Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.
“Something entirely fictitious and true. That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways, like it was yourself passing yourself not smiling.“
— Amiri Baraka from the poem “Something in the Way of Things (the town)”
I have been tasked with responding via the written word to the experience of watching Richard Ayoade’s second feature, The Double, a film I have loved from afar and hotly anticipated due to my love for his first, Submarine, and for reasons written about in detail below. Based on Dostoevsky’s doppelganger novella of the same name, it is a far-out fable of existen-anonym-masculina-westernprivla-angst rendered in hot-to-the-touch Bronze, cold-to-inhale Cerulean Blue, and fire-engine Red when foreboding, or fires, or anger, or living humans, or any other emotional extreme needs to happen in the movie.
Possible titles for this piece:
1. Sameness is Close to Godliness
2. The Man I Want to be Not The Man I Am (juxtaposed with this image)
3. Greetings, my name is Ayoade Richard. by Terence Nance
4. I Exist! (or do you, my nigga?)
5. You are in my place (spoken on public transportation unironically to Jesse Eisenberg cast in the role of Rosa Parks in the film “La Double Vie de Rosa Parks” directed by Tate Taylor)
I kept striking out because I was trying to come up with a title that acknowledged the fact that…
It begins with a girl (Mia Wasikowska). Doesn’t it always?
In the hyper-engaging moments before the giiiiiiiiirrrrl (who sadly, I must admit is TEXTBOOK manic pixie dream girl) comes through and collects the movie’s profoundly engaging moments into a journey, there are loops, both sonic and visual, that deftly formalize and stylize the cyclical monotonies that predicate existential crisis. The canned looping of the clicking and clacking of the train wheels slapping the tracks recalls the space between John Cage and J Dilla. Nondescript manual laborers fall into an inane looping moment that recalls the space between Jacques Tati (specifically Playtime), Fritz Lang (specifically Metropolis) and Pina Bausch.
This film decided it was suffering from a simple malady: Incompleteness (absence of a conflict, a goal, momentum, etc., which I contend isn’t even a malady). The film self-medicated and prescribed itself a pretty girl, bathed in backlight with wind blowing through her hair. In a stroke of formal genius, she does not move in loops. When we first see HER, she can’t even be bothered to obey the laws of gravity or adhere to any spatial plane.
The girl has a name: Hannah. Hannah isn’t framed as much as followed, and her movements and energies are unresolved, indeterminate, wandering, and wholly unpredictable. She is a small wave in an ocean, or a balloon floating in the wind, and the camera follows her, reacts to her.
This remedy of “the girl” has been prescribed to…. every film ever made almost and works every time for every consumer and/or creator of every conceivable biological or metaphysical makeup. (Full disclosure: I prescribed my film a girl too.) Throwing a MPDG in there works for everyone, except for those of us for whom sameness produces acute anxiety. Which is to say, this remedy would not have worked for Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). This movie is a fantastical and intensely emotional experience but had Simon ventured to the cinema and watched this movie, Simon would have realized that he had already married Hannah, that she was a good cook but that she contributed to his anxiety because her small bespoke fedora business was taking off and his day-to-day at the IT company made him want to peel the skin from the top of his right thigh, one centimeter-wide strip at a time. Simon would not fight this movie, this portrait of himself. The movie would make Simon feel hopeless enough for a suicidal thought to rise and descend. Simon is a coward, but not extraordinarily so. He’s the same as all cowards, which is to say he is the same as all of us, all of you (unless you are an extraterrestrial or a honey badger). Simon would have cowered at the sight of this movie because it would have spoken accurately to the physiological nuances of his anxiety.
At a certain point, it hit me that the movie may have been more appropriately titled The Sameness or some combination of words that articulated the true nature of the movie’s yet-to-appear antagonist. The trailer would have you believe that the film’s antagonist, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), is a sinister, White-guy Ste-faaaahn Urrrrkél, but in the experience of the movie, it is clear that Simon’s enemy isn’t really a person but more a set of antagonisms or microaggressions whose space in the ether breeds a suicidal pathos in Simon’s heart.
So it’s not The Double, but the triple, the quadruple, the quintuple to the tenth power, the glut of experiences that reinforce the volume of Simon’s (and thus our) anonymity. The sameness of days, of thoughts, of feelings, the cycles, the infinite double, the template, the prototype, the copies, not the copy. Just one copy would be kinda fun. Another stroke of formal genius: Hannah works in the copy room. Simon only ever asks her for one copy at a time. Cute.
Like the seminal classics Groundhog Day, Fight Club and certain scenes in Girls, the movie traffics in a gyrating frump solipsism that is at once wonderfully absurd and metatextually self-deprecating but somehow also straight up Young and the Restless c. 1985 earnest. (Full disclosure: I have trafficked in the same frump solipsism in my own work.)
These are more genius subtextual cinematic chess moves designed to make concrete the setting of the film, which is pretty overtly inside Simon’s head (I would say literally). Is it too easy to run with the obvious conceptual framework that when James Simon finally arrives (it takes longer than you would expect) he is cast as Simon James’ Jungian Shadow? His evil yet useful but repressed self? Simon is clearly constantly repressing, the energy is going somewhere. James, on the other hand, is in these streets expressing the shit out of his higher and lower selves.
