Rouzbeh Rashidi's 2009 feature film Only Human is another intriguing work by a director who, every time I think I’m beginning to get the hang of him, seems to become more of a cypher to me. To be fair to myself on this one, although I’ve seen a few of his shorts, I’ve only seen one of his other features (Closure of Catharsis - reviewed here) and so maybe I’ll begin to see more of a signature pattern as I see more of his work.
There are certain things which seem intrinsic to Rashidi’s work on a picture by picture basis, but that’s more to do with his approach to narrative content (if he’ll allow me to use that term when approaching a set of works which seem to have no cohesive narrative object while still maintaining a narrative approach). What threw me most on this picture though is the extreme level of stylistic control maintained over something which is treated with an attitude of almost found footage. This wasn’t what I was expecting at all.
Once again this movie is shot in black and white (I’m not sure if Rashidi is really into colour as a source of his particular brand of “truth at 24 frames per second”). Right from the start you are confronted with a brilliantly framed establishing shot of a street scene where a silhouetted figure (the director himself, I suspect, in this instance) walks out into the street and exits screen left... setting up a very linear flow before the camera completely ignores going with that character and cuts to a close up of a window cleaner in that street. There's so much to take in on this and some of the other quite stunning long shots that you suddenly start noticing little details you'd missed 5 or more seconds since the shot started. Rashidi gives you time to look, which is a quality a lot of big budget directors are almost afraid to possess these days.
Shots cutting to closer details are taken from the less obvious parts of the frame (where this part of the shot initially has less motion or action than other parts of the shot) and then homes in on these as "other" potential "story possibilities" exit via the periphery of the screen as in the shot I just described. Thus, already, a pattern begins to emerge which, by the repeated insistence of relocating you away from where you were expecting the action to be, already sets up a rigid strategic device which I suspect the director was made more aware of in the editing process of making this movie than the actual shooting process itself (I hope I don't do him a dis-service in that assumption).
The act of cramming so much visual detail into some of the shots, cutting to some action within a shot and then, sometimes, going back into a more relaxed, less dynamic version of the initial establishing shot of a scene, reminded me of a similar technique used by Peter Greenaway in his earlier features. Also, in these kinds of segues he uses a technique which many directors, including Greenaway, Kurosawa and Friedkin, have used over the years as a form of transitional punctuation... that of shifting between two extremes of sound. For instance, a series of street shots which have become very dense and busy in terms of audio build up is abruptly ended with a stationary shot of a car to start the next sequence and the sound at the start of this shot is almost silent in contrast to the previous one. This is a good way to shift and set up a new emotional stance in your audience on a subconscious level.
There’s a lot going on in this movie, which at first glance might be considered to be quite simplistic in it’s attitude towards capturing the action. But this is misleading, it’s really not simple at all.
For example, other scenes where the camera cuts back from starting on medium shots to an establishing shot reveal little delights of framing, like when a guy kicking a can against a wall cuts back to him in long shot with a row of clothes pegs in the upper foreground of the shot... once again reminding you of the sheer density of the world out there! The framing of that particular shot, by the way, forms a nice little triangular pattern, leaving the figure fixed in his two dimensional plane only one way out... that of exiting via the bottom of the frame... which, of course, he does.
This shot is then echoed as this frustrated guy sits in a similarly triangular shot formed by some iron railings which metaphorically form the cage of this captive character’s existence. Further shots in this particular sequence serve to enhance this sense of an individual imprisoned by circumstances he can’t fight... the humdrum wading through treacle that drags all of us down at some point as we try to negotiate our daily routines or lack thereof.
A sense of control persists in shots of an organic nature too. There's a brilliant view of two trees blowing in the wind, one in foreground and one slightly in background, but the trees really only blow in the wind in their respective sectors of the shot, barely touching. It's like a Bergman shot of two people framed artificially against each other... only with trees! The absolute sense of rigid constraint in the shooting juxtaposed with the usual Rashidi qualities of a lack of expected narrative spoon feeding makes for a unique feel to the movie and one which I can both applaud in celebration while wrestling with the confounding and frustrating nature of this kind of modus operandi.
There are other things about this film I’m not so sure of in terms of intent but certainly they present themselves in an artistically coherent style, possibly by good fortune or by accident rather than as initial intent... but Rashidi is always, it seems to me, quick to capitalise on the quirks brought out in the actual physical act of making a film... just like any good director would be.
For instance, the subtitles in a few of the scenes are rendered in a standard typewriter font which is much less easier to read and it’s possibly another Rashidi barrier to digestion of an image... or possibly a serendipitous act due to not knowing so much about readability of fonts which also falls into the same zone of not letting your audience be passive.
There’s also the thing of pitching the quality of shots against each other. Some of the visual splendours of this movie are sharp and clear while other kinds of shots, often close-ups shot at night, are grainy. Probably a limitation of the equipment but one which seems to be something to be worked with rather than against is my guess from what I’ve seen so far of this director’s work. Certainly there’s an absolutely astonishing level of control over the tonal qualities of the shots on display in this one... whiter than white, blown out tones juxtaposed with dark blacks and very few greys in some sequences give the film an extra lift which a lesser director might not have thought of as an enhancement to the artificiality of this world, which in some ways perhaps owes a debt to Melville, to whom this movie is dedicated to at the start.
And it’s not just in the nature of the way events have been captured... or in this case perhaps I should say “corralled”. Like some of Melville's work, the film deals with the solitude of the individual and further establishes the alienation of people fragmented by the very technology which is designed to bring them closer together. An immersion into a proxy world created by technology as opposed to experiencing the rituals of their communication in the presence of other people. This is no better demonstrated than in a sequence where one character plays a first person shooter video game across the internet with a “friend”. It’s like the people in this movie are only ever prodded into some semblance of awareness when they are filtering their experiences directly through technology... such as a phone line, the internet or a television set.
Nobody in this movie is in any way happy and most of the time they are missing what’s right in front of them. Even when people (as in couples) are together, their disassociation is made blatant either by a visual highlight of the shot or by an attitude of indifference by the characters, all of whom are very much individuals rather than “other halfs”... a bleak world view which is brought to us by Rashidi in a crisply framed environment, bringing the fragmentation of the many pieces into sharp relief by virtue of the sheer beauty of some of those sequences.
Once again, Rouzbeh Rashidi gives us a challenging film which is both a joy to receive on a visual level but which is challenging by deference to its lack of fulfilment of the blatant promise of narrative cohesiveness... characters are set up and intercut from sequence to sequence, but this just serves to enhance the tension of the lack of closure, or sometimes even explanation, as to the nature of the way in which any of these characters may, or may not, relate.
Unfortunately, as I’ve said before in regards to Rashidi’s work, I don’t see how this kind of cinema can cross over into making an impact on the mainstream cinema goer... and whether thats a desire of this director or not is something only he will know. However, it is a quite brilliant exemplification of cinema as art and any lover of film and the language of film will probably find something interesting peeking out from between the frames at them. I found it, once again, a most refreshing movie to watch and it has my full recommendation if you can get an opportunity to see it. I'm looking forward to sampling some more of this director’s work in the near future.