Thursday, March 20, 2014

'Back to the Garden' (2013) directed by Jon Sanders

Back to the Garden is a serious test of cinematic patience with scant reward at the end.  This micro-budget drama is so austere and so deliberately paced that Sanders seems to be daring his audience to keep paying attention.  A film being boring isn't necessarily a death knell for its quality, on a masochistic level I enjoy films like Jeanne Dielman, Satantango or Wavelength - films where for long periods nothing much happens.  Back to the Garden comes from a similar kind of place; slamming on the brakes and forcing you through excruciatingly dialogue scenes.

The plot is essentially an English The Big Chill doped up on valium.  A man has unexpectedly died and his friends gather in a secluded house to scatter his ashes in the garden.  The group is white, middle-class and obviously reasonably financially secure; yet each is experiencing their own subtle depressions, the death of their friend dredging up dormant fears of mortality and what they're doing in life.

What this entails is long still shot after long still shot of two characters talking in a rather normal garden.  The end credits inform us that the dialogue is improvised, so conversations meander and drift, often dancing around what they really want to say for minutes on end before whoever's speaking confesses what's on their mind.  This makes up perhaps 90% of the film; so if faintly miserable middle-aged people mumbling in gardens is what cinematically turns you on you're going to be in hog's heaven.

As for me, much of this film was about as interesting as paint drying. Even taking into account the miniscule budget, visually this really isn't up to much. There's the odd artfully composed shot, yet they're spoiled by digital photography that suffers from very noticeable interlacing problems: meaning straight lines suffer from 'jaggy' edges.  This makes the film look far cheaper than it should, often resembling the cheap and nasty look of 90s television.  (Although if this interlacing was merely a problem on the version screened please comment and tell me.)

I could overlook all that if the film was a powerhouse showcase of acting talent, but it's not. For the most part these performances are competently alright but there's nothing here that's going to set the world on fire.  These rather thankless roles require the actors to behave like they've been shot with tranquilliser darts, slowly moping their way from long shot to long shot in an Eeyorish daze.  There are brief moments where glimmers of passion poke through the surface of this stagnant pond - moments you grab onto like a drowning man clutching a life ring - but they're fleeting and quickly pass.

That said, there is one notable highlight among this troupe; Bob Goody's Jack.  In a film with Death hovering just above proceedings the cast have mostly become corpselike in response. It's only Goody as Jack who provides anything close to a compelling character, enjoyably bumbling his way through a doomed, unrequited love affair and pondering over whether there's any point continuing his marriage.  Of the the cast it's Goody that seems most at ease with the improvisatory style of the film, able to naturally digress a bit in a pretty seamless way.

Another one for the 'positives' column is the nice score by Douglas Finch.  The film actually begins pretty promisingly, with some Terrence Malicky shots of stars, rivers and spiderwebs all underscored by a beautiful piano led score.  Throughout the film there's the odd musical interlude between scenes; these short bursts of music doing a far clearer job of conveying mood and tone than the muddled dialogue ever does.  Though I was eagerly awaiting the credits to roll so I could find something more interesting to do, I stuck around for them purely because some twinkling stars and Finch's score was much more compelling than nearly all of the film that preceded it.

What's perhaps most frustrating is that in the middle of the final sequence the film briefly does something actually interesting.  Up to the end of the film there's been no obvious reason why the film wouldn't work as a 'Play of the Day' on Radio 4, yet for one brief moment there's a subtle bending of space and time that is easily the best bit of the film.  Even more impressively this goes by completely unremarked, Sanders trusting that his audience is paying sufficient attention to pick up on it.

Despite these few slivers of positivity this film, quite simply, is boring. Even with a mercifully short 90 minute run time it drags on and on, exploring the inner-world of characters we're given no reason to care about.  Stylistically Sanders approaches Dogme 95 levels of filmic austerity; the improvised dialogue, dodgy technical aspects and really low-key story leading me to suspect that Sanders is attempting to capture some kind of 'reality' on screen, a filmic world shorn of mainstream narrative pretensions. On that front I suppose he's succeeded because Back to the Garden absolutely captures what it's like to be trapped at a crap party with a load of miserable people.  


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