I was watching Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and a friend asked what it was about. I struggled to explain – something about a film within a film and love and animation. And this film is layered and complex, but I think it’s also (in a really great way) a simple conceit about relationships and and the way those relationships add up in some unforeseen way over time.
Partially an essay film, partially a cinematic diary, and wholly playful, An Oversimplification is really fun to watch. Nance uses a huge array of technique: stop-motion and 2D animation; recreation; dueling voiceovers (I really love how the omniscient (both in content and stereotypical texture) flows fluidly to and from what I believe is Nance’s own VO, making the film at once a distanced, universal narrative and something really intimate and personal); found footage; trailers.
A lot of the animation is really colorful, varied, and eclectic. It’s beautiful:
Nance likes to keep his camera pretty close to subjects and that results in some similar framing from segment to segment:
These two shots aren’t contiguous in the film, but I think they represent a level of closeness that the movie exudes throughout.
I think if you just listened to An Oversimplification it might sound pretentious. But so much of what is said is ironic, or oppositely, totally and beautifully earnest, that, when placed in context, it seems anything but affected.
Nance made a short film called How Would You Feel? in 2010. He uses that footage – which discusses a prior relationship – and crosscuts it with new footage from An Oversimplification (which combined make up, confusingly, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) to reflect on his past relationships and their various trajectories.
Two of my favorite things about this film might sound like backhanded compliments, but they’re both meant totally genuinely. 1) This film is proof that a film can be made; 2) this feels like what a lot of my students are going for but fail to achieve.
1: This could feel like such a thin premise, but Nance delves so deep into his own backstory that he makes something out of something much shorter (literally, as well). This isn’t your stereotypical “high production value” all the time, but there’s a great sense of pacing and honesty that overcomes that. This is also a great example of how the germ of an idea can spread so far out from just that initial seed.
2: I see a lot of student films that want to be revelatory or unflinchingly sincere. They don’t always fail, but when they do it’s usually for two reasons. First, the emotions are young and limited (no fault of anyone’s there). Second (and more commonly), there’s not enough of a variety of footage to match, and I’m often left watching one person wander about or stare meaningfully into space. Nance combats that latter one with footage that is sometimes “standard” (ie man and woman interacting), but is often dizzying at its rate and is always changing:
That first still above is a composite shot of multiple of the same man and woman watching a screening of How Would You Feel? As with so much of the film it’s used to literally place the viewer in the time and situation, and also figuratively to represent the various emotions or possible outcomes.
The second still is more of that playfulness as Nance pauses and unpauses one film to go back to the other, giving it a wavy VHS quality which immediately makes it feel like either fiction or home video and definitely throws us into the past.
There’s also a lot of text on-screen, further layering things. I wonder if Peter Greenaway would like this film. I think he would. The female’s name is redacted in both text and voiceover. Which is sort of a joke, because we really get to know her, she’s credited, and she’s the subject of a whole other film.
I like the second person text and narration. It’s actually asking the audience a question, and also slightly separating this from Nance himself (which we know to be far from the case given how much he’s on-screen and participating – there’s even a sequence of a Q&A from How Would You Feel?).