Herein lies the film’s only point of departure from what everyone wants to know about in detail. THE FILM I – terence nance – WOULD MAKE. I mean, I EXIST! IT’S ABOUT ME, RIGHT?
Somewhere around the section of the film in which Simon tried to holla at Hannah in earnest during a mandatory work party, Jesse Eisenberg’s sad sap routine felt so immersive and melodramatic that it seemed isolated in its gesticulation, like something conceptualized by Marina Abramović or Vito Acconci. His self-pity was like a Duchampian readymade of behavior, isolated and reduced to gesture so that we could contemplate its absurdity. Because the performance was so decontextualized I found myself thinking:
What is the origin story of existential angst? What is its onset?
The film renders this angst in a way that is refreshingly earnest in its melodrama. Which is NOT to say the film IS a “refreshingly earnest melodrama” – the aesthetic of the acting is too choreographed and wry for it to be included in the genre of Melodrama. It also departs from the framework of the drama in its most engaging moments where what seems like a sort of Buñuel/Lynch-esque absurdism takes over. The moment when Simon asks the nursing home orderly, “Did you know people are carrying weapons here?” and the orderly replies, “Yes,” while casually flashing his side arm was transcendently gratifying as a cinematic experience.
Late on, the film sorta-kinda puts forth an “origin story,” or really more an origin moment or feeling. It reveals that, It’s not Simon’s (your) fault that he is having an existential crisis / panic attack, it’s The System’s (your job, the government, etc.) fault because, as the film so beautifully puts it,
EMPLOYEE (TO SIMON)
“According to the system, you never existed.”
So the world is a system, a machine, for whom you are so small as to be insignificant. More than that, the world is a machine whose gears move against you, kicking you out of your own party, prohibiting you from entering your workspace, prohibiting you from controlling the system, shaping it to your will, knowing it, loving it, or escaping it.
The film starts screaming at me.
There is only control, or shape, or knowing, or loving or escaping of the system through the acquiring and keeping of:
Each of these hallmarks of westa-mascula-straightpersona success is represented in the movie by a character or idiom. The Colonel (James Fox), for instance, reps “the respect” and “the job,” Hannah reps “the girl,” Simon’s barren apartment is a not-so-subtle reminder of his empty existence and suggests that he needs… “the stuff.” Etc., etc. Simon earnestly pursues the above with just enough energy.
I can’t decide if the movie is clear about the fact that he wants the wrong stuff, but in 20/20 hindsight, to my mind it subtly promotes that he does indeed want the wrong stuff. Quietly whispering in Simon’s ear to STFU about what amounts to “aspiring to be James” and embrace the bliss of his own meaninglessness or, to be flowery, the union of his being with all beings.
The Security Guard (I’m assuming he was Nigerian or Ghanian, but most likely Nigerian) was the main force calling attention to how asinine Simon’s plight was. The funniest moment in the movie for me is when he deadpans the line “Don’t make a jest of the situation.” The guard, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, seems to be the only character matter-of-factly trying to tell Simon that he is nobody. His frankness is refreshing and recalls an intervention designed to get Simon on the right track ASAP. Something akin to what Willis Earl Beale has been doing with The Church of Nobody.
I was very attached to the guard character and how he functioned for Simon, in further subtly subverting the idea that he should be there at all. Climbing the corporate ladder and trying to woo the girl.
I still wanted it to go farther and I, Ayoade Richard, would have cast the guard as the lead in this film. He is the only person of color and he would have… on demographic alone… contextualized the plight of social, occupational, and romantic invisibility. Especially given that (and it bears repeating) he is the only person of color.
Actually, I take it back; I would have cast a woman of color as Simon. Just to hear the discourse on whether or not her woman-ness and/or “of color”-ness truly contextualized the issues of invisibility raised in the film would have been worth its weight in gold. The film would have crossed over into very scary territory, into the barren land of:
dunh dunh duuuuuuuuuuuunh
Also because framing is so important and fun to toy with, I, Ayoade Richard, would have thrown some Asymmetry into the symmetry and cast this woman of color and then, contrarily framed the discourse by stating in the press that the film has nothing to do with society, race, gender, class, or even real life. I could imagine a director (not Richard Ayoade) saying the following:
“I cast Jesse because he is representative of ‘the everyman.’ He is universal and thus flexible. He can play at either scale of the spectrum of acceptable human behavior, from manipulative douchebag to naïve, angelic nice guy, and his everyman-ness will still endear him to us.”
I would basically put forth that same rationale when talking about why I cast…. Adepero Oduye, or Nicole Behari, or Condola Rashad. That would have been fun as hell. But really more pointedly, it would have comprehensively subverted the ideals that the film already subverts, just less subtly and with more… bravada.
Doppelganger movies are what’s poppin right now – I wrote my own called Univittellen a few years back after watching La Double Vie de Véronique. But their day has come! Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy just came out, before that there was, ummmmm, Adaptation and….. Face/Off. (Nicolas Cage really likes the whole double thing.)
Clearly the time has come for me to go ahead and make mine now, given that I am Ayoade Richard, and I have stolen Richard Ayoade’s face! His movie is next!!