Director Terence Nance on An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty
Watching Terence Nance’s Oversimplification Of Her Beauty is like being talked through the contents of a shoebox, each item another memento of The One That Got Away. Live action, animation, claymation reenactments, direct-to-camera address by him, on-camera interviews of her by him, blurry, amateur footage shot by her of him, all guided by a formally written voice over, delivered with somber, staccato clarity by an anonymous older man. Descriptions and depictions of other girls slide in and out of the narrative, intercut with shots of The One, whose name is Namik. One animation of a long-distance affair depicts a hand-drawn Terence rising from a grave, holding flowers, the girl walking away, while voice-over intones that “She was repelled by your inability to speak clearly about your feelings no matter their implications… However you hypothesize that the cause of your separation may be because you are too sure of the connection’s viability. A commitment with a woman with whom you are so intensely compatible that it would leave you with nothing else to search for, rendering your distance from her a product of your addiction to the unpredictability of a feast and famine romantic existence. On a more pragmatic level, Joy may just not be that into you.”
The film is presented as multiple chapters, although sometimes out of sequence (“Oversimplification of her Beauty” being merely Volume 3.) It began as a short film called How Would You Feel, a short film we see him making, see her watching, see composite images of two-dozen versions of both of them watching in a movie theatre set. He showed her the short film to win her over, hoping she would see that it was about her, become a secret shared between them… but, in the words of his press materials, “I FAILED.” She broke up with the boyfriend she had been seeing throughout their platonic-but-maybe-not relationship; he professed his love, but failed again. As the reality of all this sunk in, Nance took several years to flesh out the short into a feature premiering in the New Frontiers section of Sundance this weekend. Re-reading letters he wrote, re-telling dreams he had, re-enacting conversations the way he remembers them and asking for her to weigh in on what he’s made and said post-facto; it’s all part of an urge to view the truth of a complicated love by looking at it from every possible angle. Still, there are some things you can’t put in a movie…
Filmmaker: There are a lot of versions of you in this movie – the you that’s the subject of the voice over, discussed in the second person, the claymation you, the animated you, the video taped you. Was it strange to direct a movie in which you’re the main character? Like how did you describe your character to the animators?
Terence Nance: It’s still happening now in the sound mix – “when Terence says this, make his voice like this,” “Make Terence’s hands bigger.” It’s constantly weird for me, in my own mind. But the animated me is definitely my best tool in complicating the ‘me’ on screen. “How Would You Feel” depends on the audience having empathy for my character, and a lot of people reacted to [that film] by saying that on-screen I just didn’t look like somebody they could ever feel sorry for. That was a big note.
Filmmaker: So, the animated you lets you be cute?
Nance: Yeah, exactly. But everyone has that – there’s the cool outside, and then the little boy inside crying if a girl doesn’t find me fast enough on Facebook. The lie about it is that I use [those tools] to adjust the ‘me’ in the film. Which is why it’s not a documentary. My direction for myself was Mr. Bean and Jacques Tati. I put the parts of me like that authentically into the performance. I’d paint myself as extremely unsure, ho-humming around, lazy. People who know me will tell you I’m not like that; I’m aggressive, I’m ambitious. But I don’t see those parts. To myself, I’m Jacques Tati. So the physicality of who I am on screen — [staring into the lens mournfully, flopping onto couches, staring at the ceiling] — is very considered, in order to show that there’s something about me that Namik is not going to want to pursue for life.
Filmmaker: So Namik’s story in the film shaped how you play yourself on screen?
Nance: Yes exactly. If you really watch a lot of the footage, it’s weird because what she’s saying and how she’s behaving are not consistent. She’s super affectionate in person, but then describes the relationship as totally platonic (which is true in life also.) But I had to ham it up and play the type of guy she wouldn’t like [for the story to make sense.]
Filmmaker: How is your relationship different in real life than on screen?
Nance: Well, at some point I realized that the kind of man she’s attracted to is not who I am. And I’m happy not to be that thing. That empowers me, but if the movie is a blues song, that fact makes it not work as a blues song. My character never gets the power to leave, and in reality, I did. I think I could have closed the deal if I had changed myself, or considered changing myself. But that really contradicts the image of the cute claymation me bleeding out of my hands on screen.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about the way you show all the other girls in the film. Sometimes I couldn’t tell which girl we were talking about; they blend together and then there are shots of Namik interspersed in the middle of a story about another girl…
Nance: I think there’s one relationship you have that kind of explains the others, and Namik was that one for me. So, one fact the movie presents is: I don’t say how I feel, I felt like I needed to keep up a certain stoicism with girls. Then it explains what that fact has caused and what it will cause in my life. That’s why it’s so depersonalized, why I hardly ever use the other girl’s names; it’s to make it clear that they’re all really Namik. There’s part of every relationship in all the other ones.
