“The films I find boring are the ones that have no space for the audience’s misconceptions.” — Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker has only made six features (five of which I have seen) and most are marked by her very distinct gaze.

Let’s define our terms. With all the talk about “female gaze” and “male gaze” – overused terms, to the point they’ve become meaningless – when I talk about Decker’s “gaze” I mean it literally. How she sees, how she translates what she actually sees into a visual fingerprint.

I could recognize one of Decker’s shots in a blind lineup. (Decker’s regular cinematographer Ashley Connor – who shot four of her films – deserves much credit too.) For Decker it’s about focus: focusing on the minute and microscopic detail, blurring out the background drastically, forcing the audience to stare at, say, a raindrop on a leaf, through which the whole world can be seen, except distorted. She peeks at the peripheral, leaving the main event in a blur – this can be a very destabilizing experience for the audience. She doesn’t do things “the normal way”. She doesn’t “set up” shots. It’s un-traditional, what she’s doing.

She started as an actress in the “mumblecore” scene in New York, which brought us so many weird and eccentric talents. She made experimental shorts all along, inspired by Joe Swanberg’s example. One summer she attended a Balkan folk music camp in California, and found the entire experience eerie, compelling. The experience stuck with her. The following summer she got an artists’ residency in the same area of California, and realized the Balkan camp was happening the next month. She decided, spur of the moment, to film her first feature while attending the Balkan music camp. She put out the call to actor friends, she got permission from the camp to film her movie , and that’s what she did. The result was her first feature, 2013’s Butter on the Latch. With everything that’s happened since, and I don’t mean this to be contrarian, I think Butter on the Latch is her best film. It traveled the festival circuit, but didn’t even get distribution.

Seek it out on streaming, if you can find it.


Butter on the Latch

Two young women attend the folk music camp. The friendship seems to be perilous, maybe even too intense, with a lot of things left unsaid. The boundaries are nonexistent. This is true in the film’s structure as well, a fluctuating hybrid of documentary and narrative. The Balkan music camp goes on around them, and they participate. It’s the kind of footage you can only get in a documentary: real people, real experiences. But the two young women have their own melodrama, and Decker’s approach is mysterious, alluring. Butter on the Latch is often an unnerving film. Decker knows her Bergman. I think of this film sometimes in connection with Always Shine, directed by Sophie Takal, another intriguing director who came out of the same environment as Decker.


Butter on the Latch

Trailer for Butter on the Latch

The following year came Decker’s second feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, which got more attention than Butter on the Latch and knocked me flat. In a way, the film is more about Decker’s distinctive visual style than anything having to do with plot or character. The film is a showcase of her style.


Thou Wast Mild and Lovely


Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

There are images in the film with real staying power. The frog. The kitchen utensils in the air, against the blue sky. The final scene. In Decker’s films, the potential of losing your “self” altogether is always present, where the background is totally blurred, and the teeny and peripheral loom in the foreground. Where can the individual reside in such an environment?

Her work is unfettered from conventional filmmaking “tropes”, and sometimes it makes other films seem unnecessarily rule-bound. Who established these random rules about what a shot is supposed to look like, how a story should operate, that the best way to tell a story is long-shot-to-medium-shot-to-closeup etc.? Break rules. Do whatever the hell you want to do. People may hate it, may not respond to it, but that didn’t stop John Cassavetes.

Trailer for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely:

After Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, there was a gap of a few years. She did a couple little things, but no follow-up feature. Then came a documentary, co-directed with her boyfriend at the time, Zefrey Throwell. They documented their 8-month-long relationship and eventual breakup. It’s called Flames.


Flames

This relationship seems to have been all-consuming, complicated by an artistic partnership. They are film-makers, they wanted to create something together. But what happens when one partner (i.e. Decker) pulls ahead of the other (Throwell)? (It’s A Star is Born.). At times I got the sense he was hitching his wagon to hers, hoping to gain success for himself. This causes stress. It’s navel-gazing in an extreme form. I would not suggest you start off your Decker journey with Flames. You might never want to move forward. I’d suggest starting with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely or Butter on the Latch. It took Decker and Throwell forever to extricate themselves from the relatoinship, especially since they had decided to document their relationship and wanted to finish the film. It sounds self-indulgent. It is. Your personal life is really only interesting to you. Lol. I say this as someone who has broken the rule many many times, in all my essays about my personal life. HOWEVER. (And it’s a big “However”.) What matters is how Decker SEES. Her vision is unique, her expression and approach is her own.

Trailer for Flames:

Madeline’s Madeline was her most accessible work to date, ending up on many critics’ “Best Of” lists at the end of that year. For the first time, Decker worked with “names” (Molly Parker, Miranda July). She also directed an amazing debut performance from newcomer Helena Howard.


Madeline’s Madeline

There’s a “meta” quality to much of Decker’s work. Similar to Butter on the Latch‘s full-immersion into the folk music camp, actually happening in the real world, Madeline’s Madeline takes place during the rehearsals of a New York experimental theatre company. The scenes don’t appear to be set up. They show real people doing the real things they do in real life. A fictional narrative weaves through the real-ness, and so the two worlds merge. Madeline’s Madeline has a “message”, unlike her other films, and I don’t particularly groove to the message part of it. I mean, it’s fine, it’s a good message! But I appreciate movies that don’t pressure themselves into imparting a message.


Madeline’s Madeline

Whatever Decker grapples with at any given moment goes into her films. In Madeline’s Madline, Decker grapples with the responsibility of an artist, of creating community as artists, but also a more mature examination of motherhood and family. Extraordinary performances all around, particularly from Howard. Despite the realistic New York setting, this is not kitchen sink realism. Decker is not a kitchen-sink-reality director.

Trailer for Madeline’s Madeline:

What Decker does is make me question why everything we see seems so rote and recycled. Where are the people with new visions, and the boldness to attempt to put on screen what they see in their heads? Find a new way – your way – to bring what is inside of you OUT. This is what Cassavetes did and he changed the world of film forever. He put what was inside of him OUT.

Madeline’s Madeline was such a critical hit that it probably opened some doors for Decker, or at least got bigger-name actors interested in working with her. And so along came Shirley, starring Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson.


Shirley

Shirley is the only Decker film I’ve formally reviewed. I had a major issue with Shirley, which I get into in the review – but since it’s a fictionalized portrait of Shirley Jackson – taking place when she was writing her extremely terrifying The Hangsaman, based on a real story of a girl who went missing in the area – I didn’t so much let it slide, as took everything else into consideration. I was trepidatious going in that Decker’s style would be conventionalized, or ironed-out, with a bigger budget. This was her first real character-based movie, AND it’s based on a real person, AND it’s starring a well-known actress. AND, this was the first film of Decker’s which Ashley Connor didn’t shoot. I was happy to see Decker’s style – all those blurred-out creepy backgrounds, and eerie shots of nature with small blurred-out figures moving through it … was still present.


Shirley

It established that Ashley Connor realized Decker’s vision, not the other way around.

Trailer for Shirley:

I haven’t seen her latest, The Sky Is Everywhere, and it’s gotten very bad reviews, from a couple of friends of mine whose opinions I trust. I won’t weigh in then except to say that the project doesn’t seem to be in her wheelhouse, at least from the description of it (adaptation of a tearjerker YA novel). Someone as individual as Decker needs to go her own way. Her talent might be too eccentric for the mainstream. Nothing against the mainstream. It’s just that there’s mainstream storytelling – coherent, graspable, mostly linear – and then there’s the avant-garde. Decker is the latter.

“Can you make a feature film for less than 10,000 dollars? You can.” – Josephine Decker

 
 
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