Pamela Cohn sits down with Terence Nance, creator of the powerful new film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.
I encounter Terence Nance, creator of the startlingly fresh and emotionally stunning film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, in LA, virtually, via Skype. It is mid-morning there to my Berlin evening. The window on my computer screen displays a just-awakened Nance enjoying a breakfast of big, fat, cold strawberries which he will devour as we talk. His massive—really massive—head of hair is in bed-headed glorious disarray and swirls like a fluffy halo around his young handsome face, which is, more often than not, displaying a gentle gap-toothed grin.
His debut feature is about a young man’s love for a young woman, a woman who also happens to be his very close friend—a vérité documentary-feature narrative-animation-film-within-a-film (got that?). Nance takes great risks both creative and personal, and the result is a piece hauntingly evocative of how human beings experience emotions when they’re spinning out of control. His voice is a real discovery, straightforward and artful, exuberant, intelligent and very, very funny. Of all the copy I’ve read about Nance’s movie, I think my favorite thought comes from Brandon Harris of Hammer to Nail: “. . . [the film] is so winning and otherworldly, I was won over before I even knew what the fuck was going on.”
The film premiered in the New Frontiers section of the last edition of the Sundance Film Festival and also played at Rotterdam. It then went on to be selected as part of the prestigious New Directors New Films exhibition at New York’s Lincoln Center. It’s currently traveling the globe on what will probably prove to be a very healthy festival run. Later this month, Nance will travel to London where An Oversimplification of Her Beauty will play as part of the Sundance London Film and Music Festival, from April 26 to 29.
Pamela Cohn The film really resonates on such a deep level since you express so much of how I feel, particularly about romantic love. The shock of recognizing things I have also thought and done was surprising and wonderful. In cinema, especially, this is extremely hard to articulate meaningfully. People try to do it all the time.
As part of this articulation, you reference one of my favorite books ever, one to which you pay sort of an homage in the way you’ve structured your film, Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. I was obsessed with her characters for ages.
Terence Nance You’re the only person I’ve talked to who’s read that book.
PC The way Erdrich threads these different voices and experiences all radiating out from one protagonist’s experience is very similar to what you do in your film. In the book, her main character also talks eloquently about how love, and our quest for love and the way we suffer for love, is the main motivation for absolutely everything we do. Can you talk a bit about this notion of longing for something you never had in the first place? How did you figure out how to cinematically show this?
TN I’m not going to call what I attempted an experiment, exactly, but I did very much set out to develop this way of conveying experience that didn’t filter anything through the use of metaphor or the language of symbols. That was the guiding principle for making the movie. I consider it a children’s book way of making a movie—minimalist in its execution. My exploration was about how that becomes impossible since it isn’t possible to translate any sentiment or feeling or experience on screen, in images or in words and sound, without filtering it through how you communicate, without reducing it down or changing it—thus making it metaphorical or something symbolic of the actual thing you’re trying to present. So the movie ends up being extremely complex in its construction to tell the story.
I was trying to articulate this experience of being lost, confused, trying to make sense of all the available information. In essence, form followed function in trying to replicate feelings. Very purposely, the voiceover is, for the most part, emotionless, stating the facts, impartially relaying what happened from some kind of third-party point of view. I think this is especially how men might talk to each other about these things. It’s another way of attempting to explain something without metaphor. It’s saying, This is what it is; this is what happened. Most creative decisions that exist in the movie are trying to obey that rule and I think that’s how it retains some kind of authenticity. So watching the film feels authentic to the experience of what I was going through. That was always the goal—to show how beautiful it was, how complicated it was, how annoying it was, how long it lasted.
PC The way you make these statements and how you set out to define the narrative of the story ends up showing immense fragility and vulnerability. This is the wondrous irony of approaching this kind of material in the way you’re describing. This longing for something you want, or think you want, something you sense will be perpetually beyond your grasp, is a kind of trick, in a way, when you go on this journey of self-realization. It’s a trick played on the self, and in order to have this trick succeed, we set out these rules of how we must act in a love relationship to get what we want. You’re both the director and the protagonist in your own story, so there’s a natural sleight-of-hand built into this process. Did you experience a lot of self-doubt while attempting to create this?
