The Tension Between Being and Nothingness
Jean Paul Sartre wouldn’t mind my purloining Being and Nothingness, as Things I Don’t Understand is very much an existentialist treatise, conscious or otherwise. From the ontological notion of absurdity—that is to say that life is absurd because it has no inherent or intrinsic meaning—to despair at this unchallenged assumption, to making choices, or having choices made for us that make meaning in our lives, as is the case with protagonist Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman)—one can borrow as well from Camus and hear Sisyphus laughing.
Things I Don’t Understand is a well wrought and executed film with assured editing and fine cinematography. It boasts a fine script—every scene advances the plot; each character is written for rather than the dreadful monologue on a theme with assigned parts one gets in a poor effort. As well, Things I Don’t Understand is imbued with a talented writer’s keen sense of what constitutes a scene, so that each and every has an apogee and perigee—and still it comes to this:
Every generation must reinterpret the world and our place in it, now it is David Spaltro’s turn and because he has embraced the challenge so commendably Things I Don’t Understand has garnered a tsunami of awards—and that’s a worry if the swell of superlatives creates more enthusiasm than explication; if buzz and momentum prevent examination of a worthy project and a worthy writer-director who may yet prove an auteur. While on the way to that estate Things I Don’t Understand is a very competent film that nevertheless evinces some flaws that might have been avoided.
To begin, for all that is very good in Things I Don’t Understand, I found myself wanting more of what was left in reserve. There is a puzzling loss of dimension here that defies the careful writing that has gone into this production. Poor casting decisions have left some spaces in which imperative ‘minor characters’ should dwell in better comfort: there is an unevenness in the performances where any in a project with a script this good is just glaring. And to this end I cannot agree with the majority opinion concerning Molly Ryman’s ‘breakthrough performance’ as the lead, lost soul, Violet Kubelick. To the contrary, where Ms. Ryman is good she is competent and where she is stagey she is simply out of her depth. To my mind, Ms. Ryman does not carry this film but rather this film carries her. Which is not the same as letting the text carry the talent so much as riding the coat tails of a terrific script. This is a story that craves a strong lead who can begin with meaning and give us depth—especially amid beautifully modulated performances from delightful Grace Folsom, playing the role of Hospice inmate Sara Lowe to a tender and compellingly human degree; and Hugo Dillon, who offers a multiplex rendition of the volatile and disaffected, Remy, a man struggling with an identity crisis who yet remains real and accessible throughout, so that in the end, both Dillon and Folsom romp away with the show. Even so, these mild yet aggravating lurches may not trouble many as the pace and strength of the story don’t leave the viewer much time to wonder if this really is Violet’s film.
As to the camera plot, no one appreciates an unambiguous, no-gimmicks linear narrative as much as myself, but here the camera is downright invisible. And while more set-ups mean more time and more money, more establishing shots with neighborhood flavor to speak the part of a storied place that writer-director David Spaltro obviously loves; a place he unmistakably noticed has a tendency to make people who they are, and then throws them all together—would have gone a long way to rounding out the whole. And while cinematographer, Gus Sacks, does some beautiful work with low light, culminating in is his offering of the now iconic Manhattan Skyline, at night, from the Brooklyn side of the East River—quite an achievement little understood by all but other photographers and videographers—it’s all a bit safe and locked down and there is much more in his bag of tricks waiting to get out so that one feels “if we’re going to shoot in New York, fellas, for God’s sake, show us New York.” Things I Don’t Understand looks like something shot in Toronto, when, with a little inspired B-roll augmented by a soundscape that employs the perpetual heartbeat pink noise of the city that never sleeps and is consequently never as quiet as the one in this film, the whole production would perk up like, well, like New York.
In the final analysis, this is a film that will be taken to heart by a wide audience. Things I Don’t Understand asks difficult questions and offers thoughtful, hopeful answers—even if I, alone, am left to ponder these aesthetic things I don’t understand.
Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator, worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the website Cinepsyche, currently under construction.
Things I Don’t Understand (2012)
Director David Spaltro
Cinematography Gus Sacks
Producers Gus Gillentine and David Spaltro
Editor David Spaltro
Original Music by Vita Tanga
With: Molly Ryman (Violet Kubelick); Aaron Mathias (Parker McNeil);
Grace Folsom (Sara Lowe); Lisa Eichhorn (Dr. Anne Blankenship);
Hugo Dillon (Remy); Meissa Hampton (Gabby); Eleanor Wilson (Darla);
Lynn Justinger (Zooey); Mike Britt (Big Felix).
Runtime 109 minutes
DVD (NTSC, Region 1) USA, 2012
Produced by Wandering/Cut Films
Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Sound Mix: Dolby Stereo 5.1