SHORT OF THE MONTH | NARAN JA (ONE ACT ORANGE DANCE)
This month the illustrious SOTM title goes to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Naran Ja (One Act Orange Dance).
I’ve been a fan of Iñárritu since Amores Perros; though I thought the middle story sagged a little after Gael García Bernal’s electrifying opening, overall it was still a very exciting debut. I was equally as impressed by his quick and unfaltering move into American cinema with 21 Grams, a film that in my opinion boasts one of the most interesting and emotionally engaging non-linear story structures I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately I lost interest with Babel which I thought was a little boring and overreached, so much so that I didn’t even bother checking out Biutiful despite its hype. Earlier this year though, I stumbled upon the teaser for his new film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and it immediately had me by the balls.
I love Michael Keaton and have done ever since watching Beetlejuice and Batman Returns as a kid (still the best Batman film in my opinion). Multiplicity, Pacific Heights, Jackie Brown; need I say more? My inner child has been quietly praying for a majestic comeback ever since being teased with his more recent minor roles in Clear History and The Other Guys.
With its clever casting, meta-narrative and unique mixture of what appears to be straight drama and psychologically motivated magic-realism, Birdman put Iñárritu firmly back on my radar and my impatience for its release led me to start digging around for other goodies I could find. Soon I stumbled on Naran Ja or (One Act Orange Dance).
As with Birdman Iñárritu seems be fighting an honourable one-man battle to bring back the irreverent subtitle, following in the tradition of Dr. Strangelove. Naran Ja is as playful as it’s title suggests, shot entirely on VHS it is a low-fi video exercise in documenting a portion of Benjamin Millepied’s choreography for the L.A. Dance Project's Moving Parts.
In an interview I read, Iñárritu defends his choice to shoot VHS by explaining that its texture is for digital what grain used to be for film. He goes on to say that modern digital formats and film stocks are so sleek they look plastic and fake. I’ve been ranting about the exact same thing ever since I saw Lynch’s Inland Empire back in 2006, so the guy now firmly has my interest. He goes on to say that the VHS camera reproduced an exquisite, moshy-moshy, beautiful, horrific greeny-yellowish skin that triggered his emotional memory of TV series from the 70s.
Despite having some great moments of distortion, the aesthetic of Naran Ja is nowhere near as playful as this makes it sound and is probably one of the least interesting things about the film. Where this film truly excels is its form. It appears to be shot entirely in one shot though the logic of the blocking conspires to make it quite clear that this is not the case. The way that the SFX is integrated into the low-fi aesthetic is impressively seamless as the film whirls around in a continuous loop that although repetitive, is nonetheless still quite mesmerising.
Iñárritu argues that dance is a difficult subject to shoot and that when reproducing it in a medium with just two dimensions, a lot is lost in translation. He claims that in dance everything is about rhythm, and rhythm is about flow. Therefore he wanted the film to flow visually in one continuous shot. Since seeing this film, I recently found out that Birdman is also similarly designed to appear as one continuous shot.
In light of this it seems clear that Naran Ja was a bit of a test run for the continuous one-take approach intended for Birdman. I would argue that Iñárritu chose a subject without conventional story or character in order to reduce the variables so he could test out how to hide cuts and manipulate blocking without worrying also having to address a comprehensible narrative.
In an interview on Birdman, Iñárritu likens his new filmmaking approach to the work of Max Ophuls; whose films he claims always contain a sequence that’s long and beautifully choreographed serving the magic and purpose of the character. In the same interview he reflects on how much he has over-abused editing in the past. He argues that modern filmmakers over-cover scenes to ensure a slick and polished finish but that this only dilutes their power and directness.
Generally I would agree with him but in the case of 21 Grams I find its fragmental over-covered approach to be one of its truly great strengths. It’s for this reason that I don’t think either methodology is necessarily superior. Instead I would argue that once a filmmaker has excelled in one direction they have an obligation to themselves and their audience to then try and do something new.
I didn’t really enjoy this short so much but I could see Iñárritu trying to push himself and dip his toe in new waters, which is something that really excites me. Personally I can’t wait to see what he does next, there is nothing more tiresome than a filmmaker who repeatedly makes the same film. *Cough* Wes Anderson. For me, Naran Ja confirms Iñárritu as a filmmaker who is restless, brave and hopefully will continue to try and develop his approach to cinematic language and storytelling, which is why I have chosen it as SOTM.
Also there are some pretty gnarly floating oranges in it just for good measure.