by Matt Levine
Does filmmaking essentially constitute self-therapy for its practitioner? Or, a better question, should it? It might be true that any kind of creative expression is at least implicitly autobiographical—and thus a way for its creator to exorcise some demons—but that sort of self-psychoanalysis can be overt to varying degrees. Case in point: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Terence Nance’s lengthening (or, more accurately, remixing) of his 2006 short film How Would You Feel? Both movies deal with Nance’s rejection by the woman of his dreams, along with his self-professed emotional unavailability and stoicism when it comes to genuine, debilitating love. Love is a word that the film is not afraid of—with no trace of postmodern glibness, Oversimplification might be the most romantic movie of the year. But self-absorption is another concept the movie embraces, and your appreciation of Oversimplification likely depends on your ability to tolerate both fervent proclamations of infatuation and an unwavering inwards gaze.
Director: Terence Nance
Producers: James Bartlett, Paul Bernon, Andrew Corkin, Terence Nance, Jason Weissman
Writer: Terence Nance
Cinematographers: Matthew Bray, Shawn Peters
Editor: Terence Nance
Music: Flying Lotus
Cast: Terence Nance, Namik Minter, Alisa Becher, JC Cain, Dexter Jones, Talibah Lateefah Newman, Chanelle Pearson
Genre: Experimental/Documentary/ Romance/Drama/Animation
Premiere: January 21, 2012 (Sundance Film Festival)
US Theatrical Release: April 12, 2013
US Video Release: October 1, 2013
US Distributor: Variance Films & The Cinema Guild
It also depends on your fondness for the uncategorizable: an experimental fiction-documentary romance-comedy-drama distinguished by eye-popping animation and wall-to-wall narration provided by a pair of verbose commentators (The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey and Nance himself, whose sonorous voices drift fluidly between one another), Oversimplification defies genre at every turn. Real-life scenes, shot spontaneously in Brooklyn over the last seven years, coexist with fanciful reenactments and boundless philosophizing. It’s either a fictive documentary or a vérité daydream—and that contradictory approach to the truth is precisely the point.
The impetus for Oversimplification grew out of a very bad but seemingly mundane day: after working for 12 hours and scrambling to assemble a flimsy bed in an NYU woodshop, Nance is stood up by the woman he had expected to entertain that evening—the gorgeous, perspicacious, yet emotionally guarded Namik Minter. Nance soon discovers that the object of his affections is already in an “exclusive romantic relationship,” though that doesn’t impede his advances. This simple yet deflating disappointment led to Nance’s film How Would You Feel?, which has been produced and screened as a series of seven volumes over the last six years (and the first volume of which is included on the Oversimplification DVD). Basically a sardonic faux-instructional video, How Would You Feel? features an ongoing commentary by an omniscient narrator who loquaciously evaluates Nance’s luckless romantic existence.
After receiving funding from a number of sources to extend and rework this original series of shorts (Jay-Z, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, the Sundance Institute, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts are all listed as producers), Nance concocted An Oversimplification of Her Beauty—a film which is both a revision and a subversion of his original work. Scenes from How Would You Feel? morph abruptly into new material shot for Oversimplification, a gimmick pointed out to us by a staticy freeze-frame and VCR-style markers (pause, eject) appearing in the upper-left hand corner, as though Nance is perusing beat-up old videotapes from the oeuvre of his own unconscious. Meanwhile, the ceaseless narration resembles some Godardian commentator, one of several similarities the movie shares with the French New Wave.
Nance also enlists the help of a number of illustrators and graphic designers to animate episodes from his rocky romantic history. In the first of these, Nance “sheds a Western understanding of time” and elevates into the cosmos, envisioning Namik as a life-giving sun; in another, a Claymation Nance, illustrating his predilection for “meditative masochism” and the poetics of sadness, is attacked by a red rose which tears into his arm, causing a torrent of blood to gush around him. These vivid episodes illustrate Nance’s jovial, awestruck fascination with the world around him, which makes his dogged introspection amusing, if not always captivating.
