Filming the Blank Spaces of Existence in 'Nestor

by Chadwick Jenkins

15 December 2016

Nestor, meticulously photographed, invites us to dwell in the wide stretches of blank time we inhabit and ignore.
 
cover art

Nestor

Director: Daniel Robinson
Cast: Daniel Robinson

2014

Think of your day. It could be the day you just lived through, if you are reading this in the evening, or the day before, if you are reading this with your breakfast. When someone asks you “how was your day?’ typically that person is looking for the highlights. Our memory focuses on the highlights. We discuss the strained interactions at work, the random encounters with ludicrous strangers, the moments when we got to play the hero. Sometimes we even admit to the moments we were forced to (got to?) play the villain.

What we tend to omit from our account is the quotidian, blank, anonymous things that we do nearly every day and that constitute the larger part of our lives. Yet this, if we are being honest, is our day. Those highlights are aberrations. Our lives largely exist in the little unnoticed blank spaces that suffuse our sense of normalcy despite their uncanny presence. The time we spend sitting on the couch waiting to come up with the next thing to do, the time we spend grooming ourselves, defecating, cleaning the bathroom and doing the dishes, running errands and retrieving the mail: this is our day in all its bemused estrangement.

Somehow it seems almost absurd to think this thought. Imagine you were a witness in a trial and the prosecutor asked you to recall the events of July 9th. Your response begins: “Well, I woke up but didn’t have anywhere particular to go so I stayed in bed a bit. The cat did that thing where she claws at the comforter endlessly. It makes this noise that is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me, gets under my skin, yet at the same time, I’m so used to it that I can’t imagine it not happening. On the rare occasions when she fails to do it, I feel off for the remainder of the day. She leaves these little claw marks where her nails penetrate the fabric. They remain there after she moves to the foot of the bed to lick herself (who needs to be that clean?) and yet whenever I look for them later they are no longer there. I often wonder where they go but have no way of knowing.”

No one could blame the prosecutor for losing patience. It’s not what’s wanted. It’s not informative because information requires that something stand out from the quotidian buzz of our existence but our existence primarily involves that incessant buzzing that we so readily ignore. What if you were to wake up to it? What if that blank, buzzing nothing were the focus of your attention?

This manner of attention is sometimes recommended by figures such as Thich Nhat Hanh as a form of mindfulness, a way to calm the mind, to detach our thoughts from those highlights (so rife with anxiety and desire) that we take as the meaning of our lives but perhaps are the banes of our existence. Perhaps to be mindful, to live fully, is to willingly inhabit those blanks spaces of our quotidian experience. Aristotle long ago remarked that philosophy begins with wonder. Wonder, however, does not simply occur, does not merely happen to us. We are the site of wonder; we are made so by opening ourselves to astonishment, and astonishment is everywhere to be found.

I wash the dishes and the soap bubbles form a simulacrum of foamy caverns along the inside of my thumb. The water pours into the basin. There’s a constant, soothing sibilance that underlies the random tat-tat-tat of the outlying droplets. The drain greedily gulps and gurgles as the water spins its way into oblivion. Tilting the plates under the faucet’s stream gives rise to a symphony of slight variance while beads of water wind their lazy way down the stem of a fork in the dish rack. A water bug explores the crevices of the tile on the wall behind the basin, tentatively. The light buzzes some untold frequency and I am alive to its mundane pleasures.

I notice these things and notice myself noticing them. I document them in my mind. We think of life as a series of unfolding events. But events are moments of significance, of importance. An event is the outcome of previous conditions; it’s a something that happens. Most of what we live does not involve events in the strong sense. Most of our lives involve nothing happening. We live the crackling static of the trivial, the commonplace, the easily foreseen that is endlessly forgotten.

It’s difficult to say what Nestor, the first feature film by Daniel Robinson (available on Amazon streaming), is about, but it may involve this interest in the blank richness of life. After some cryptic and alluringly beautiful images reminiscent to my mind of the video art of Bill Viola, Nestor opens with a man in shorts coming to consciousness in the snow. Seeming confused and disoriented, he makes his way to a nearby house.

