Experimental Reviews

Chopsticks (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: J. Basil

Writer: J. Basil

Cast: Christina Denny, Madeline Collier

Running time:  10 mins

To find out more about J. Basil’s work, visit her Vimeo page.

I could not see or hear any chopsticks in J. Basil’s short, but then again, you will not find any dogs in Le Chien Andalou either. Reviewing experimental film is one of the most exciting aspects of being part of Indy Film Library – you never know what form each piece will take and there is always the immanent possibility of a breaking down of the barriers between the forms of making art. This process is also the most challenging to address, as one has no conceptual framework or genre yardstick to compare the work with, or to facilitate the construction of a critique to help an artist in their development. And so, it is with Chopsticks.

Throughout Chopsticks, artist J. Basil utilises film, poetry, philosophical discourse, and music. The film has no linear narrative, with four discrete stories interwoven with supporting voice-overs from Lynne Sachs (A Bibliography of Lilith), Emma Slade (My Path to Becoming a Buddhist), and Rupi Kaur (I’m Taking My Body Back). To those unfamiliar with these other works, this structure only becomes apparent when the end credits role, so in the viewer’s real time experience for the great majority of the film, they are presented with a melange of voices mixed with written text without reference points.

While I cannot say if this was deliberate on Basil’s part, the editing style reminded me of early psychedelia. Chopsticks is filmed entirely in black and white, while the editing has a spontaneous, ludic quality – we are confronted with multiple images in the same frame, images in negative, images upside down – further discombobulating the viewer. This is not necessarily detrimental to an experimental film – but it will likely mean that it will find it hard to engage with audiences beyond a certain niche.

What this technique does allow for is some wonderful moments of cinematic construction. For example, there is a section near the beginning, just after the creation myth sequence, where two characters take up a piece of glass which acts as some kind of portal, leading to a sequence of images shown to us at high speed – breath-taking to watch.

The film opens with an image of human hands in mud: something which eventually evolves into images of two women. The women are at first sitting in what appears to be a homemade hot tub in a woodland setting. Later, the women dance. As the scene builds, lapidary epigrams are written on to the film in real time. The text is a variation on the archetypal creation story – “Born from Chaos…there were two…when the Universe was created” – before the film moves on to a discussion between the two women regarding the development of their relationship with each other.

At several points calendar dates are written out for us: several as single items and later as a list. The first date seems to have some significance as a moment of epiphany as it is accompanied by the women making statements such as “I looked across the room and fell into the portal of your eyes…we fell into each other…we were completely connected”. We then have a voice-over statement as to a proclivity to confuse kind conversation with flirtation; this is followed by strong statements as to why, presumably the two women or possibly women in general have to defend their own trauma…they have to live with it every day. I am guessing that the list of dates might reference experiences of trauma but, who knows, the director’s use of them is enigmatic.

This section ends with a hand-drawn picture of a unicorn accompanied by the statement: Unicorns will forever be. The women, in conversation, reference a man and note that he is a wonderful person, but he has served his purpose and can now leave, literally. The women then commence to dance, and the conversation reveals to us the profundity of their feelings for each other which transcend physical sexuality: “I would die for you…a fucking tornado in my heart.” This section is ended by one of the women noting that “‘He’ has just fucking texted me.” We then have a male voice over which gives us a kind of desideratum on how to behave in a relationship with reflections such as: a woman being something to be nurtured not something to be conquered, the general male fear of abandonment and the need to embrace his lover’s boundless nature. All very sensible.

During the male voiceover, we see, as reflections in an image of an eye, a series of scenes and stills of a man and woman doing the kind of stuff you do in a relationship. The eye-sequence demonstrates a high level of technical ability on Basil’s part and self-confidence in that ability. The credits then roll. These are followed by a brief coda where we have the women drinking wine, accompanied by a naked female mannikin with what appears to be an animal mask on its head.

To attempt some sort of exegesis as to the layers of symbolism in Chopsticks is perhaps a forlorn task, but it seems to be playing with the concept of the human eye, and that ‘spark’ when lovers’ eyes meet – something which is a clever piece of art, that will resonate with viewers who have stayed with the action to the end.

I did find that certain aspects of the film made it harder to hang in there for that moment than it needed to be. One such issue I had with the film was the soundtrack; not with the musical score, which is fine – judiciously placed piano music in the main – but with the quality of the sound recording for the dialogue between the two women. I am guessing the two women are not professional actors but, when they spoke, they tended to naturally speak quickly in conservation, and I do not think the sound recording was clear enough to make this easy listening for the audience.

Hey, I am the reviewer and I have a moral obligation to pay close attention – but I have the luxury of being able to rewind and replay the film, while Basil’s wider audience do not, and might be a little turned off by this element. They also might take issue with the matter of an art-work looking at issues of concern to feminists ensuring that the sequence with the man’s voice comes over clearly, and almost more authoritative than the women’s dialogue as a result. Unintentionally perhaps, for me this echoed the old and deeply sexist TV advertising strategy which saw products endorsed by women in conversation, but by men through simple declaration.

Due to the nature of the editing, it was also difficult to follow the identities of the people through the final section. Given the links to ‘He’ in the women’s dialogue, I was working on the assumption that there might be some link between the man in the later ‘reflected eye’ scenes and the women. It is difficult to tell for sure though, and the only connection I could really work out was one of the original women wore dreads and the woman in the relationship with the man in the later scenes also wore dreads. Beyond that, the images were difficult to compare. There are a lot of people with dreads out there, and by this point it was just too wearisome to speculate.

The other issue for me was the complexity of images and the amount of information that Basil is asking the audience to process and gain some meaning from in a very short time. In a sense, the sheer delight that Basil must have had in assembling and the experimenting with the images hinders the clear communication of any sort of meaning. There is just so much to look at, hear, and read. Possibly, that is Basil’s point, it is deliberate sensory over-load, and we are not meant to come away from the film with any coherent understanding but for just fragments of texts and dialogue to have registered hits on our consciousness. In my opinion though, to try to include the work of two feminist thinkers alongside that of a Buddhist philosopher, and then interpolate them into two conjoined (or possibly not) narratives – splicing them together in a radically experimental manner was – was just a stretch too far. But ambition is something Indy Film Library has to applaud, and I certainly would like to see how Basil might work in a longer format with more space to accommodate her lofty ambitions.

On the evidence of this work, J. Basil is an extremely talented young film-maker. Technically skilled and thematically intricate, in Chopsticks she has produced a remarkable piece of work, which is just too ambitious for the constraints of a ten-minute short. Of all the art forms involved, I would suggest to treat this particular film as poetry – and I would certainly recommend readers should watch Chopsticks on that basis. As with a poem, be prepared to give it a close reading two or three times to tease out the multiple layers of symbols and meaning in the text.

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