TN Surprisingly, there weren’t really that many moments of self-doubt in how to do this. But I did have to, subconsciously at least, tell myself that what I’m putting up on the screen is, in fact, not really me. More of what I think I did, actually, was to think of that person as me at a very specific moment in time, and that I’m just not that person anymore. It becomes completely self-reflexive in a grammatical sense since I’m referring to myself in the third-person in the act of making the movie, referring to a younger me who didn’t know then what I know now.
There’s a theory that puts forth the idea that several times in your life, you are molecularly brand new. All of the cells in your entire body die off and your body is a totally new thing, re-born. Supposedly, this happens about eight times in a person’s lifetime. I guess in that kind of existential, or even scientific way, in terms of what I’m made up of, I am, indeed, not the same person. This idea allows me to treat myself as a subject that way, a whole other entity than the me I am now, several years later.
PC Further playing with this idea, we can say that our molecules have memory. So that, more than anything, could be thought of as the most moving aspect of this idea—the way we remember, or misremember our previous selves. But either way, those memories influence how we might act.
You could have written a novel, a book of poetry, a play, made a blues album, or made a much more, let’s say, straightforward vérité piece of this treatise on love. Why did this have to be a movie?
TN It had to be a movie because I think the initial impulse was to consecrate or celebrate the intensity and the size of how I felt about this woman, or feel about all the women with whom I’ve had relationships. Film is a unique spectacle in a way that a book or a song is not. The way it functions in culture as a spectacular moment or event and as a communal experience is unlike anything else. If you want to make a pronouncement or an announcement in this way, you have to make a film. Or create some kind of headline—something a lot of people will notice. A book or a song is not on the same scale in terms of how they operate in culture. They provide more personal experiences, providing other benefits in other ways than a film does.
PC How collaboratively did you and Namik Minter work together in creating or re-enacting these scenes together, the ways in which you relate to one another as you perform aspects of, or moments in, your relationship in front of the camera? There’s this triangle where you are the director, you are the protagonist and she is the other protagonist for most of the film. Then, in the finale, there is this very intimate interview where the two of you engage in a discussion, both of you naked in front of the camera. We understand there is no one else in the room except the two of you and it feels like some sort of confessional. The way you position yourselves, it’s as if you’re one being with two heads talking about this creation. And Namik’s own film is embedded in the middle of it all. I found it delightful that the name of her film is Subtext.
TN I’m glad all this was apparent to you because much of the subtext or commentary in this discussion she and I have at the end was edited out. This is something I explore in other work I do, the same ideas and elements I explore in this film, and it’s this idea of having a doppelgänger. But I mean this in the sense of having a male and female housed in one being and the solipsism inherent in that idea. Namik’s and my representation is always as kind of a matched pair. We don’t really look alike but we are reminiscent of one another. Even in the environments in which we were raised, we are connected. How we look, how we wear our hair, our color—we’re almost the same in a weird way. This even includes why we can’t engage. We’re both really laidback, not very aggressive in the way we act, so you have two non-aggressive people trying to have some kind of engagement with one another. So there are all of these aspects of twin-ness that are very present, subtextually. In working with her and being with her, being around her, being friends with her, this is a huge thing that draws us together and continues to draw us together, this twin-ness. It made the making of not only this film possible, but everything we invent together. Our relationship is mapped by the artwork and the projects we work on together and this is also in the subtext of the film.
The movie was not collaborative in the traditional sense where we were consulting with one another on creative decisions. I very much directed her in this piece; I created the storyboards. In a strange way, I think I probably was the only person taking it at all seriously in a certain way, especially at the beginning when we started to film. But at the same time, there was always the understanding between me and Namik that we were making some kind of representation of ourselves as the same person, this representation of this energy that’s between us, not us as individuals. It’s what the connection between us looks and feels like and that connection kind of looks like both of us.
