Whether you’re a New Yorker aiming to catch Ellie Lumme at BAMcinemaFest this afternoon or an admirer, as I am, of writer-director Ignatiy Vishnevetsky‘s work as a film critic and plan to see, or perhaps have already seen, his new 40-minute film, let me emphatically recommend the piece posted today at the Talkhouse Film. Consider it program notes, the sort of text you’d busy yourself with in a theater while waiting for the lights to go down, without fearing that the film you are about to see will be spoiled in any way. Vishnevetsky, as personable and open as a narrator as he is piercingly insightful as a critic, outlines his trajectory from filmmaking to criticism and back to filmmaking again. Note the parallels between the disciplines in these two snippets:
A good essay or a good review should feel like starting over. When the writing comes easily, I become suspicious; I presume that I’m missing something. When it seems like I’m writing uphill, I feel invigorated; where there’s a struggle, there’s something worth doing.
The editing process was like a sieve. Scenes were re-arranged or dropped. The narrative was restructured to fit the performances and the emotional pitch. We looked at relationships between shots—audiovisual rhymes, echoes of earlier scenes—and worked from there.
Early on, even before he’d raised the funds to start shooting, Vishnevetsky described Ellie Lumme as “a ghost story without a ghost,” and over the course of the film, through subtle shifts in tone and the less subtle rebalancing of power between characters, the answer to the question “Who’s haunting whom?” keeps morphing as well. When we’re introduced to Ellie (Allison Torem), she’s literally backed up against a wall. She conjures the will to move, setting the camera in motion as well, even as Ellie remains the steadfast center of the frame. She sits, bums a cigarette and fires up the small talk. We learn that she’s not a particularly nice person. She’s blackened the eye of a friend, and later, we’ll see her pocket a few stolen bills at work. We don’t see her conversation partner until he pronounces his name: Ned (Stephen Cone). He, she quickly surmises, is “a dick” and, after a few half-hearted attempts at protesting, Ned admits as much. But Ellie doesn’t yet know the half of it.
Moments may pass in this first scene before some viewers—like me, but I can be slow—realize that we’re at a party. Yes, there are a few dark silhouettes behind Ellie and Ned, but little or no audible evidence of the presence of anyone but the pair seated at the table. The ambient chatter you’d expect as part and parcel of any party scene is simply not there. We hear Ellie and Ned crisp, clear and as up-close as we would if they were alone, and perhaps even in a smaller room as well. So here’s Clue #1: the modus operandi will be, from here on out, an apparent realism that is, in fact, skewed.
The line readings are as natural as a gentle breeze, but the lines themselves seem a little more compact, snappier and slightly more clever than what you’d expect to hear from these not exactly well-to-do 20-somethings; Ellie actually admits to Ned that she’s “not well-read” and tells her roommate, Molly (Mallory Nees), that she wishes they could stop talking “in metaphors.” As for Ned, his insistence that he values honesty above all else is, of course, a red flag. Something else about Ned. While the camera usually meets Ellie at about eye level, when it turns to Ned, it often seems to be positioned just above his head, offering hope on some intuitive level that he’s manageable.
I doubt that it’s of much use to note that a scene in a kitchen brought mid-career Fassbinder to mind. The frame seems boxier here, the colors definitely brighter—see the still above; that orange-red glass and those blatantly yellow fingernails are at one point complemented by the angular turquoise-and-white design of a pack of cigarettes—and there are two camera movements that are clearly meant to draw attention to themselves as well as to the pairing they accentuate.
The interiors contrast with the several exterior scenes that take place at night, and it’s here that Vishnevetsky and his cinematographer, Cory Popp, take full advantage of the profoundly unnatural lighting of Chicago (I presume) after dark. The “main lens—the ‘Frankenstein’—had a cheap adapter screwed on the front to create a softer image with more aberrations and an oilier texture,” Vishnevetsky tells BAM (and that interview is another recommended read: “Going in, I thought of Ellie Lumme as a ’30s movie in digital drag.”) A good number of dreams are recounted by various characters, and towards the end, there’s a line of dialogue that strikes me as a suggestion to go back and re-view everything from the beginning, a suggestion I’ll be happily acting on more than once, I’m sure.
Update, 6/23: “The movie’s cinephilic currents are kind of subterranean,” notes Glenn Kenny, “which is all to the good; in particular, Cone’s character reminded me of a ’40 or ’50s noir demon, a persistent negative presence in the mode of, say, Robert Ryan in Fritz Lang‘s persistently great 1952 Clash by Night; but that’s not quite it.”