Talking to Strangers Rob Tregenza (USA: 1988) Ken Gruz
viewed: vimeo link 18 April 2023; download price: £2-95
out of wack
Tregenza’s movie, ‘Talking to Strangers’ comprises nine single takes. Except the first and last, each take features a meeting by the lead character Jesse, with a stranger (or strangers) whom he encounters for the first time. These single shots comprise intricate more or less ten minute long choreographical interplays of location and character, using pans tracks and cranes.
Each of Tregenza’s takes focuses on a particular area of content taking the audience from confusion to isolation by way of sex violence and god.
‘Talking to Strangers’ has strong filmic input and in the era where the normal maximum length of a take was 1000 foot magazine of 35mm film, Tregenza has adopted a singular formal design in which to present his subject. The question arises which came first: the script or the structure? Of course this is a question that the film itself answers definitively in the sense that the viewer simply watches the film and evaluates the content and structure as one delivered product.
My feeling is that ‘Talking to Strangers’ is dominated by its formal structure which works well to begin with. The camera work in the opening take sets up a strong expectation that this will be a film about seeing. The sequence comprises a long overhead shot of a road intersection. There is no dialogue. The sound track is made up entirely by distant diegetic sound as the camera periodically panning, captures the uncertain wandering movement of the protagonist. But it is the street scene itself that takes centre stage, captures the imagination as the eye takes in all its details and enjoys the understated spectacle of the everyday and ordinary, whilst capturing the occasional movements of a lost soul.
But as soon as the second take begins (set in a canteen for deprived people), Tregenza introduces actors into the scenario. The balance of the movie changes, setting up an antagonistic relationship at the core of the film between the acting style and the camera style, the former derived from soap opera melodrama, the latter from art house aesthetics. A cinema of ‘seeing’ and a cinema of ‘melodrama’ are oppositions, filmic elements that work against each other. Cinema is an expressive form in which of course anything is possible. But neither in direction nor in scripting is Tegenza able to resolve the disjunction of his primary filmic elements; ultimately this undermines ‘Talking to Strangers’ as the ‘seeing’ aspect of camera movement is undermined by the melodramatic banality of the expressed emotion.
There was a realisation in the ‘50’s to ‘70’s era that for certain types of films the sort of acting required by Hollywood and its imitators, could not deliver the qualitive impressions demanded by the new kinds of directors and the script material with which they worked. These directors realised there were alternative styles of creating and acting out ‘a character’ that would work more effectively in the communication of ideas. One strategy widely explored was experimentation with the Brechtian idea of the actor adopting a certain role distance. Instead of the Stanislavski and Actor’s Studio inspired ‘method’ involving the actor’s complete immersion in character, the Brechtian school looked at the possibility of the actor adopting a role to communicate what a character represented in the realm of ideas and in particular situations. One consequence of this was the tendency to demote the primacy of expressed emotion and its concomitant manipulations in favour of more detached utterance. The need for a cooler style demanded a different sort of actor, one who was able to incorporate into performance and delivery of lines, a natural level of de-intensified playing.
Most of Tregenza’s one take strips of action in ‘Talking to Strangers’ revolve about the expression of certain ideas within his highly formal visual structure. But his actors expressive modes are modelled on TV melodrama. This type of drama is structurally filmed as series of comings and goings, doors opening and closing, one thing after another, filmed as shot reverse shot and edited as a montage that aims to exploit the movement image to max out emotional discharge.
Perhaps distracted by the complex demands of camera choreography, Tregenza simply did not give attention to what his actors were bringing to the frame as long as they were on the ‘mark’ and on the ‘line’. In relation to the actors’ ‘lines’, it seems to me that the script highlights the problems with the film. The dialogue often feels like it reflects opposing production impulses. Some of the scripting seems ok but there is in much of the dialogue a ‘forced’ written element, mostly expressive of ideas, that impedes what should be natural interaction between the players. This forced dialogue fights with another type of voice in the scripting that suggests an uneasy attempt at using improvisation as a source for the interchanges. This intermix of different dialogue types reinforces the impression that Tregenza’s film that outside of its formal visual style is uncertain about what is about and how to achieve its ends.
‘Talking to Strangers’ with its crafted cinematic look, risks being a film of form without content. This is certainly not the case, but nevertheless Tregenza has made a film whose confused expression of content leaves form the dominant force.