The movie is also encapsulated in a period of time. Maybe the year after we shot that, we really weren’t so much alike anymore. Now we’re, once again, a little more alike. It’s very metaphysical in a way, something that illustrates dealing with aspects of our existence, or the existence that’s there when we’re together.
PC One of the film’s distinct accomplishments is that even though you are engaging and thinking about all of these philosophical and transitory ideas, you were still able to cinematically convey all of this heady stuff in a pretty straightforward way despite all of the different ways in which you tell the story. It’s a very full palette but simple, primary, easily digestible.
TN Well, there’s this conversation oftentimes about form, or genre, or “breaking form,” or what have you. This is a way of encountering this movie in the context of cinephilia, understanding it in relation to cinematic influences. But I definitely made this outside of that context. So, for me, the conversation about breaking form doesn’t make sense because that’s not what I set out to do. The movie took shape in the way in which it’s structured. And it wasn’t in reaction to anything. It was to serve the purposes of articulating this experience and the singular motivation for telling this story. I did have several versions of it since there are myriad ways of telling the story, but at the heart of it there was always the attempt to create dramatic minimalism, to really stay away from concepts and ideas and such, and just have straightforward narration, to strip away every creative decision, or any rationale other than directly articulating the experience. That’s what gave rise to the film’s form and that was developed in a very strict, pre-determined way.
PC Interestingly, it’s the animation sequences where you allow yourself to go for big drama. As you’re saying, the live action sequences are quite subdued in their emotionalism or there really isn’t any emotionalism attached to the characters. The scenes you drew and the performances given by the animated characters really are all out. Whereas you directed your live actors to be reserved, polite, restrained, acting within the confines of social conventions where we don’t really show how we’re feeling.
TN Yes, exactly, and as I mentioned earlier, the voiceover is that way, as well. The hardest thing to do was to get it to a place of as much de-saturation as possible, my own voice as well as that of the actor Reg E. Cathey’s in the How Would You Feel? short film. I wanted all the color taken out of our voices. The initial instinct is to perform the words you’re reciting, to imbue the word sadness with a heavy weight. I’m trying to be faithful to these emotions in that they’re all based around this idea of restraint, not saying what you mean, or not feeling able or ready to say something. There’s a lot of negation of what’s going on inside. And then, in the animation, what’s going on inside your mind gets played out in the most melodramatic way possible—to the extent that it’s hilarious, bordering on absurdity, where I’m literally pulling out my heart from my chest, handing it over to the object of my love, or writhing in agony on the floor, crucified. (laughter)
PC There’s a scene towards the end of the film that is really, for me, the most beautiful moment of many beautiful moments, and that’s when you’re sharing the screen between the live action you and the animated version of your beloved. You’re on your knees in front of her regurgitating all these books and other texts you’ve used as solace or reference or whatever, to try and tell this story, all the literary or intellectual devices in your arsenal.
TN It’s the conclusion where I, despite myself, am willing to give up this diarrhea of the mouth I have—although I’m not really constantly talking to anyone, really. But I am constantly concluding (laughter), constantly processing. Anything else I could say in a more elegiac way would be so strongly filtered. That woman represents my attitude of how I continually behave in my intimate relationships. If she’s going to be more affected by me, then it’s going to be on a more base, instantaneous, spontaneous, human, non-academic, non-intellectual level. This woman is telling me that I have not engaged her in that way. Getting to the point where I’m full enough to vomit all that up is really hard.
PC So molecularly speaking, who are you now compared to the man you were when you started making this film? It was several years of your life, quite formative years, I guess we could say. You can speak to this question as an artist and/or as someone who continues to look for the love of his life, if that’s a concept you’re still willing to entertain.
TN The movie took so long to make. I was a different person after making and exhibiting the short film, How Would You Feel?, before I started making the feature. The making of the feature created a transition for me that didn’t so much have to do with relationships or love or anything like that. It had more to do with artistic expression and making something. I mean, the experiences articulated in the movie are old. They were very relevant when I was making the short film. That’s not to say they’re not relevant now, but then, they were very present. When Namik and I are sitting together and I’m interviewing her about her thoughts and reactions, there’s a forwardness there. My feelings at the time enabled me to boldly ask her, “I’m in love with you. How do you feel about that?” This is how I feel—so what’s good with that? (laughter) I became filter-less in a very specific way.
