'Brad's Status' Explores the Embarrassing Side of Ourselves
Here we see a literal example of film as prism to the filmmaker, refracting the author's essence that takes on a new identity or incarnation through Ben Stiller's performance.
15 Sep 2017 (US)Amazon
"I suddenly felt a deep grief for all the women I would never love and all the lives I would never live." This singular line, spoken by protagonis Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) lands with a noticeable strike. They are the words of intent, of the beautiful language of introspective thought, which in spite of their weighty resonance, Stiller delivers with a swift lightness.
Whilst on the surface it speaks to regret at the loss of opportunity as the pages of one's life story are irrevocably marked, this singular line laments a deep sadness within the ontology of a film. For just as Brad encounters his own realisation of his choices narrowing, the possibilities for the film itself are diminishing as it hurtles towards its conclusion. The narrative is locked in a semi-permanent form, the only flexibility left is found in the way that our past cinema and life experiences shape our response. Yet in the moment these words are spoken, decisions have been made by the writer-director, whereby not necessarily the infinite possibilities, but a number of reasonable possibilities are now to never to be loved nor lived; character and film synchronised in what it is to never be.
In Mike White's sophomore feature as a director, the introspective, middle-aged Brad deals with anxious feelings as he accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of colleges. Questioning his sense of self, he compares himself to his distant friends and how even his son's future will define him, amidst the nostalgic reminder of having once stood on the edge of tomorrow.
Brad's Status is an echo chamber of the sounds of everyday life, and outside of the rudimentary necessity of sympathy or interest, here is a character that for some will represent an encounter with a kindred spirit. Here we see a literal example of film as prism to the filmmaker, refracting the author's essence that takes on a new identity or incarnation through Stiller's performance. Speaking with White, he revealed a consideration following the series Enlightened (2011-2013) centred on a character with progressive values: “...there's another side to me too, petty and comparative, needing to be impressive and up late at night comparing myself to others." He added: “I think we all have a little of that, the embarrassing side of ourselves." It contextualises Brad's Status not only as an exploration of the filmmaker's sense of self, but the broader universality of a certain personality type or specific character traits.
As an echo of everyday life, the film is no isolated case, revealing the collaborative connectedness of cinema with perhaps the unlikeliest of films. Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul (2017) strays from dramatics to embrace a subtlety through the way the characters observe a room, or one another, specifically the little gestures of standing at the window, gazing out and picking up the coffee cup. Even the wiping of the table or sitting in a room quietly contemplating their loneliness resonates in Enyedi's hands.
In a second example, Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats (2017) reveals an attraction to the mundanity of everyday life, of the natural ebb and flow between drama and those mundane moments that come to define it. If the drama of filmic storytelling can deprive it of the realism of the human experience, then these two female directors craft prism like films that reveals an honest portrait. Alongside the exploration of sensory perception by Envedi and the structural by Hittman, White delves into the intimacy of anxiety, to offer us the psychological and the emotional.
Troy's friend Ananya (Shazi Raja), who sparks Brad's earlier grief over the women and lives that will never be, powerfully contextualises this echo of the everyday. “You competing with your friends from college, that competition is the history of colonialism okay? And the oppression of women and the fucking up of the environment. From where I sit it kind of seems white privilege, male privilege, first class problems." The explorations of Enyedi and Hittman are timeless, an inherent part of human history, and White himself offers an observation of the way in which psychological and emotional foibles have shaped and continue to influence the history of our world.
Here are three individual filmmakers; three individual films and yet they form part of the same conversation on the ontology of the everyday human experience. Brad's Status is of course closer to the through arc of mainstream narrative storytelling, as opposed to the strong art house aesthetic of On Body and Soul. Equally, with its anxiety tied up with a bow in the tradition of story as parable, it offsets Beach Rats' ambiguous ending. Yet alongside his contemporaries, White not only shows this connectedness, but the flexibility of the filmic narrative and aesthetic language to express and explore through contrasting approaches.
Brad's Status is one of the defining films for Stiller that showcases his nuance as an actor, playing off his comedic onscreen identity that infers beneath humour is a naturally formed reservoir of pain, sadness and melancholy. Or at least this is the impression Stiller offers. While depressing in its honesty, Brad's Status is alleviated by its dry humour. Never dismissing nor validating his feelings, the voiceover is the expression of his innermost thoughts. By allowing us inside the headspace and subjectivity of the character, it exposes the mind as perpetrating the deception of irrational thoughts and feelings as being rational. As such, Brad's voiceover offers an intimate and quiet filter that counters the exaggerated truth of these feelings that once expressed out loud to Ananya, are then exposed for what they are. Piercing the darkness of his cognitive cave with her words, as admiration turns to disappointment, she occupies for the briefest of moments the role of therapist.
On the subject of penetration, the prominence of the strings in the films score creates a connection between spectator and character, revealing the sound of the strings as introspective with their angst like and contemplative melodies. It allows one to feel Brad's anxious soul. As the film progresses, White adeptly incorporates the music in a way that he builds an evocative association between the music and the anxiety.
In a moment symbolic of the broader implications of human irrationality, he projects human consciousness onto his world, which is void of any such consciousness. “Eventually my mind drifted back to college. Back then I was in love with the world and the world was in love with me. When did we fall out of love with each other? Where did it all go wrong?" Brad's comparative nature to his friends, whom he views with subjective envy, allows him to play the suffering hero. “Must be nice to always have the seas part for you, nothing's out of reach, everything an option… For them the world isn't a battlefield, it's a playground, a dream, it's heaven manifested."
White creates a portrait of two chapters of life – the cynicism and self-pity of maturity preceded by the optimism and lust for life of youth. The emotions of the characters, their ideologies and feelings, touch us as the film becomes about the hero's journey, Brad's quest to rediscover the love for the world he once felt. The merit of the film, however, lies not in whether the hero is victorious on his journey, but in contemplating more deeply emotional anxiety, and whether with age comes a more possessive nature. Is the tendency to compare ourselves to others a sign of a loss of self-respect? The journey arc acts as a structure for a thoughtfulness that gives the film a purpose beyond its story, which will give White's film every shot to endure as a film that can speak to the contemporary audience of any decade in which it is viewed.
But Ananya and her friend Maya (Luisa Lee), whom he describes as “captivating" and “compelling" are the cause not only of his moment of grief for the women and lives that will never be, but a matter at the very heart of the film: loving versus possessing life. The Zen Buddhist text, The Diamond Sūtra, presents the idea of life resembling the experience of sailing a boat across the ocean -- while we can control the boat, we cannot control the ocean. The fact that Brad's son fails to offer such enlightenment strengthens the films message, iterating the need for perspective on these anxious matters that blight our existence. Brad's Status contemplates how the moment of realisation of the narrowing of choices or possibilities requires us to fight the transformation of the youthful lust for life into a possessive desire. Each generation that stands at the cusp of their futures will inherently look upon life with a possessive lust, yet disregard the ocean that influences the future that, with time, can witness love diminished.
To discuss the film presents an awkwardness, as depending on the degree to which this echoes as a familiar experience has the potential to influence our response towards either likability and sympathy or vice versa. Regardless, Brad's Status that has the potential to communicate as deeply as it does to offer a lighter, yet nonetheless touching experience. This is in essence the magic or the power of cinema that White has struck with his introspective dialogue that reveals the layers of human connectivity to one another, to ourselves, and to our world.