Leave no Trace Debra Granik (USA 2018) Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 12 July 2018; ticket: £9.75
in the valley of the iPhone…
Leave no Trace: what does Granik’s title mean? Having viewed her movie did it point to something about the nature of personal relations in contemporary American society: they leave no trace? A people so self engrossed they are no longer able to have an emotional effect upon each other, a people only able to leave a footprint in the sand?
Americans (but also other Western cultures) as a people who’s existence is marked out by a specific sort of individualism, who have lives that comprise a series of markers: mobile phones stylistic affects gestures trinkets and stories. Lives defined by externalities not internalities. Lives that are present in the cloud of knowing but leave no earthly trace.
The question that comes to mind is whether Granik as a film maker functions as a passive medium a voicing for the spirits of the age? Or is she making films as a observer who sees something about nature of contemporary relations that she wishes to transmit. Is Granik a passive or active agent?
The proposition Granik introduces is simple. A father and his daughter alone in the world. Their journey is scripted to take them through various experiences in various milieus: the idyll of the forest, psycho-babble land, suburbia, and finally after some trauma, munchkin land. Granik locates her two subjects as individuals rather than a relational pair. Context is sketched out sparsely in the script, just enough perhaps to give us some bearings on father and daughter. Will is shown to be a Vet, perhaps entitled to some support from the relevant government agency he visits, and there is an indication that he might suffer from PTSD. His wife and Tom’s mother had died some time back and with his daughter he has chosen that they live a survivalist life style out in the woods. His choice is linked to his dislike of social engagement. He prefers to be alone and bring up his daughter Tom (Tomboy?) on his own terms.
When she was about nine my sister used to get a UK girl’s comic called Bunty. Tom reminded me a little of the heroines of the Bunty comic strips. Mostly these comic book girls were like Tomboys: pubescent asexual decontextualized honest determined observant achieving girls. Heroines taking on unusual events and situations but acting out against familiar reassuring backgrounds. Bunty heroines were ultimately two dimensional, characters successfully designed to enrapt the attention of its readership and provide a suitable moral role model. Granik’s Tom fits this model. We see no internal life. With the camera regularly pointed at her face, Tom exhibits the default expressions of contemporary female leads, staring unyieldingly back at the director. A contemporary female construct.
The core of the film is a relationship between father and daughter which is carefully depicted as low in emotional intensity. Hence perhaps Tom’s name ( a boyish moniker) which carries no disturbing feminine resonance. In Leave no Trace this relationship is located in place (the woods to begin with) not time (context). From the first shot of the movie (lichen hanging off the branch of a conifer) the camera is as interested in probing the wonders of the location as in defining the father daughter relationship at the heart of the movie. Distraction rather than attraction as the key to the way the scenario is played out. As if Granik’s film like a cultural filter is a de-intensifier that neutralises ‘seeing’.
In Hollywood films today there is very little ‘seeing’ suggested or called up in the scripts or scenarios. By seeing I mean that the audience ‘sees’ directly what a character sees and hence interprets what is seen through direct mediation with the material. Usually but not necessarily, ‘seeing’ will involve shots that represent direct point of view of a character, as well as direct voicing of the person. Films that represent seeing develop a language of visual intelligence that exploits both scripting and camera sensitivity to facilitate direct mediation.
Like Spielberg and most other Hollywood directors of this generation, Granik is not comfortable or perhaps even interested in this type of filmic language. In an age colonised by the image and most comprehensively overwhelmed by a deluge of advertising messages, we are adept and more comfortable reading signs not people.
So Will and Tom are filmed engaging in actions and doings that give witness to their bond. They feather wood to make fire, they play chess, they practice escape routines, they prepare food, they lie next to each other at night, close but non-reactive. The inner is substituted for the the outer. Granik’s camera keeps us on the outside of the relationship. We see them do stuff. But there is no seeing in the film, there is no point of view from which Tom sees her Dad or her Dad sees her. We are in a film where neither of the characters looks and sees who the other is. They are objects to each other. Will (sic) the father doesn’t see his daughter who she is, as a growing person, changing all the time. Tom has no seeing of her Dad’s pain. Closed off they don’t see one another. In a sense although there are no iPhones in the movie, it is as if the smart phone’s phantom cultural presence extends right into vacuum of their relationship. A vacuum that is the product of the culture. The iPhone is simply a product that transposes self absorption onto the externality of a screen information system.
The irony is that on the terms of Granik’s script, smart phones are banished from Will and Tom’s domain, but that the quality of their individuation depicted in the relationship, the absence of presence, suggests each is an emptiness, an emptiness premised on a culture that legitimises being through possession and desire. Tom’s emptiness a function of her unformed nature; Will’s emptiness a function of his burnt out formation. Each in their own way is waiting metaphorically for an iPhone to fill the emptiness. Granik’s film is a coded message to the smart phone generation, old and young: smart phones are Ok, they are just what we have been waiting for. To fill the vacuum.