Early in the film, Cathey’s narrator tells us that How Would You Feel? will be interspersed with Oversimplification in order to “provide the context necessary to tell a complete story”—which seems disingenuous, since a “complete story” is the last thing this movie has on its mind (or maybe it just conceives of “story” in a wildly different way than most narrative media). If I wanted to be glib, I could define Oversimplification as a grandiose diary entry; more graciously and receptively (in other words, on the wavelength that Nance’s film typically operates at), I could say it’s a Proustian explosion of sensations, memories, emotions, lusts—not only a love story but a deconstruction and celebration of love itself. It is as self-indulgent and repetitive as it probably sounds—brevity and cohesion are not Nance’s strong suits (which is also demonstrated by the fact that Oversimplification was originally three hours long)—but it’s also more compassionate, self-deprecating, and ruminative than you might expect.
The most impressive aspect of Oversimplification is its realization that the hangdog insularity of How Would You Feel? is an immature attitude to hold in real life, and especially in a romantic relationship. In fact, the movie makes clear that How Would You Feel?, Nance’s inaugural film, truly oversimplified Namik’s beauty by softening her edges, by turning her into an idealized muse rather than a flesh-and-blood person who wants and needs companionship from Nance, not emotive declarations of love in cinematic form. As the narrator at one point claims, Oversimplification is about “the pain that lies in the void between reality and expectations”—and about the decision to cross that gap rather than willfully exist within it, as Nance does in How Would You Feel?.
Coincidentally, I watched Oversimplification the same day as Blue is the Warmest Color—a completely different film, though it’s also (partially) about what happens when real life gets in the way of our loftiest romantic ideals. The two movies’ attitudes towards love and sex are revealing: Blue is the Warmest Color may not be hopeless but it is pessimistic, beholding lust with a crude, surface-level carnality that’s often distinct from love and tenderness. Oversimplification, on the other hand, features a narrator who intones, “You were, from the very moment you laid your eyes inside her eyes, intensely attracted to her.” It's not merely genitals but sensations that penetrate, as love and sex, lust and compassion, are regarded as parts of the same inter-connective process. (The narrators’ constant use of second-person address also whips the audience into an erotic expectancy, as though it’s not merely Terence but the viewer, too, who is falling in love.) Of course both Oversimplification and Blue is the Warmest Color have elements of truth and beauty to them, but together they act as a powerful double-feature on love—one blissful, the other guardedly realistic.
Both the flaws and strengths of Oversimplification are reified by the newly-released DVD, which at least attempts to contextualize the production’s backstory. While the animated sequences look pristine in the Cinema Guild’s DVD transfer, much of the footage inevitably looks muddy and pixilated—a result of the low-grade digital cameras with which much of the movie was shot. Two of Nance’s earlier shorts are included—the first volume of How Would You Feel? and Exorcising Rejection (2008)—and while both of them are heavily flawed, with Nance coming off as a self-absorbed fantasist, they also reveal how far the writer/director has come in challenging his own assumptions. That said, one of the DVD’s deleted scenes absolutely should have been included in the film: an interview in which Namik turns the tables on Terence and questions his approach, during which he describes the experience of rewatching his films as unbearably painful and candidly decries them as “indulgent.” While Nance does try to include Namik’s perspective in Oversimplification, including this interview would have further subverted Nance’s agency as an authorial voice. Another excellent deleted scene is an animated episode entitled “Chaos,” which provocatively alleges that the nebulous prehistoric matter known as Chaos which led to the Big Bang exists residually within all humans and leads us to destroy our own romantic relationships. Finally, both Nance and Namik provide audio commentaries: his is every bit as charming and loquacious as we might expect, especially when he discusses his dislike for end credits or his and Namik’s real-life first kiss; while her sporadic commentary provides a much-needed challenge to Nance’s voice, including her dubiousness at the film’s opening title: “This Really Happened.”
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty may never entirely transcend Nance’s headspace—as opulent and sincere as it is, we can never forget that we’re accompanying the creator down his own fanciful memory lane—but it is a more charismatic and genuine depiction of love than we’re used to seeing in American movies. The innovative jazz/hip-hop soundtrack is supplied by Flying Lotus, whose fans (such as myself) will delight at hearing his evocative music accompany such cerebral speculations on love. (Indeed, though critics often simplistically label the style of black filmmakers as resembling jazz or hip-hop, Nance’s stream-of-consciousness, self-reflexive use of repetition and motif really does bring to mind the tonal and temporal shifts of Charles Mingus or Madlib.) Ultimately, even if you find Nance’s introspection tiresome and self-absorbed, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty marks the arrival of a young, talented filmmaker and thinker who is able to turn his emotional hang-ups into something more wildly imaginative (and giddily optimistic) than would have seemed possible.