person through scrutiny of their physical surface alone. The short closes with a slideshow of Greek statues, placing Baldwin in a lineage with a long line of female models that have been systematically dehumanized by artists. Modern gender struggles are perpetuations of an epochal battle of the sexes which has been prevalent in society for centuries.

These ideas are echoed in Spider Veins, a Rivettean study of actresses struggling to separate their private lives from their public ones. The short opens with one of Mosley ’s most finely constructed sequences: a symmetrical wide shot of an empty theatre hall, with two compartments on the stage, each one featuring a different living room set. The space is illuminated soley through a few lamps on the stage, rendering the edges of the frames shadowy. The frame remains static for a few beats, until a team of stagehands enter the image, framed along the middle of the composition, and begin to methodically dismantle the sets. A montage-like sequence of closer views of this action follows — chair legs are unscrewed, rugs are rolled up, lightbulbs are removed. A stagehand slips, causing a chandelier to fall from above the stage, and Mosley, through a characteristically masterful piece of associative editing, cuts to a young woman (Danielle Pickard) applying layers of make-up. The young woman is interrupted by the arrival of her friend (Katey Parker). A heated debate arises over the ownership of a dress. The sequence is staged in a relatively conventional shot-reverse-shot pattern, the language of cinematic mimetic realism, yet the acting seems unusually stiff and the dialogue is overly theatrical, with each line reframing the relationship between the two ––at first they appear to be strangers, then acquaintances, then childhood friends. At the height of the tension, there is a pause and the two women burst into laughter. Mosley cuts to a reverse angle to reveal a captivated audience, for whom the two women were playing for as part of a dinner party parlour game. The point is clear, highlighting the extent to which we put on elaborate masks in social life, transforming everyday interactions into complex games of performativity and constructed identities.

Seen through this lens, the first half of Spider Veins is a microcosm of the second. Just as the living room set was deconstructed through lengthy sequences of manual labour, Mosley then presents the carefully cultivated personas of two former friends being gradually stripped away, revealing the alienation, disappointment and uncertainty they are desperate to conceal. The entire party sequence is divided into two virtuoso takes, each of which perfectly captures the sensation of social alienation. In the first, the camera remains planted in a shallow-focus, medium close-up of Parker as she overhears a conversation about her occurring off screen. The second is a creeping 360-degree pan of the guests sitting around a large dining table, the voices mixed together in the soundscape so that the dialogue overlaps and it becomes difficult to differentiate the various strands of conversation. The film is deeply mysterious, not driven by any obvious linear progression and offering little in the way of closure. It instead offers an impressionistic evocation of a particular time in life — approaching the end of youth, drifting from people who were formally important to you, trying to hold on to the arts while being pressured into caving into more practical concerns.

The basic scenario of Casa De Mi Madre sounds simple when it is described in narrative terms, but it plays out in an incredibly complex and oblique way. In a rural Cuban village, A middle-aged woman (Carmen Rodriguez) uses ice cream to bribe a young boy (Christian Jaime) to act as her deceased son. Once he is inside, she uses the opportunity to act out telling her lost child everything she wishes she could have told him the night of his death. Jaime then returns home to his own grandmother, who scolds him in a similar manner for being late due to this detour.

The film is composed of only six shots, with the centrepiece being a bravura 5-minute close-up of Rodriguez as she delivers her monologue addressed to her deceased son. Mosley’s camera responds sensitively to her emotional beats as Rodriguez realistically cycles through stages of sorrow, cycling from anger to guilt to despair to something like acceptance. The power of this sequence comes from its simplicity, as Mosley captures Rodriguez’s incredible performance in a stripped-down, unbroken handheld shot. It’s to the film’s credit that the length of the shot doesn’t draw attention to itself but instead draws the viewer into a closer and more complex relationship with its character and her difficult processing of a personal tragedy. The lack of narrative context and clear cut character motivations lends the scene a sense of mystery. It’s unclear whether the boy and the woman have known each other previously, whether this act of exegesis truly brings the woman closure, or to what degree the mother is responsible for her son’s death. The lack of reaction shots is a brazen stylistic choice, denying viewers access to Jaime’s emotional state and underlining the one-sided nature of the exchange taking place.

The other major sequence in the film parallels this set-piece, as Jaime returns home to be scolded by his own grandmother. However, on an aesthetic level, the two sequences are entirely disparate. Now, the camera remains focused on Jaime, framed sitting in profile in the foreground, as his grandmother remains in the background, out of focus. This results in a major change of perspective: rather than focusing on the authority figure chastising their child, viewers are now encouraged to pay attention to the emotional reaction of the child being disciplined. This short may sound slight in outline, but Mosley’s radically compacted execution manages to paint a rich portrait of a community and an environment throughout the film’s 12-minute runtime. There is a particularly high level of attention paid to developing a richly layered soundscape, employing carefully observed ambient noise to suggest a far wider and more expansive world existing beyond the confines of the tight framing. Mosley also proves himself to be a master of lending seemingly mundane details and objects a sense of grandeur and symbolic import — a stream of billowing smoke from a bonfire, a cup of melting ice cream, a tattered football used by the village children. These elements work together to create a rich tapestry of emotionally forceful images, delving into the slippery nature of identity, the way memory is triggered by innocuous objects, and the minor events of childhood that seem, in retrospect, to hold great import. This level of attention paid to communicating theme and emotion through form alone is rare to find in both contemporary mainstream and arthouse cinema, and establishes Mosley as a major cinematic voice.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker from Dorset, UK and a PhD student at The University of Southampton. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication in 2018.