Driftwood | Paul Taylor | USA | 2016 | 76 minutes
James Kreul argues that Paul Taylor’s Driftwood, winner of the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, encapsulates all that is right and wrong with micro-budgeted independent features: intimate, thoughtful, well shot and acted, but also twee and predictable.
The Politics of Tropes and Types
A few things are shadowing my review of Paul Taylor’s Driftwood, which won the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature. First, of course, is the recent election, so I’m in a foul mood. And second, which is also a response to that same election, is Dan Shoenbrun’s recent Filmmaker Magazine column, “All Movies Are Political Movies. We Need to Do Better.” Both have put me in the mood to demand a little bit more, and it might be a bit unfair to place all that burden on Driftwood, which in many ways is a well made and imaginative film.
Driftwood is a mostly silent film, without speech or dialogue. One should argue that Driftwood, as Shoenbrun suggests, is a political film. One could read it as a critique of patriarchy. But one could also just as easily read Driftwood as a film that, through its uses of various filmmaking conventions and tropes to clarify the narrative due to the lack of dialogue, simply reinforces, intentionally or not, the larger social structures that it might intend to critique.
This is the kind of independent film that we’re all supposed to be rooting for: micro-budgeted, and conceived to maximize limited resources (three primary characters, mostly one location, everyday settings and props). Taylor maximizes those resources to create an intriguing alternate universe, one whose rules are not immediately obvious. But at some point, if enough filmmakers gravitate to this model of alternative filmmaking, even the alternative will become repetitive and unoriginal. It’s not completely Driftwood‘s fault that I reached that point while watching it, but I think I did.
A Twee Black Snake Moan?
In the first image a Young Woman (Joslyn Jensen), out of focus in the background, walks towards the camera until she enters within the depth of field in a close up. She seems to be lost and disoriented. After a few disjointed shots, we find her in a cabin with an Old Man (Paul C. Kelly), who takes care of the Young Woman with a mixture of compassion and creepiness. Both Jensen and Kelly deliver fine performances, as they convey the drama efficiently without words.
At first, the Old Man is able to control the Young Woman simply because she is so dependent on him for everything. He seems to be a modern American man with sufficient resources for a cabin, a motor vehicle, and access to media (well, maybe 1990s technology?). The Young Woman, on the other hand, seems to be a woman-child, lacking not only basic personal skills but also an understanding of how the world works.
Compassion turns to coercion soon after the Young Woman wanders away for the first time. The Old Man, despite his apparent affection for the Young Woman, modifies his cabin and her bedroom so she cannot escape.
The degree to which Driftwood is a critique of patriarchy depends on how much you are willing to forgive it for using some broadly sexist tropes to facilitate its silent storytelling. Even if you identify and sympathize with the Young Woman, this is essentially the same male fantasy that drives films like Black Snake Moan and various exploitation films. Our understanding of those genre films help Driftwood communicate with us wordlessly, regardless of whether it sees itself as critique.
But more importantly, the representation of the Young Woman ties into the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” While many have rejected this term, including Nathan Rabin who coined it, most of the backlash against it has concerned its use for three-dimensional female characters. The Young Woman in Driftwood is not fleshed out beyond the basic machinations of the plot. It is not Joslyn Jensen’s fault that the character is doe-eyed and delicate, and that even her rebellions are viewed as cute. But the head-down, eyes-up short bob waif has worn out its welcome. The only twist here is that instead of being “always available” to the protagonist, here the Young Woman is always available due to chains and locks.
The Young Woman’s ultimate act of rebellion is ponderously foreshadowed, using the oldest screenwriting (or dramatic writing) tip in the book: if you introduce a knife in the first act, you have to use it by the third. In the first act the Young Woman doesn’t understand what a knife is until she accidentally cuts herself, then she understands the damage it can do. That’s not a spoiler, that’s Chekhov.
From Alphaville to Driftwood: Alt Universes
I didn’t like Driftwood, but I did like many things about it. Most of those things kicked in during the second half, as we slowly started to make more inferences about how the universe the Young Woman and Old Man lived in works.
As part of a strategy to win over the Young Woman, the Old Man returns to the sea shore where we presume he originally found her. Other similarly abled young women are walking along the shore, but the Old Man waits until a Young Man (Michael Fentin) emerges from the water. He takes the Young Man back to the cabin and attempts to integrate him into his life with the Young Woman. Even though the Young Man has the same developmental limitations as the Young Woman, this move makes the basic dramatic situation in the second half far more interesting and intriguing than the first half.
The change also shifts the film from a somewhat stylized version of our world to an alternative dystopian universe, where there are actual fundamental differences between the Old Man and the younger characters. The Young Woman and Young Man are driftwood, and we’re not sure how they got that way. Just as Godard was able to portray his dystopian future in Alphaville using contemporary settings, Taylor effectively creates his dystopia using equally efficient means. Taylor doesn’t explain these differences, he just allows the drama to play out within them, which is far more satisfying (unless you’re a viewer who wants everything spoon fed to you).
But even here, the issue of repetition comes up. The way in which Taylor creates his alternative universe is not that different from “Black Soil, Green Grass,” Daniel Patrick Carbone’s segment in collective:unconscious (also screened at Micro-Wave this season).
The other thing I liked about Driftwood was that it looked great, which can be expected when a cinematographer directs. The use of shallow depth of field noted in the opening shot evolves into a motif throughout the film, with generally interesting results. The only drawback to the motif is when it is used to once again ponderously foreshadow an important dramatic moment. Remember the knife? Want to guess if the Young Woman is in focus near the knife drawer at the beginning of that important dramatic moment?
Driftwood is the kind of film that we all should be rooting for, and I’m glad that it has received the success it has had so far. But it is also the kind of film that we should be blunt with in our criticism, if the micro-budgeted independent film is going to serve a function beyond its own festival and distribution circuit.