It’s hard to watch movies, let alone blog, while on a road trip. Therefore, Songs My Brother Taught Me is probably one of only a handful of things I’ve watched over the last month. And it’s very good – one of the best of 2016 for me so far.
While non-professional actors nearly always equates to a Neo-Realism comparison this one somehow felt like a rawer Bresson to me. I think it’s because director Chloe Zhao seems to adhere to that director’s muted style of performance (which Bresson commented on in this famous quote: “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all, what they do not suspect is in them.”). It’s particularly true in Zhao’s film of her lead Johnny Winters (John Reddy) who plays much of the film monotone, but has an intensity that works.
I was just in the Badlands, so seeing it captured on film is at once pretty cool and also disappointing. This isn’t a fair criticism: it’s just much prettier in person.
One of my favorite things about Songs My Brother Taught Me (aside, I should mention, from the outstanding performances of Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) and Travis (Travis Lone Hill)) is the editing. I think this is a hard film to cut and Alan Canant does an amazing job.
You might be familiar with Walter Murch’s Rule of Six (http://videoandfilmmaker.com/wp/index.php/tutorials/film-editing-walter-murchs-rule-6/).
Canant basically adheres to this, but taking out some of Murch’s fun with space and planes, you can look at Canant’s edits like this:
I was really impressed by a few edits in particular. Here’s one of them. Johnny enters a house to sell beer illegally (that’s a hugely important and interesting part of this narrative). Two cuts here. The first image below is Johnny’s POV as he essentially surveys who he’s selling to (and, in effect, perhaps some of the harm he’s wreaking). The second two images below are one shot as Johnny pulls beers from his bag:
Canant cuts to this shot of Johnny riding alone in his car:
And then we’re at the Badlands with Johnny and Jashaun:
When I teach students who have never shot or edited before I always have to stress things that probably seem pretty simplistic to a lot of people: you can modify space and time in a film via the edit. If my students saw this they’d probably point out that Canant and Zhao could easily lose the shot of Johnny driving. We’d still get it. Just because he appears suddenly in the Badlands we wouldn’t be confused as to how he got there. We already know he has a truck. We’ve already met Jashaun.
The cut is a great example of pacing. It slows things down in order to give Johnny some brief alone time after a silently traumatic (maybe too strong a word?) encounter. It bridges his illicit life and his family life. So it’s also emotional.
The same is basically true of this next sequence, which is actually Jashaun’s scene. She wanders alone to a rodeo where she finds a step-brother. The edit that I want to look at begins here, as her step-brother plays guitar. Jashaun is in this scene, but not pictured in the 2-shot below.
Canant then cuts around to various on-lookers:
None of these people have been established in a prior wide. This comes close to breaking Murch’s rules 4 and 6, mostly because no eye trace or 180 lines between the above characters the guitar player have been established. It’s kind of confusing. Instead, these cuts are closer to Murch’s idea of rhythm (certainly not story), and what I’d call pacing for Canant. They extend the scene and also fit into Zhao’s clear idea of placing the community at a level of import equal to the narrative.
The next cut is to Johnny’s girlfriend:
She also hasn’t been established in this scene at this point (she was earlier). Yes, she’s an important character. No, her presence here doesn’t impact story. It’s a nice way, again, for Zhao to stress the smallness of the community as Canant moves away from this as simple performance (which would be the impact were he to just hang on the 2-shot of the guitar player and his sidekick) and focuses on the surroundings.
The next three cuts are really interesting.
Jashaun walks alone in the dusk in a MS profile and then away from camera in a wide. Then we cut to a new place and time. Great mood edits. I don’t know where Jashaun is walking but the feeling is one of isolation and loss. Kudos of course to Zhao and DP Joshua James Richards for getting these shots to give Canant the option.
What if you take those shots of Jashaun walking alone out? What if you take it a step forward and go from the 2-shot of the guitar playing directly to the stove being lit? Both of these (particularly the latter) would be story-heavy edits and would still make logical sense. We’d lose the sense of time passing and stillness. We’d lose some of Jashaun’s psychology (I don’t know what she’s thinking when she walks alone; but I know she’s thinking).
It’s clear that Zhao and Canant made the decision at some point in the process to linger in time rather than just push story story story, and it pays off. Some of the major beauty in Songs My Brother Taught Me comes from reveling in the place and the people instead of just the suspense.