Finally, a Good Youth Film: David Williams’ Gracious, Revelatory Thirteen

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Williams knows
something of what great American artists from McCullers to Tennessee Williams
and James Baldwin understood about American family life: that it can be both
comforting and mystifying. Thirteen (showing for one week at the Film
Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater) doesn’t idealize
adolescence like the movies and tv shows that are created to simply sell sneakers,
cosmetics and automobiles. Williams recognizes that the way Nina, who just became
a brand-new teenager, handles her adolescence as a crisis is the most common
and evocative experience that Americans know. Funny thing is, American movie
audiences have been trained to ignore that part of their souls. Thirteen
won’t likely be a hit on the scale of Scream, I Know What You
Did Last Summer
, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, American Pie, She’s
All That
or Road Trip, but I can promise that the lucky few who go
to it will be touched deeply, memorably.

At first Nina
is enigmatic. Her reddish complexion and quiet manner seem ageless, but she
sucks her thumb, tipping off her youth. Williams watches her behavior in a placid
tone consistent with the pace and habits of Nina’s home life. Lillian,
Nina’s mother, is a dark-skinned, bulky woman who shows great patience
despite being baffled by her own child. In one shot Lillian is featured sitting
in front of a photograph of herself when young, avid, beautiful. Lillian now
has a settled, matronly countenance, past sex and skeptical about love; she
asserts wisdom as a show of her worth. The old/young contrast is breathtaking.
Williams captures a lifetime in a single shot that a healthy film culture would
have to prefer over the million-dollar f/x of Gladiator as a small moment
of true genius. Thirteen is comprised of both documentary naturalism
and fictional plangency. Williams has built his story around the observances
of everyday life among common folk but never hypes it up. Although the plainness
becomes a little wearing in the second half, Williams’ integrity never
lapses–and after sitting through a class-conscious trifle (closer to a
debacle) like Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, Williams’ consistency
becomes a cause for amazement.

The Chicago
is quoted in the Thirteen presskit as saying, "It
uses actual lives as materials to be shaped into fiction." But perhaps
not. Thirteen’s beauty comes from its illusion of actual living–of
personal feeling–through fictional perception. Without excessive exposition,
Williams causes these realistically seen people to pass through the viewer’s
imagination. Dickens and Folley are not professional actors, yet they’re
certainly acting. They keep it simple and believable, inspiring the audience’s
belief and awe. Think Charles Burnett and Vittorio De Sica and you’re not
far off. Thirteen records the minutiae of average conversation, and negotiations
between parent and child, teacher and parent, social workers and parent (after
Nina briefly runs away) that can only be called peaceful tension. You get the
sense that Southern rural life might be less fraught than what we usually see
in urban-set films, but also that Williams conveys an essence of human interaction
Hollywood can’t touch. Conversations in Thirteen (such as the social
workers asking Lillian if Nina is "a young 13 or an old 13") should
be as evocative as some of the episodes in Burnett’s Killer of Sheep–the
greatest little-known American movie.

Young Nina
with her avoirdupois joins the ever-growing panoply of underappreciated African-American
screen characters. She’s like girls you see everywhere except
on the big screen. (Not even the lovely Natalie Portman could fake this kind
of credible charm in the atrocious Where the Heart Is.) It’s refreshing
that Williams never makes her a sociopathic case like the teen heroine of Alan
Clarke’s Elephant. He follows her tentative journey toward adulthood.
Eager to earn money to eventually buy a car, Nina agrees to babysit children,
pets and even pose for a neighbor who paints. This benevolent white man does
a near-abstract portrait of Nina that captures her sad eyes. The picture is,
like Williams’ film, a transparently gracious gesture but also a revelation.
Nina’s idiosyncrasy comes clear–she’s not damaged, just private.
When she’s bored, it’s universal and familiar, thus fascinating. Her
unannounced trip into the hills, encountering various helpful strangers, conveys
an honest, modest American wonderment.