PC And at your most aggressive, interestingly. I mean, she takes it well but you are gently bullying her in a way.
TN Well, I also need to state that that section is heavily edited. She also interviews me. I was more aggressive, I guess, because I was trying to make sense of this whole thing. It goes back to trying to tell this story efficiently.
PC And as you state at one point in the film, the healthy emotional environment in which you were raised seems to have become part of the problem in relating on any kind of aggressive level. That’s not really the appropriate word, but your essence is, if not passive, then certainly not aggressive in any behavioral way. I mean to say that I think that a lot of men act more aggressively than they really feel to protect themselves from the vulnerability of being in love.
TN This goes back to this idea you brought up of transition points and what’s made me the man I am now. On some level, this film loosely maps all of those moments in my life from very early memories. When I was a kid, I don’t even remember people raising their voices in front of me. I remember the first time I got into a fight in a relationship when I was nineteen or twenty. The woman I was with started yelling and I remember I had no precedent of how to deal with that. I felt like I was on TV or something. (laughter) It just made no sense. It took me a long time to realize that all of this formed my personality; the way in which I navigated emotionally was not something that everyone shared. It was a huge awakening for me. In the film, I’m trying to map all of these transitional moments.
This idea of layers—the animated me, the live action me, the interviewing me—I can say that in that regard, the film is very linear. The animated representation of me is not dead now, but through expressing that, it gave me the capability, in a weird way, to respond or act the way I am in the interview sequence. There’s a linear cause and effect-ness to it. But I still feel or can express myself in those ways occasionally now, of course; they’re still part of who I am. But creating and expressing those things in the animated sequences allowed me to be the way I was with her in the interview—ready to hear what she had to say in response to the way I was telling her how I felt about her. It was a direct result of what I’d gone through with her before and learning something from that. That interview is a fully realized transition that I wanted to capture.
The transition that happened off-screen manifested itself in constantly continuing to see her, which I talk about in the movie a bit when I talk about emotional memory. Images of her and engaging with my emotions towards her tell me that it’s really not necessarily a bad thing to not let things go, but that you can come to a place of maintenance. I think that’s the most important thing. It’s a very Western idea to discard “useless” things or emotions that don’t serve us anymore, or to not continue to see someone because your feelings have changed. That’s just not how I operate. I don’t have these defined portions of love to give like pieces of sweet potato pie, where this part is for Namik and this portion is for someone else. It’s not like that.
PC So what other walls of emotional mystery are you interested in breaking through in your work?
TN There’s a lot of stuff I’m exploring, but the next project I hope to do is a sort of portraiture of a fantasy I have. It’s a reaction to this epic sadness I feel about the nature of social change and political change in my environment, and probably anyone’s environment who doesn’t have a lot of money. It’s called The Lobbyists. I imagine it in the genre of political thriller, perhaps, to talk about lobbying. It’s very distinct to American culture and it runs everyone’s life in a specific way. I’m going there because right now, I constantly have this feeling of, There’s nothing I can do. That I don’t have the resources to create change in any efficient timeframe, or ever in my lifetime, for that matter. And that feeling of hopelessness becomes epic. It’s a general malaise that people of my political persuasion and economic circumstance feel. We’re at a place where we’re under a certain thumb; the system has adapted so well to our discontent so that the viable ways of changing anything efficiently are shuttered. So it’s about that, and a fantasy story about reacting to all of that in an extreme way and the consequences of that act. Right now, it’s a two-character film where I play a con man and there’s a woman who plays an ex-CIA agent. And we become lobbyists. (laughter)
PC It sounds great! I very much appreciate the creative ambition you possess to talk about these things, to tap into them so viscerally, trying to describe how it feels—particularly this epic sadness you speak about, because I feel it, too. Thank you.
TN Thank you, as well.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.