AFI Fest 2016: Always Shine, by Scott Nye
When Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, comparisons between the two titans of midcentury cinema were inevitable. In response to claims that Antonioni’s influence was wider, that, in Michael Atkinson’s words, “no one seems to want to be the new Bergman.” Glenn Kenny retorted, “That’s partly because nobody can be the new Bergman. And not just for the obvious reason.” He went on the cite Bergman’s rich education in religion, literature, and theatre, which is inextricable from the power of his cinema. “Today’s young filmmaker’s aren’t, for the most part, as polyglot. For a lot of them all the culture they’ve got is film… To emulate Bergman, you’ve got to know what he knew, and knowing that, go on to be yourself.”
That’s a tall order, and it’s no wonder that recent films attempting to craft Bergman for the modern era (most commonly by reading the mental illness in Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, and Hour of the Wolf rather straightforwardly) end up feeling more imitative than emulative. The best of them, The Witch, succeeds because it takes not only its characters’ religion seriously, but also the very idea that their beliefs could actually be true. Others attempting Bergman (or some combination of Bergman and Robert Altman’s 3 Women, itself inspired by the master, but nearer to his time) disregard the notion of faith, and along with that, the import of individual identity. In Bergman’s time, the self was of paramount importance, a constant development that required nurture and care. In the postmodern era, the self is set and it’s up to the world to accept it. It is an attempt to assert one’s place in a clustered environment and guard it from that same assault. It is defined by its protective qualities, not its internal power. We saw this last year with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, and now again with Sophia Takal’s Always Shine.
I adored Takal’s little-seen, barely-distributed Green (2011), and the inspiration of 3 Women was not far from that, either. Her more audacious follow-up comes out of the gate swinging with a confrontational audition scene and dizzying credits sequence, the dissonance of which is nearly as dynamic today as Persona’s continues to be. What follows is considerably more banal. Two young actresses – Beth (Caitlin FItzgerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) – retreat to the latter’s aunt’s house in Big Sur for a best friends getaway weekend. Like most best-friends-getaway films, these two aren’t as close as they used to be, as one (Beth) is now a good deal more successful than the other.
Green shows an instinctive understanding of how uneasy friendships become once jealousy enters into the relationship, with every remark or glance interpreted as a total betrayal, a thousand splintered possible paths suddenly spread out until all become reality. Takal, better-known as an actress, starred in the film but did not take the lead role, a wise distancing decision she extends here, holding no role in the film at all. Fitzgerald and Davis fill in as two representations of female experience in the entertainment industry, overtly stating that Beth’s success comes because she is able to remain quiet and demure while Anna is a storm of personality who bulldozes or embarrasses easily-threatened men. Davis has the taller order here, more aggressively tackling gender norms and platonic jealousy, the uneasy space in which you find yourself hating someone you love.
This is fertile ground, which Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine laboriously underline. Thematic concerns are shoved into dialogue or thrown into prominence with a great many glowering stares, thriller conventions that cheapen its philosophical aims. What begins with somewhat-overlong scenes that subtly nudge Beth and Anna’s friendship towards discomfort (brilliantly in a bathroom scene that situates Beth’s reflection in the corner of a mirror Anna is using, which is itself in the corner of the frame) gives way to declarations about sexism in the film industry. Beth and Anna are well familiar with the world of low-/no-budget horror films and avant-garde shorts, which Takal and Levine take great pleasure in shredding, but the net effect is cheap. The central purchase of sympathy rests in feeling superior to work you have to beg for. Rather than address that horrible irony, Always Shine takes it as read that these are not struggling artists, but geniuses awaiting their deserved acclaim. Yet we have little insight into their talent. Anna’s audition seems promising, but by introducing us to her performance before her personality, we don’t really understand her talent as an extension of herself. She’s anonymous at the precise moment we need her to be most understood.
The film soon descends into an inevitable reversal and genuine psychosis, with a slight fourth-wall-shattering intrusion to let you know just how destructive it all is. In a landscape of independent cinema that increasingly prizes the conventional, these moves are to a degree radical, but they are situated in an aesthetic and tonal approach that grows more and more familiar as it grinds on. The threats grow more intense, the “stakes” constantly raised, the jump scares and music blasts louder. It becomes a more “intellectual” version of the cheap horror work it decries. The threats remain superficial. Persona, 3 Women, and Green viewed descents to madness as a loss of identity, the tragedy of no longer knowing oneself. In Always Shine, the tragedy lies in not getting away with it.