I’ve got to say, I’m not a huge fan of the earnest multiple-storylines “look how our lives crash into one another” style of filmmaking generally attributed, in origins, to the late Robert Altman. I found Crash, in particular, to be disingenuously artificial, and the only films loosely in this genre I can say I’ve really liked are The Feast of Love, The Dead Girl, and The Sensation of Sight.
Add another to the list with 3 Backyards. This time out, I was immediately hooked by director Eric Mendelsohn’s unabashed artiness. Within the first five minutes, I saw elements that reminded me of David Lynch (a nod to Blue Velvet in the opening shot), Sergio Leone (who else has used a garbage truck as character exposition?), and Mary Haverstick (well, I’ve heard of her, even if you haven’t).
Take, for instance, a Terrence Malick-like sequence in which the camera wanders through fields, straying on grasses and insects. But Mendelsohn layers the sound of whirring bike gears behind the buzzing of bees, and he simulates a rack focus from a blurred orange background behind a macro-image spider to the side of a school bus. The approach is less grating than Lynch’s and more human—less coldly analytic—than Malick’s. I love it.
Like Haverstick (you really ought to look up her poetic 2008 film Home, featuring Marcia Gay Harden), Mendelsohn has a poet’s sense with both the cinema and the rhythms of sound and vision. Individual sequences, like those in Wiederspahn’s The Sensation of Sight, are designed with a painter’s sense of composition and light, and the score by Michael Nicholas, with whom Mendelsohn worked on his lone prior feature film, lends the film the air of a pointillist Copland concerto, if that makes any sense. So it’s abstract, but with a marketable appeal.
All this announces: You are seeing art, not reality. This is not your life, or anyone else’s—but if you watch closely, you might learn about life in general.
It’s an approach that much better serves the aims of Crash-like films, which depend on a great deal of narrative contrivance—which, since it cannot be hidden, becomes almost dishonest when it’s not overtly acknowledged.
The three storylines here involve a painter who’s asked by a reclusive actress to give her a ride to catch a ferry; a business executive who is only too eager to catch a flight out of town so he can once again escape the nightmare that his marriage has become; and a young girl who wants so badly to see her parents happy… but holds in her hands, almost literally, the makings of a domestic disaster.
Mendelsohn, in addition to being a cineaste in the extreme, also seems to be an actor’s director. He draws tremendous tongue-tied performances (think Mamet characters whose eyes are where their voices should be) out of Elias Koteas as the executive, Edie Falco as the painter, and Embeth Davidtz as the actress. But the film—and the film’s climax—is really anchored by young Rachel Resheff as Christina, delivering what may be the most startling and satisfying payoff you’ll ever see to a dark, Lynchian storyline. The moment is like To Kill A Mockingbird reimagined for a newly-sullied half-century.
The film is not perfect, of course. Someone gets dead mighty quick in a fashion that strains all credulity, Christina’s sleeves are sometimes up when they should be down, and her trek through the New England countryside may be contrived—but again, Mendelsohn has warned us that this is not verisimilitude. It’s easier to forgive trifles like this when a filmmaker makes no pretense of delivering “reality.”
3 Backyards will probably end up being too upbeat for “serious critics” yet too dark for any but arthouse audiences. But give me cinema like this any day.
3 Backyards is rated R “for a scene of sexual content.” On one level, that scene seems like a marketing ploy to get the intended audience to take it “seriously.” On another level, the scene sets up a tension that is almost essential for the significance of the film’s climax. I’ve thought about how else Mendelsohn might have staged things to achieve a PG-13 cut, and I don’t think it would have worked either thematically or dramatically—or spiritually.
Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional copy of 3 Backyards.