by Will Shute
I’ve never been to a film festival before the 2019 Austin Film Festival. Based on what I’ve heard about film festivals, I think I got the full experience. I saw more than my share of movies in a single week. In order, I saw Cows with No Name, half of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire (until the projector broke and they stopped the screening), The Two Popes, A Hidden Life, Treasure Trouble, Waves, and Marriage Story. While I really liked The Two Popes and what I saw of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the two movies I left with the strongest impressions of were hands down Waves and Marriage Story. Both movies handle different concepts of family from two varied perspectives and styles. While both movies are about a fracturing of a family, and the attempts to keep them together, Waves is more focused on the drama of the event that causes the fracturing, while Marriage Story’s fracturing event takes place off screen before the movie even starts. Stylistically the two could not be more different, while Waves bathes (pun intended) in modernity, Marriage Story is more classical in form.
For the lack of any other way to say it, Waves is probably the most movie I’ve seen in a movie in a while. This movie moves at a mile a minute, with constant, never ending engagement and sensation. While never boring, Waves proves utterly exhausting by its conclusion. The film’s frequent and unique edits, abstract color imagery, intense usage of music from beginning to end, and unexpected story beats works in making Waves feel like a unique experience from beginning to end, all making it feel particularly modern. This modern presentation represents the contemporary age that the youthful characters inhabit, making them blend seamlessly into each other.
The sound design in Waves is spectacularly motivated, something that many films overlook. There are moments where a sound will begin, which the film effortlessly justifies the sound diegetically. There is a moment where a song starts playing, and then the background track of the song is revealed to actually be the sound of MRI machine that a character enters in the next scene, which is also then used as a background track for another song in the next scene. This demonstrates the connected nature of these events in the story through the discordant sound of the MRI machine.
Another less “showy” example of this is a scene in a car where two characters are arguing, and as they are arguing you start hearing an annoying beeping sound, which gets louder as the lead ignores it until he gets frustrated with it and puts on his seatbelt. The attention to the blending of diegetic and nondiegetic sound design and motivation of the sound both emotionally and logically in its presentation was something I found enthralling.
I was not a fan, however, of the constantly shifting aspect ratio. In general, I don’t enjoy when a director uses aspect ratio shifting as a gimmick, as this device has become increasingly common in modern films as they reflect on the medium of film. While after some mental adjustments I didn’t mind the aspect ratio changes in the first half, most all of the aspect ratio changes in the second half felt a lot less motivated and just started annoying me. Still, Waves is a very tender, personal film that really left an impact on me.
On the other side formally from the modernity of Waves exists Marriage Story. Just to set the stage, Marriage Story is a fantastic movie, probably one of the better scripts I’ve seen this year, with every detail of the characters blending together into what just feels like a cohesive portrait of two flawed and yet understandable people. This focus on the realistically small minute details of these characters is benefitted through the much more classical form of film. Very few times does Marriage Story call attention to its own form, and nowhere near how Waves does.
Marriage Story formally has nods to theatre stylistically. There are several scenes that end with the subjects in the foreground’s lights going off and then the background lights dimming down, much as in theater productions. This connects with a stylistic choice of the subtle difference of how writer/director Noah Baumbach presents the two locations of the film: New York and Los Angeles. New York is seen as a colder place, with more theatrical elements being used to tell the story with little to no camera movements, while Los Angeles is warmer and presented with more camera movements, and cinematic moments.
The jewel of Marriage Story is, hands down, the writing, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the writing in this film. The movie starts by being adorable and funny, and Immediately establishes why you should care about the characters, and then sets up what the conflict is and relishes in it. From the wonderfully handled conflicts to a shockingly powerful musical performance, the movie always seems to be working in favor of itself and its goals—something I consider a rare feat.
I saw such a wide variety of films at this festival, from a documentary about family drama, to a family drama during Nazi occupation, to a family drama about growing up, and a family drama about divorce. Waves and Marriage Story left me with so much to think about in the separation of their forms. The different approaches to similar themes and ideas really represent what each film was working towards accomplishing, which they both did. Waves was the most engaging and emotionally draining film I saw at the festival, with emotions and active participation being a key part of my enjoyment of it, while Marriage Story hasn’t been able to leave my active consciousness since I’ve seen it, with some lines and moments haunting me ever since. These two vastly different viewing experiences defined my festival experience. I’m very thankful for the opportunities to see these at the festival, which has been a highlight of my time at this school.