Uncertainty and Rashomon
Two Films Deal with Multiple Perspectives
Thursday, December 17, 2009
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Uncertainty
The new film “Uncertainty” (opening December 18 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters) ponders two different fates for its characters, and the re-release of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (opening December 18 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) presents a crime and four different versions of the truth.
“Uncertainty” opens with a young couple in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the Fourth of July and they don’t know what to do.
Kate: "I’m afraid of deciding."
Bobby: "I’m not afraid of either scenario. I just want this to be something we’re doing not something we’re not doing."
Kate: "What does this mean?"
Bobby: "It means whatever we decide."
So they flip a coin to decide their fate. Bobby heads toward Brooklyn and Kate goes off to Manhattan. But the conceit of the film is that they do not go off to separate, solitary fates. Instead, the film splits in two to present the couples’ possible fates on opposite sides of the East River. So in Manhattan, one set of Bobby and Kate characters pick up a cell phone left behind in a cab and end up involved in a blackmail scam. In Brooklyn, another version of the couple spends the day with Kate’s family and awkwardly hiding the fact that Kate's pregnant.
Each tale is assigned a color with the clothes, shoes and cars used to help us differentiate one story from the other. The Brooklyn tale is “green” while the Manhattan one is labeled “yellow.” But we’re left to wonder if this is like a stop light with green signaling go (that's the positive story with the pregnancy) and yellow proceed with caution (because this is the one where they get involved with blackmail and some unsavory characters).
Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel began their career exploring odd dualities in a stunning indie film called “Suture.” That film focused on two brothers that we’re told are indistinguishable from each other despite the fact that one is black and one is white. But in the case of "Suture" the gimmick the filmmakers employed worked perfectly with the themes they wanted to explore about race, prejudice, and stereotypes.
“Uncertainty,” on the other hand, serves up a dual narrative but it doesn't dovetail nicely into any thtmes the filmmakers want to explore. In both halves of the story the couples make decisions that affect their lives. Yet they also avoid decisions that then leave fate to play a role. The result, however, is nothing noteworthy. A decision made is no better ot worse than a decision avoided; leaving things to fate seems no dofferent that taking action. If the two stories are meant to make us think about how we make decisions then it fails. The parallel universes that “Uncertainty” creates are not like those in the film “Sliding Doors” where catching a train or not results in two very different potential outcomes for the main character played by Gwenyth Paltrow.
In splitting the story, "Uncertainty" also divides into two different kinds of genre films. In Manhattan we have a low-key thriller whereas in Brooklyn it’s a family drama. But the filmmakers don’t really have a point to make in contrasting the two genres. If you remain at all engaged in the film it’s mostly because of the appealing performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also seen in this year's "(500) Days of Summer") and Lynn Collins.
The directors deliver some good individual scenes but you keep waiting for it to add up, for the two plot strands to somehow interact or play off each other in a satisfying manner -- but they never do. There’s not even an effective contrast in terms of one story being about decisive characters while the other has them mere victims of fate. The casual conclusion seems to be that there are just no certainties.
“Uncertainty” plays out like a film school experiment. It seems to be done more as an exercise to see what the technical and structural challenges are rather than because the filmmakers have something specific they want to say. In the end we’re left with two sets of characters, each going their own way with no resolution to the split. It’s like a parallel dimension opens up and never closes.
Ironically, though, “Uncertainty” has a scene in a movie theater where the characters watch an Akira Kurosawa film. Now Kurosawa is a filmmaker who knew what to do with contrasting perspectives and storylines. His classic film “Rashomon” concerns a crime and four versions of the truth. And as fate would have it, a re-mastered version of “Rashomon” opens this week to provide filmgoers with an alternative choice.
Described in the trailer as the film that introduced Japanese cinema to the world, “Rashomon” has lost none of its power or luster in the more than four passing decades. Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s favorite leading man, rivets us with his performance as the bandit who rapes a young bride and then kills her husband -- or does he?. He offers quicksilver mood changes, and impressive charisma.
So if you’re looking for a movie this weekend, I recommend going for an old classic rather than gambling on the uncertainty of something new.
Companion viewing for "Uncertainty": "Stray Dog" (the Kurosawa film they watch in the theater); "Sliding Doors," "Suture," "Memento"
Companion viewing for "Rashomon" : "Outrage," "Yojimbo," "Seven Samurai"