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Wait in Vain [Indigo Bates, USA, 2018] /// Generation [Pamela Woolford, USA, 2018]

January 14, 2019

A woman agonisingly waits for the phone to ring. She tries to psychically will the phone call into being with thoughts like “if I don’t think about it, maybe the telephone might ring.” “If I could think of something else...” “Maybe if I counted 500 by fives, it might ring by that time” and other unhealthy superstitions. We have all been there at some moment in our lives, waiting for that special person to call, the nerves piling up inside as the head and heart tussle in chaotic turmoil.

There is a level of obsessive compulsion suggested in this well-crafted three-minute short. The young protagonist sits alone in a neatly arranged house, as she scratches her knee, then the back of her neck or taps rhythmically on the side of a glass in an agitated state of impatience, whilst overthinking solutions and consequences to her predicament. Lounging on the couch, staring out of the window, or relaxing in the bath, the camera documents her domestic rituals and manages to represent visually her intensifying anxieties through extreme close-ups of goose bumps on her arms, her eyes darting from left to right or her mouth as she bites her lip.

 

The sound design is excellent and the classical score gives the story an energy that builds to match the character’s inner thoughts as they manifest into restless gestures. The camera work here is smooth and the shot choices are very expressive and artful. It is a satisfying work that visually underpins the irrational and illogical processes the human mind goes through in any number of emotional guises, be they love, anger, infatuation, obsession or frustration. Bates does well to exemplify this by having the thoughts expressed in voiceover narration, with our protagonist (played by Gemma Josephine) diegetically silent, her physical actions instead matching the drama of her thoughts.

 

Wait in Vain (based on “A Telephone Call”, a classical short story by Dorothy Parker) is a stylish and well-crafted short film only very narrowly missing out on being shortlisted in last year’s Short Focus Film Festival programme. We certainly hope we don’t have to wait in vain for another wonderful short film from Bates.

The art of storytelling cannot purely be measured by the author's choice of words or images alone. One supposes it cannot truly be measured at all. If we were to consider the practice from a Barthesian perspective, our own responses to the story – its interpretation and the assessment of its artistry – would be measured by the skill with which the audience is able to interpret it. For what it’s worth, I only partially abide by that approach. There should certainly be some amount of compromise, a meeting in the middle. There is shared responsibility in the transmission and reception of ideas, and that being so, the question then becomes, how much time and energy should anyone spend on determining the successes or failures of a work of art or, in this context, a story?

   

Well, perhaps there is an element of overthought in this line of questioning already. It pains this writer to say so, but, after several attempts, trying to give this story meaning was rather exhausting. It is clear there is a deep connection with ideas of narrative processes, history, family, time and place, all in themselves weighty concepts that will have us scratching heads for many lifetimes to come, but sometimes the type of approach taken to deciphering these mysteries needn’t be so convoluted.  

An elderly narrator revisits her youth, telling the story of her sister Mable, a poor farm girl who reads classic literature to her abusive father, struggling mother, and family of seven brothers and sisters, helping to forge a new existence for them and future generations of the family. At least that’s what the filmmaker’s press notes tell us. The film is delivered as a part dance, part sound experiment, as we hear overlapping voices conveying the story; voices of different generations, of course, albeit a cacophony of stories equally haunting and jarring. These prosaic and poetic musings are paired with various shots of Woolford dancing through fields and woods, producing contorted and abstracted movements which are similarly eerie and distracting. Clarity and efficiency are clearly not the primary concerns here. 

 

The pale, bleached palette of the images does give the film an otherworldly feeling, although one suspects this is not completely intentional and more a result of limited resources. The film should certainly be commended for its ambitious scope as an experiment in visual poetry and for Woolford’s clear love for storytelling. Woolford pours most of her energy into the stylistic aspects of the piece, both in the way she dances and uses her voice, but in the midst of it all, the substance is not so much abandoned as it is lost, against her best intentions. Or, perhaps my own impatience is to blame. It is a point definitely worthy of debate and, for that alone, there is value.

'Wait in Vain' and 'Generation' were both submissions for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.

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