Filmmaker: The film switches between grammatical perspectives — first person narration, voice over in second person performed by another man, third person footage of you that Namik shot. Where did that choice come from?
Nance: Well, it’s one thing to say, “Hi, I am Terence, and I am immature,” versus saying. ‘That guy Terence is immature.” The main theme of the movie is self-awareness, and speaking in different ‘persons’ is just a tool for more thorough self-examination. My short was all second person, and the goal with that was to give the audience a chance to participate as if it’s ‘you,’ as if it was them. I wanted to bring people into the narrative in a very direct way through that. In the extension to a feature, I decided to play a little more fast and loose.
Filmmaker: So how do you decide which language goes in which tense?
Nance: It’s all about how you want to involve the audience in that particular experience, in terms of what they might relate to or what’s specific to my experience. At the end when I say something about someone touching my hair, I might phrase that in the third person, or the first person; that’s not something a whole lot of people are gonna have a reference point for necessarily. But if I’m just relating an experience about a girl standing me up, everyone can relate to that, so I might present that in the second person. It’s working out, ‘where is the best place to involve the listener from?’
Filmmaker: Do you have a sense of people’s reactions to it yet – if they didn’t relate to you in the short, how they’re going to feel now?
Nance: I’m so curious to find out. You know when you pose a theoretical question to a friend, like by saying, “What if a girl texts you ‘I think I love you question mark,’ what would you say? What does that mean?” And then later you admit that it’s about you and you explain the situation. The whole movie is that – trying to get an unbiased opinion of the person you’re talking to, starting out more generalized and then getting specific. At the end the movie admits it: this is what happened to me. Will the audience walk away implicating themselves in the character, relating to it, projecting what they’d do, or do they walk away thinking, ‘huh, that thing happened to that girl and that guy.’ Is the initial relatable feeling trumped by the remove that going personal and specific can cause?
Filmmaker: That’s in some ways counter-intuitive, because most people think that the more specifically confessional you can be, the more relate-able it is.
Nance: I mean it depends on how much the listener can relate in the first place. A lot of the movie is about, ‘what does disclosure do to a relationship?’ To the relationship between me and Namik, but also between the movie to me, and me to the audience.
Filmmaker: It’s funny, because showing a movie is a lot like asking someone to love you.
Nance: Especially this movie – I’m asking people to really love me.
Filmmaker: You’re an African American filmmaker and the characters in the film are almost all black. But I’d personally compare it more to movies like Four-Eyed Monsters, which was made by a white couple, than a film like Medicine for Melancholy, which depicted a black couple who spoke directly about their black experience. Although there’s that line about ‘the Cosby Effect’ that I thought was so funny [“a childhood conspicuously devoid of angst conflict and repression… thus the trace amounts that are present now have a profound effect on your emotional disposition.”]
Nance: Yeah, the Cosby Effect is probably why I can talk about this at all.
Filmmaker: Still, I guess, the film didn’t seem extremely preoccupied with its blackness, to me, although I should point out that I’m viewing it from a white girl’s perspective.
Nance: Yeah, but I can’t think of a film is “preoccupied with its blackness.” I mean, people are going to connect with the lowest hanging fruit in any movie. For you the lowest hanging fruit is romance. Which is not to say that because you’re white you can’t understand; knowledge of black codes is open to anyone. The black experience is in there, it just isn’t low hanging fruit for you. But I showed it to a group of black students and they talked so much about what I was wearing, my hair, her hair; a lot of black women I talk to talk about what’s presented in the film as kind of polyamory, they talk about the film from the perspective of romance in the black community. They’re connecting with it depending on how their culture is reflected back in the movie.
Filmmaker: What did you think of Nelson George’s recent New York Times article that declared a sort of “emerging wave” of black films?
Nance: The New York Times article was a narrow but necessary distillation of the highlights of what’s been gestating for a while. If you’re a black person who went to one of the, say, top 30 colleges, you’re separated from every other black person who didn’t go to college. So if there are between 100-400 black people at any one of those colleges, more of them are going to film programs, and we all move to the same cities. We find each other. What was seven people across the country is now, like, thirty five people. It’s just growing, and all of us are in that first-feature stage, so I think in the next two to six years there’s going to be a lot of feature films coming from that group of people. Which is really exciting when you think about how much impact a movie can have on the culture, and how many are about to come out.