To a child,
the world doesn’t have to be depraved to be baffling; to a cagey adult
artist, kindness itself can also be a heartbreaking surprise (a legacy from
such 70s road movies as Thieves Like Us or Rafferty and the Gold Dust
). This paradox is conveyed through montages opposing distant landscapes
to personal acts of goodwill. (Williams evokes something of the rural poetry
that Terrence Malick accomplished in Badlands.) As his own cameraman,
Williams shows a native’s eye for highway mountain beauty, stretches of
road, deep greenery and the ever-rising height of the horizon. The sequence
of Nina’s trip to a local carnival is summarized by a wide shot of her
wandering behind a building with only the right top corner of the screen revealing
the cars on a Ferris wheel as they churn by on their mechanical rotation. A
better depiction of anomie could only be found in an Antonioni movie.

simplicity is deceptive. Its title suggests a conscious homage to Seventeen,
Jeff Kreines and Joel DeMott’s classic documentary treatment of a teenage
girl and the family and culture shaping her thoughts and future. To that end,
Lillian’s complex religiosity is treated with the same, sane toleration
as the conviviality of Nina’s older sister, or a gregarious neighbor who
always has a handy anecdote (one about "nacho cheese" and another
about school students who answer "I don’t know" and "Me
neither" on a test). Williams deepens his film by considering the stock
Lillian puts in her own dreams, even one that surprises her (and us) by intuiting
the effect of her daughter’s passivity in the outside world. It demonstrates
Williams’ complicity in these portrayals as he typically balances artifice
and documentary truth; this unusual mix of familial and communal love has appeared
in only a few independent film such as Ruby Oliver’s nearly artless homemade
movie Love Your Mama.

Like Oliver,
Williams is right to reject the current Hollywood youth movie trend. And Nina
can be seen to express his own skepticism about the way youth is portrayed when
she tells her painter neighbor, "I don’t want to learn how to do art,
I don’t like art." She’s bothered by sophistication, contrived
order, the unfamiliar. But Williams makes the familiar extraordinary. Thirteen
is remarkable for the way its modest means yet give way to expressive, eloquent
style. In a week that offers Peter Greenaway’s hypersophisticated 8
1/2 Women
, Williams’ simplicity and guilelessness are encouraging.

8 1/2 Women
directed by Peter
as Peter Greenaway shows himself to be, he’s just made the dumbest mistake
any filmmaker can by referring to a movie he can’t possible equal. In 8
1/2 Women
, Greenaway includes clips from Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2.
But Greenaway’s conceit about a British father and son testing out their
heritage of masculine aggression after the death of a sexually passive wife/mother
isn’t worthy of Fellini’s landmark. By now it’s well known that
Greenaway is diametrically opposed to Fellini’s humanist passions, but
after this, critics will have to finally admit that Greenaway’s filmmaking
lacks visual richness. His flat tableaus are no competition for the sensuous
black-and-white graphics Fellini achieved with the great cinematographer Gianni
Di Venanzo. And 8 1/2’s sumptuousness was also part of an emotional
richness Greenaway abhors and thus denies his audience.

Every Greenaway
movie is a game, like the one the bankers Storey Emmenthal (Matthew Delamere)
and his father Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) play out with a series of women–a
vixenish Polly Walker, a decrepit Amanda Plummer, an eccentric Vivian Wu, a
maniacal Toni Collette and four and a half others. The women are treated like
freaks, chess pieces manipulated with gruesome glee. Although Greenaway announces
his bloodless themes with each laboriously outlined sequence, his analytic style
is never evocative in the manner of dramatic art. In fact Greenaway seems contemptuous
of conventional art methods (one character refers to Fellini as "just an
old Italian pimp") even though he doesn’t supply insights or pleasures
at all compensatory. 8 1/2 Women not only looks shabby next to 8 1/2,
but Greenaway’s avant-gardisms are stodgy after Michael Almereyda’s
playful, postmodern update of Hamlet.

While exploring
"female stereotypes invented by men," Greenaway doesn’t get far
beyond them; his characters’ discursiveness passes for intellectualism,
but any Godard film on sexuality and political role-playing is more inquiring
than this relentless theorizing. It’s a male counterpart to the 1996 Female
, replete with transgressive homosexual incest–a kind of
Oedipal petit-mort about as antiseptic and challenging as cyberchat. It always
seemed that Greenaway was working in the wrong medium–and museum installations
never quite seemed the right fit either. Now that CD-ROMs are widely available,
maybe he can leave moviemaking to real cinema practitioners and stop perverting
the medium. The elder Emmenthal makes a sly reference to Mondrian’s geometrical
painting that includes a line, "Some people try to justify Mondrian’s
style by pointing out that he loved to tango." Surely Greenaway fancies
himself a brainiac, but as a filmmaker he doesn’t know how to dance.