Alex Cannon, Paul Cannon, & Michael Lerman
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 03 April 2008
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
When Natural Causes ended I was still unaware of the characters’ names. These are revealed in the credits (and I’m fairly certain they’re in the film), but I state this to example the film’s preference for nuance over particularity. It follows a boy and girl during the arc of their relationship, and this relationship is reduced to moments, its crests and troughs. Scenes are sequenced with little or no compatibility—suddenly, the pair will be in a heated argument, and in the next scene they’re calm again. The details aren’t really relevant. The names don’t really matter.
The film comprises a series of emotional keyframes that orchestrate this romance’s development and dissolution. It’s designed as a proxy in which the viewer is welcome to apply his own principles. Midway through, it’s discovered that the girl has slept with someone else, and the boy is angry. Being that we don’t know the extent of the transgression, it’s possible to perceive either the girl’s selfishness or the boy’s overreaction. The truth of the matter remains ambiguous.
Much of the film is like this. Natural Causes is more of an abstract than it is a narrative. It is clear in establishing an essential tone for each scene, and sometimes this tone will carry throughout several of them. But the actions that produce these tones - the infatuation, the vulnerability, the disappointment, or the contentedness - remain unknown. It’s more concerned with effect than it is cause, despite the title.
The film is told with operatic cinematography and assured music cues. It’s an especially confident independent film, and it falters only because of cinematographic choices that undermine the concept’s inherent poetry. The entire film is swept from scene-to-scene and from place-to-place by moments that are to be unforeseeable. It seems fluid for the most part, but there are instances in which the filmmaking is domineering, coercing emotions instead of capturing them. In one instance, a static wide-shot finds the two lovers at a roof party, and they limber across the composition in slow-motion, scored in a remix of Bloc Party’s “Banquet.” This scene has an aggressive, thumping rhythm, and conditions the viewer for climax. In and of itself it’s a fine specimen of sight and sound, but it’s too well-done, too pronounced within an enterprise that is otherwise carefully nuanced and character-driven.
Furthermore, the film concludes with a twelve-minute shot that tracks from inside an apartment to a moving vehicle, and watching this I’m anticipating the cut. In Children of Men, the same effect is used to entrap the viewer; the edit is an escape, relieving the tension built up in the action sequences. Here, the effect is somewhat adverse, acknowledging the film’s making at the expense of its characters’ story. This isn’t a flaw, per se, only an example of a disconnect between the concept and presentation. It’s art in an elaborate frame.
So much of the film is confident in purveying abstraction, and what I most admire about it is how it remains emotionally comprehensible. Natural Causes has a robust and varied emotional arena, and the emotions it depicts are identifiable, but they may trigger different interpretations. It’s, again, an abstract—the impression of color and space when you close your eyes, and this experience - much like relational hardships - is unique to the individual.
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