By Robert Kenneth Dator.

This little film makes me happy.

It’s not little in subject. It’s not little in heart. As a matter of fact, everything about Whatever Makes You Happy is big but the budget, which was positively miniscule. It’s just that it’s tidy and squared away and neat as a pin without being in the least tedious or self-conscious.

As if to make the point that less is more, A. T. Sayre’s brand of all expense spared filmmaking has yielded a well constructed, albeit simple, story peopled with whole characters who carry on marvelously well due, in no small part, to a first-rate script put into the hands of natural actors who turn in keen, insightful performances to a player.

Apart from the fact I’m completely sold on this film, Whatever Makes You Happy affords an opportunity to discuss a dimension of the craft rarely spoken of directly, in isolated terms, and that is: visual interest, the aspects of which the viewer is scarcely aware.

While one would imagine that composing shots and scenes that hold the attention and capture the imagination of an audience would be the minimum requirement of a visual medium, this isn’t always the case. The image for its own sake, with its absolute power to communicate, is so often made subservient to a host of aspects that steal the primacy of privilege from the pure image; the picture first. Oddly, the image for its own sake is almost never considered critically except in excerpted terms or when examining a cinematographer. And this, in itself, makes this singular dimensional element of filmmaking the most underrated, underappreciated, and underutilized of all filmic dimensions next to sound.

It simply does not follow that whatever finds its way onto film is worth looking at. Very often as the story begins to unfold the viewer is chiefly unaware that he or she relies on the spoken word to guide them through exposition and backstory, and it is here that we can take a leaf out of that gilded book of the silent era when the script was secondary to the picture. Or, to put it succinctly, we can bear in mind the rudimentary principle espoused by David K. Irving from Fundamentals of Film Directing: “Film is a visual medium. Show, don’t tell [sic]. One should be able to watch a film with the sound off and understand the story” (11).

With this borne in mind, one can think of countless directors who accomplish the task of ‘showing’ to a degree of magnificence. Likewise, one can think of countless others who simply do not understand the dynamism and depth rendered by showing while storytelling. Or, to the boredom and bewilderment of the audience, telling a story while showing mundane or incoherent pictography—and vise versa. Whether by an innate capacity or through highly developed skills, the very best directors understand the power of the medium to convey, without words—almost anything the heart can conjure and the mind imagine.

Sayre and company manage to make every shot count. Which is not to say that there is great artistry at work in every frame of this unobtrusive film, but there is that due consideration given to the camera plot, and no short cuts taken in the number of set-ups needed to tell the story. One is immersed in Whatever Makes You Happy so that we do not suffer the unfortunate sensation of being stinted, perhaps vaguely cheated; of feeling that something in the process was rushed, or that good enough was good enough, as can so often happen in the haphazard universe of nondestructive editing. In a digital domain there is very little to lose but time, whereas the analogue world of chemical photography is costly, and successful images cannot be manufactured by the touch of a button, nor mistakes, accidents and misadventure likewise corrected.

Still, even in consideration of the fact that Whatever Makes You Happy did not get the benefit of color matching—which lends itself to some fairly horrific interiors and garish low light conditions—one doesn’t mind the sometime scroungey look as it helps the independent, shoestring pedigree of the piece, while preserving tones of the mystery of love’s artifacts. In any event, compositions, pace, performances and script are so good, no one will care one wit about the odd greeny this, or yellowish that—spare as they are—and when the viewer is confronted by the final shot in this film, the entire point of picture perfect will jog the consciousness with forgotten images of a master craft that was once de rigueur, and leave an indelible memory, as will all things of surpassing, breathtaking beauty, no matter how small, or fleeting; a shivering moment touched by that little spark of genius that fires, what Tennessee Williams called: “the coal of the heart.” See the gigantic simplicity and light of Whatever Makes You Happy, and you may find yourself wrestling with very complex shadows.

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.


Film Details

Whatever Makes You Happy (2010)

United States

Director A. T. Sayre

Cinematography Kai-Jae Wang

Producers Ben Chou and Fritz Ceriales

Editor A. T. Sayre

Musical Arrangement by Brian Leavell

With: Rachel Delente (Anna Kemp); Tyler Peck (Alex Vronsky); Alex Aspiazu (Betsy); Benjamin Becker (Bartender); Dana Jay Bein (Levin); Phil Berry (Jasper); Kachina Dechert (Hannah); Jason Lane Fenton (Steve); Mike Hastings (Fitz); Vanessa Leigh (Elizabeth); Jon Miguel (Kevin); Kerri Patterson (Donna); Irena Peligrad (Trudy); Casey Preston (Mike); A. T. Sayre (Devan).

Runtime 120 minutes

DVD (NTSC, Region 1) USA, 2010

Produced by Black Binder Films

Aspect Ratio 1.78:1

Sound Mix: Stereo

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