Wednesday, August 08, 2007

gravida (2007, Lucas McNelly)

In the original introduction to his screenplay for Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader posited that rather than being the exception, loneliness was the natural state for most people in our society. Unlike Travis Bickle, most people don’t pick up a gun and mow down criminals. Instead, they go about their business and try not to think too hard about their lives of, in the words of Thoreau, “quiet desperation.” But loneliness lingers, especially for those are legitimately lonely, as compared to people who simply get lonely on occasion.

Lucas McNelly’s gravida, subtitled A Study in Loneliness, tells the story of Kristin (talented, appealing Rachel Shaw)- pretty and single and pregnant. She tries to keep the loneliness at bay by manipulating a friendly courier into asking her out, neglecting to tell her about her condition. Well, what would you do? Men can be so strange when it comes to pregnant women, and he seems like a nice guy, so maybe, just maybe, he’ll be different.

McNelly grabbed me from the first scene of gravida, in which he simply observes Kristin as she starts her day. She gets up, dresses, and eats breakfast with her cat, and McNelly edits the scene as a series of snapshots from her life, punctuated by fades to black. The scene concludes with several shots of her washing herself in the mirror, and it’s only when she pulls up the hem of her top that we finally see her pregnant belly. She’s not yet at the stage where it announces itself, but it’s certainly noticeable if you’re looking for it. Her pregnancy casts a shadow over the rest of the story, as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

The events that have brought Kristin to this point in her life have painted her into a corner. Whether she wanted the baby is up for debate, but what’s apparent is that when she got pregnant she wasn’t anticipating having it by herself (there’s a picture in her apartment of her with a man with the man’s face cut out). And though she’s keeping the baby, she can’t simply turn off her own emotions. She wants a man in her life, not just for the kid, but more immediately for herself. She needs to not be alone, if only for the evening.

gravida has much the same power as a good short story. It never overreaches for effect or tries to shoehorn too much into its relatively brief running time. It merely follows a situation to its logical end. We know just enough about its two characters to sympathize with where they’re coming from, and why they do what they do. This is just as important in the suitor’s case as it is in Kristin’s. We’re familiar enough with him to know that he’s pleasant and that he likes her, and when he is taken aback by her pregnancy, it’s clear that this isn’t simply due to his discomfort with her physical condition, but also because of his surprise at her deception. It’s a difficult situation from either side, but could you blame either of them?

Lucas McNelly has made a serenely confident short film, with which he shows a real facility as a director. He never tries to dazzle the audience with flashy technique or camera work, preferring his style to be dictated by his material. Despite his obvious budgetary constraints, he’s capable of some lovely low-key touches, like his use of colored lighting in the climactic revelation scene. This simple addition to the lighting of the scene manages to give it an extra expressiveness without distracting from its content or sacrificing its naturalistic feel. gravida is small film in the best sense, one that’s exactly the right size for the story it tells. McNelly’s direction is subtle enough not to overwhelm the film, but strong enough to assure us that there’s a firm hand on the wheel. I’m eager to see what he does next.

There’s a disclaimer during the end credits of gravida that reads:
“Any similarity to any person, either living or dead, is completely on purpose. It could be anyone. It could be you.”

These words summarize gravida’s effectiveness as well as anything I could possibly write about it. Its characters are in a very specific situation, but the themes of the film are universal. Anyone who is truly lonely can attest to the desperate measures we sometimes resort to in order to stave off our loneliness, as well as the harsh reality that we never feel quite so alone as when those plans fail to bear fruit. One doesn’t need to be in Kristin’s particular situation to empathize with the emotions that gravida traffics in- even a single twentysomething who lives with his guinea pigs and blogs in lieu of a social life can feel her pain. And if that last sentence sounds like I’m getting too personal, it’s only because gravida so poignantly invites us to consider the condition in which so many of us live.

The official web site for gravida and McNelly's other films can be found at: McNelly's personal blog, 100 Films, is at, and can also be found in my blogroll at right.

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