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«Feeling Time to Do Something» is a deceptively simple masterpiece

Ten years ago, when I was thinking about a pair of indie films more than a generation apart—Claudia Weill’s «Girlfriends» (1978) and Alex Ross Perry’s «The Color Wheel» (2011)—I was hit how much their delicate mixture of comedy and drama owed to the director’s sense of distance, their exacting choice of how far from the actors to position the camera. Brooklyn-based filmmaker Joanna Arnow, in her first dramatic film, «Feeling Like It’s Time To Do Something,» performs a similar art of detachment, but to a stunningly and painfully different effect. (The film, one of the standout offerings at last year’s New York Film Festival, opens this Friday.) Arnow, who wrote and directed the film, also stars as Ann, a 30-year-old Brooklyn woman whose private life revolves around a submissive sexual relationship with a somewhat older man named Allen (Scott Cohen). It’s an unashamedly sexual film, and its most provocative episodes are played by Arnow herself. However, the precision with which she places herself in the frame, her careful calibration of the relationship between the image and the performer, allows her to sublimate Anna’s conflicts and vulnerability into a kind of spiritual exaltation.

Anna’s desire to be controlled seems less about the physical effect of pain or bondage than about humiliation. In the first scene, she is naked in bed, lying on top of the covers Allen is sleeping under, rubbing against his limp body as she expresses appreciation for his disregard for her pleasure. It turns out that Allen is awake but just ignores her. She says, «I love how you don’t care if I come out, because it’s like I don’t even exist,» and he says, «You can’t?» In short, the film goes through a series of humiliations and renunciations that Ann endures in other aspects of her life. In her relationship with her parents—played by Arnow’s real-life parents Barbara Weiserbs and David Arnow—Ann faces a minefield of passive and active verbal aggression that suppresses her good intentions and imputes her bad ones. She has a dull job in something vaguely technical and educational at a company where her main responsibility is to make her own job obsolete. The feeling of non-existence is heightened by a strikingly simple dramatic trick: Anna’s name is not heard even after half an hour of the film. Even the trivial moments of her life threaten abysses of humiliation—the color and texture of the dirty brown food she squeezes from a green packet into a bowl, the reaction to a performance at a party («We’ve already talked to her»). a classmate’s skeptical view of yoga.

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Looking for an emotional connection unavailable in her relationship with Allen, Ann spends her time on dating apps looking for someone else. The prescribed roles of the erotic game and the real identities of the role-playing participants collide in a destabilizing way. As Allen gags Ann, he expresses his joy that he won’t hear her speak. She later says that his comment saddened her because she thought he meant it—and he says he did. But when Ann tries to be controlled by another man, he is too gentle and needs instructions from her – which is, of course, contradictory. The third man is too wild, his cruelty comes to the fore; he tries to publicize the humiliation he causes and is impatient with her request for the usual practice of post-BDSM aftercare. And when Ann is with men who aren’t trying to dominate her, she lets loose with an unbridled sentimentality that brings further, self-deprecating humiliation.

In the many scenes where Anna’s body is exposed, she turns the dictates of her chosen masters from the restraints she seeks into a kind of choreography. Allen orders a naked Ann to run to the wall, run back and suck his nipple, then run to the wall again; although the action is sexual, the impression it leaves is one of absurd wantonness. Arnow’s sharply purposeful movement style is reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s dances, and this effect is achieved not only by the way she moves, but also by the way she is framed by cinematographer Barton Cortright’s camera. The distinctive aesthetic involves a finely calibrated relationship between body and image, which is achieved by two kinds of distance: the physical distance of the camera from the actors and the subtle use of lens focal lengths to evoke the spaces the characters inhabit. The film has relatively few close-ups. Ann is seen walking, sitting or lying in rooms that, however cramped, feel like empty spaces. On the street, she saw walking and talking (on the phone or in person) from a great distance, while the call is heard as if close, in close proximity.

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As stubbornly and straightforwardly physical as the film is, it is also intensely and brilliantly verbal. Dialogue scenes are often shot from a subtly theatrical distance and at subtly disorienting oblique angles. The result is that the tongue is thrust forward to the point where it is felt almost more palpably than the body. The word has become flesh, while the body—however often depicted and discussed—seems ethereal. The characters speak with a slightly hyperreal precision, their meanings and feelings conveyed by minute inflections of rhythm, timing, word choice and emphasis. It’s as if Arnow’s direction has etched the script onto the screen. (As I watched, I found myself often noticing not only turns of phrase, but what sounded distinctly like italics.)

I don’t know exactly how Arnow’s script or direction dictates the cast’s inclinations, but the entire cast speaks and moves like Arnow, as if she somehow hand-shaped them. Recognizing that much of life’s pain is built on sharp but minute intimacies, impressions, and humiliations, Arnow brilliantly captures the sense of disproportion that arises when small or banal exchanges have powerful emotional effects. Even moments with almost no drama somehow ooze with focused intensity: a display on a subway platform announcing that the next train is leaving in twenty minutes; a friend who forces Ann to listen to a song she asked him not to play. The seemingly simple style is reminiscent of Jacques Tati, a great director and also a great mime, whose unique screen presence in his own films is inseparable from the precision of his direction. Likewise, Arnow’s poignant and original performance—refined in its awkwardness, elevated in its degradation, moved by grace in its raw self-presentation—is a dual masterpiece of acting and direction. ♦

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