Over the course of the film’s hour-long running time, we observe the character (presumably Nestor, although we are never shown that this is his name, aside from it being the title of the movie) explore the abandoned environs surrounding the house, dealing with the maintenance of the home (including a very engaging sequence during which he figures out how to provide himself with running water), and filming his isolated existence.

There are hints that something more may be at stake. There’s a sequence in which Nestor may be trying to commit suicide (or maybe that was just for the sake of the camera—it’s impossible to say). There’s a curious clip where we may be seeing a body submerged in the water (I watched the film several times and still cannot be sure that is what I am seeing there).

In a sense, the film can be pretty much what you want it to be. It’s certainly not a blank canvas, but it’s a suggestively under-painted one. One may become obsessed with the mystery element. How did Nestor get there? Does he even know who he is? He’s pretty handy at living in that location; has it been his home all along? Is that a body in the lake and did he put it there?

One may (and judging from other discussions of the film, most do) become obsessed with the fact that Robinson is the writer, director, cameraman, soundman, editor, and he’s the only actor for the film. He’s the entire cast and crew. This is certainly the most celebrated aspect of the film and knowing that does impinge upon one’s viewing, perhaps inevitably. I sometimes found myself wondering how he could have prepared certain shots—particularly with all that snow on the ground. How did he get the camera set up for long shots in the opening where the snow around him doesn’t show the footsteps he must have taken to get into position?

What impresses me about this film, however, is the sheer beauty of several of the shots. Nestor is meticulously photographed and edited in a beguiling manner so that it invites its viewers to dwell in the wide stretches of blank time we inhabit and ignore. The camera lingers on an otter cavorting in the mostly iced over and snow covered lake. Several frames feature the gentle swaying of the trees that surround the lake and the home. Insects and spiders appear—not as pests to be thoughtlessly dispatched, but rather as occasions for wonder and curiosity.

One such scene, in particular, enchanted me. A bug lies on its back in the bottom of a sink. It kicks its legs, attempting to right itself and to escape. Its struggle is not frantic, just insistent. The bug doesn’t seem to have any doubt that it will effect its own liberation. It’s like a wind-up toy inexorably following its mechanical path toward freedom. Just before the scene cuts to another, Nestor’s head appears, distorted and unrecognizable, reflected in the silver plating of the edge of the drain.

In any other film, we might be puzzled as to whose reflection that was. But in this film, we have little choice but to assume it was Nestor. And this brings us to the issue of observation. Nestor is (or can be), in many ways, a film about observation.

Given the quiet, meditative emphasis on images without much action, the film foregrounds the fact that we are observing. When there’s so little action, so little to “follow” in the traditional narrative sense, the viewer is made utterly aware of her role as a viewer. We might first ask ourselves “what is it that we are supposed to be seeing?” only to realize that the answer here is largely up to us.

We, however, are not the only observers involved. Nestor, by filming himself and even reenacting the moment when he first awoke in the snow, is also an observer—or perhaps we should say that he sets a camera in place so that he might be observed so that observation can take place.

This makes the film a sort of meta-commentary on the making of the film itself, encouraging one to imagine an endless recursive loop, the film’s narrative becoming a kind of meditative Mobius strip. The film finds various ways, like that distorted reflection in the basin’s drain, to puncture our sense that we are absorbed in the film, that we somehow become immersed in its unfolding.

That distorted head reminds us that the bug is not merely there, it’s observed being there, it exists as a thing observed. It was perhaps placed on its back to provide an object of interest for observation. Furthermore, we are reminded that our role is not innocent either, not without consequences. We are observing, and in that observation, we work upon the film that works upon us.

This is a film that eschews events; it taps into that humming static of stasis, the blank spaces of unspectacular existence. But those blank spaces are not really blank. We fill them.

Nestor

Rating:

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