I May Never Be Sure of My Disbelief
“How do you salvage that?” asks Namik (Namik Minter). By “that,” she means a broken relationship, one she’s been asked to remember by way of how it made her feel. “Hurt disappointed, confused,” she says, “All the bad adjectives you can attach to a romantic relationship.” The process of salvaging that looks so impossible might only be imagined, she adds, as a balance of logic and emotions. “I don’t think there’s a way,” she sighs.
Namik’s dilemma isn’t precisely of her own making. but is instead a formulation born of her role here, as the fictionalized version of herself (that is, Minter), conjured by her own performance for the film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, and also conjured by the filmmaker Terence Nance. As they collaborate on this fiction of a documentary, as a means to sort out some truth about who they’ve been and who they might be in connection to one another, both appear in frame. They face the camera and sit back from it, comfortable in their closeness. He’s asking questions that you don’t hear, but see typed over the screen. She answers questions and also poses her own, wondering about what they’re doing as they’re doing it.
Such emphasis on process shapes the film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which is less a single film than several films together, broken into sections that are narrated (by Nance, Reg E. Cathey as a version of the Nance character, Minter, and Ruby Amanze as the Minter character), numbered and titled… and sometimes introduced with the quaint device of a “Pause” and then an “Eject” notice, the blue screen evoking that ancient technology, videotape. The mix of times and plots and genres is compounded by another mix, types of imagery that include hand-drawn animation, handheld doc-style footage, grainy video, photos, text, and claymation, particularly striking when models of Minter and Nance watch their 2D fleshly images projected on a screen, puppets imagining themselves at a screening of a version of the very film you’re watching.
The pieces are discrete but also continuous, each bit providing a new lens through which to see the bit that comes before or the bit that comes after. This constant adjustment—that is, your constant adjustment—is initiated by a moment just after the opening credits sequence, in which Nance carries on the New York subway components of a Japanese joinery bed, which he means to assemble, he says, though he has no idea how to do so, the internet notwithstanding. The dream of assembly turns into the film when the frame freezes—just as Nance stands on a threshold, the stairs at the door to his apartment Cathey’s breaks in to introduce “the context necessary to tell a complete story,” namely, a film within this film, the more plainly fictional romance, Nance’s own 2010 How Would You Feel? (here, Minter, for example, appears “as herself”).
As An Oversimplification of Her Beauty here pauses, and so complicates its trajectory, an inistent interplay between voiceover and image begins in earnest. For this is a film that layers commentary on itself with the questions you might ask or not, narration that ranges from instructive to reflective, playful to precious (just so, that preciousness comes under preemptive scrutiny). If the forward motion, such as it is, concerns Nance’s romance, or his worrying about his romance, with Minter (and then, as “context necessary,” his previous relationships, failed or not-quite-ended or drifted off: say, “You are to her a healed cancer rightfully excised before you metastasized”), the film is more a mediation on what any sort of motion might be. The romance is less the point or objective than it is an occasion for parsing himself, how he’s come to be who he is, how he sees and projects, how he finds it so difficult to articulate what he’s not quite seeing yet.
That this parsing applies to many doesn’t make it universal so much as it makes it fascinating, nuanced, and weird at the same time that it might be tedious. The Nance character is self-aware to the point of pain and paralysis, but he is also charming and delicate, courageous and afraid. The film includes some regular moments that turn almost instantly offbeat: Nance recalls, by way of lamenting the effects of, his pleasant childhood, which left him suffering from “the Cosby effect,” a childhood “conspicuously devoid of angst, conflict, and repression” that him unprepared to handle any of those things even in “the trace amounts that are present now.” But if he is without resilience and full of doubts, he is also full of himself, asserting his desire and self-understanding, that his desire cannot be achieved because he is so absorbed in his self (or perhaps, his self-understanding).
But as much as Nance obsesses over how to get what he wants, or even to know what he wants, the film is most striking when it makes another turn, when it points out the limits of fiction and documentary as means to insight. Each becomes the other, as romance—adoration, desire, loss—becomes a form of both. As the artist is starting to forget the romance that was lost, the narrator says, as “You are also starting to forget how you felt, luckily, you are reminded by the editing process.” The film—as machinery, as memory, as misapprehension—becomes the means with which to examine how art and self are constructed, as these are related and sometimes in conflict. Even as the film gives itself over to the “her” of its title, as Minter speaks and performs and doesn’t quite hijack the process, you see that the artist has yet more work to do.