And now for something completely different
Jess + Moss was definitely the quirkiest selection I saw at the Little Rock Film Festival this year, but unlike a lot of other contemporary films with quirk, it had heart to back it up. It was as moving as Happy New Year, but for no damn good (sociopolitical) reason. It dealt in small emotions and small people, but it brought a grandeur to them all its own.
It’s the story of Jess—an 18 year old girl—and Moss—a 12 year old boy. They live in rural America, hang out on an old tobacco farm, and talk. Jess’s mother has left her, and Moss’s parents are dead. The movie has a very apocalyptic atmosphere. We really only see the two characters—except in one obvious flashback, and there’s a sense that these are the only two people left on Earth. The intimacy of the film was extremely painful. Jess listens to a tape her mother left her over and over, and Moss demands that she tell him the story of his parent’s deaths over and over in a mad attempt to prompt memories his infant brain never created. Both characters are trapped in existential hamster wheels, going over the details of their trauma without ever moving or changing.
An experiement with purpose
Part of the beauty of Jess + Moss is in its experimental nature, but unlike much so-called experimental cinema, this involved an actual experiment. The film’s director Clay Jeter works primarily as a cinematographer, and over the course of his career he accumulated film stocks of varying degrees of antiquity. He chose to shoot Jess + Moss on over “thirty different 16-mm film stocks—some as much as a quarter-century old.” Jeter wasn’t sure many of these stocks would even work; not only do they work, they’re beautiful.
The interiors are cluttered and depressing, but when the pair venture out, the world around them, even in its inane details, looks so beautiful as to suggest a hope of transcending their circumstances.—Michael Dunaway
Jeter splits camera duties with Will Basanta, and together they weave a gorgeous, color-laden montage that’s overwhelming to the senses. Sudden changes in saturation, grain, and texture signal shifts in mood. Slow motion, reverse footage, repetition, and extreme compositions create a surreal hollow of broken frames and broken homes.
The experiment extends beyond the film’s aesthetics and into its themes. In the Q&A after the screening, the director talked about the similarities between memory and analog mediums like film. Each time you project film it decays. In the 1980s Scorsese was heavily involved in efforts to preserve classic films, because over time the color—and eventually the entire image—fades away.
In the movie this process of decay has two parallels. One is the tape that Jess listens to over and over. During the course of the film we notice a change in the quality of her mother’s voice; each time she listens it’s a little quieter and harder to hear. The other parallel is with memory itself, and this is where his experiment with varying film stocks comes in. He used brand new film for crisp actuality and varying levels of older stocks to portray memories gone over ad nauseam in the character’s head. In a disturbing scene where Moss destroys one of his most intense fetish objects—an old mason jar-turned terrarium, the oldest film stock is used with an incredible digital effect to create a bizarre fairy tale landscape. Recalling Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, the woods undulate and curl inward, pulling him through a darkened barn to an old well. The washed out look is beautiful, and it perfectly reflects the character’s twisted relationship with this particular memory.
Sound + Vision
Another wonderful part of Jess + Moss was its sound design. It had some of the absolute best sound I have ever heard outside of David Lynch’s aural masterpieces. Clacking Walkman buttons, squirming microbes, an old Victrola record player: the movie’s sound field is incredibly immersive and diverse. In scenes of slow motion and reverse photography, the sound is amplified and takes on otherworldly dimensions. As Jess listens to her mom’s tape, we can hear the whir and hiss of her tape player.
Too often sound design just emphasizes literality; in Jess + Moss the sound brings out hidden worlds and ideas. If you hear something, there isn’t always a guarantee that what you’re hearing comes from the film’s diegesis. In our mind, past and present are indistinct, and in Jess + Moss the sound reflects this.
An Earthy oddity
Jess + Moss was unique; its influences were unusual. I personally saw
- Quirk, awkward emotions, and Helvetica from Wes Anderson
- Family secrets, sadism, and dreams from David Lynch, and
- Landscapes and nature photography from the American Western.
There were other influences the director mentioned in the Q&A that I hadn’t heard of (Cam Archer, others), but as I was watching and walking out to my car I kept thinking about those three elements: Wes Anderson, David Lynch, and the Western. That’s the strange kind of lineage Jess + Moss belongs to, but even among oddballs it would stand out. Its style was avant-garde, which is usually a recipe for irony, but its emotions were honest, which is dangerous in 2011.
I thought it was a work of stunning visual and aural beauty, to say the least, but beyond that it featured two troubled characters that were intensely human. Sarah Hagan (from Freaks and Geeks) plays Jess with a surreal childishness. She’s tall and looks like a woman, but she dresses and acts like a little girl. Moss is played by a newcomer (Austin Vickers.) He’s 12, but he’s plagued by the most “adult” subject known: death. I’ve made much ballyhoo about the directing, editing, and sound work, but in the end it’s Jess and Moss that bring the film into your heart. In fact, much of the movie’s achievement lies in the tension between its complicated, experimental structure and the plaintive, naturalistic performances of its leads. Like the characters it portrays, Jess + Moss is a tragic paradox. I hope it finds distribution soon.
I’d hate for the memory to fade…