Which filmmakers today are good at filming groups? Independent films especially get hung with a bad rep for often fixating on a lonely or eccentric protagonist, or an oddly paired duo or romantic couple. Through the five features he’s made in the past six years, New York-based filmmaker Nathan Silver has demonstrated a strong affinity for ensemble settings that explore the dynamics and tensions between an individual and a larger collective of people.
The groups in Silver’s films take different forms: a dysfunctional household in Exit Elena; a homeless shelter in Soft in the Head; a home for pregnant teens in Uncertain Terms; and a rehab commune in his latest, Stinking Heaven. But invariably they involve people on the margins of society forming unlikely bonds under one roof, with an outsider figure threatening to upset the equilibrium.
This video essay, charting a dinner scene from his 2014 feature Uncertain Terms, demonstrates his flair for group filming, accounting for eight characters engaged in one awkward conversation, most without even saying a word.
The first part of the video performs a bit of an experiment in how a dinner scene represents space. All the shots from this two-minute scene are rearranged by the characters’ positions around the dinner table. In this way we can see how the literal space of the dinner table gets reinterpreted into the linear continuity of cinematic storytelling.
Next, Silver takes us through his direction of the scene and the effects he seeks to get through a documentary-style approach to filming. “What’s being said doesn’t matter so much,” he says. “It’s all about the glances, the asides.” It’s remarkable how much of a communal atmosphere Silver is able to generate from what amounts to a handful of quick cutaways to the non-speaking characters. A more show-offy director with a much larger budget might approach this scene with a 360-degree shot that circles around the table to see each character in tandem. Instead Silver opts for fragments of looks, creating a less continuous and more disharmonious effect, each character keeping to their own thoughts. Some characters are seen only once, but that’s enough to register enough subtextual suggestion into what they may be thinking. The result is a scene that bears whose dimensions are enriched by a strategic simplicity of approach.
Editor’s note: At publication time, Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms is playing at Cinema Village in New York, Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles as well as online here at Fandor.
Kevin B. Lee is Chief Video Essayist at Fandor. He has made over 250 video essays exploring film and media. His award-winning “Transformers: The Premake” was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound Magazine and played in several festivals including the Berlinale Film Festival Critics Week. Follow him on Twitter at @alsolikelife.