Reviews

Aaron Katz's 'Gemini' Frames Him as a Storyteller with a Clear and Decisive Vision

(Park Circus Films)

While a deceptively simple film, beneath Gemini's visually polished skin lies a social awareness of the foibles of the media, and its consumption within contemporary culture.


Gemini

Director: Aaron Katz
Cast: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, Greta Lee
Distributor: Park Circus
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-03-12 (South by Southwest)
UK Release date: 2017-10-08 (BFI London Film Festival)

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." These words by Shakespeare's tragic Juliet echo the poppycock of semantics, of any supposition that the ontology of a thing can be transformed by that which it is known. The rose of Aaron Katz’s Gemini (2017, BFI London Film Festival) is the truth, which by any other name would shed neither its uncertainty or unreliability, remaining a murky human-made swamp with a deceptively rosy name.

Gemini follows Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke), personal assistant to Hollywood starlet Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz) who, upon finding herself the prime suspect in Anderson's murder, goes on the run in LA to uncover the truth.

Noted for a contrast of light and shadows in the noirs of the '40s and '50s, this aesthetic has been dulled by colour cinema. Although it may be more astute to suggest that the aesthetic line hasn't been dulled, but rather that it has been transformed through colour in a movement towards visual neutrality. Yet the neo-noir is visually diverse, from the unpolished, low budget and gritty aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), to Nicolas Winding Refn’s glossy and stylised Drive (2010). Katz’s neo-noir is more in tune with the latter, and while a deceptively simple film, beneath its visually polished skin lies a social awareness of the foibles of the media, and its consumption within contemporary culture.

Branding it as a neo-noir as opposed to noir, however, ponders the question of our habitual need to compartmentalise cinema. If we follow Mark Conard’s thinking in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (2007), then those noir films pre-1960 were the genres' unconscious expression, after which time the genre witnessed an awakening of consciousness with what he termed 'neo-noir'. “In fact, neo-noir films in some ways seem better able to embody the noir outlook,” writes Conard. He explains: “First, the term film noir was employed only retroactively, describing a cycle of films of films that had already (largely) passed. Consequently, the filmmakers of the classic period didn’t have access to that expression and couldn’t have understood or grasped entirely the meaning or shape of the movement to which they were contributing. Neo-noir filmmakers, however, are quite aware of the meaning of noir and are quite consciously working within the noir framework and adding to the noir canon.”

The broadly adopted use of the term, of which Gemini is and has been critically categorised, creates division within the genre, imbuing it with the adversarial-inclined gaze through which we perceive our reality. Returning to the poppycock of semantics, 'neo’ does little to change the meaning of the genre from its infancy to its contemporary identity, which Conard himself acknowledges. “These later films are likely not shot in black and white and likely don’t contain the play of light and shadow that their classic forerunners possessed. They do, however, contain the same alienation, pessimism, moral ambivalence, and disorientation.” My base point is the tendency to shape art according to the human life cycle, of which ‘film noir’ and ‘neo-noir’ are examples. Outside of the broader movements or phases of film history, it is perhaps an exuberant and unnecessary case of scholarly micromanagement that undermines the evolutionary conversation of a genre, one in which all filmmakers and films partake, regardless of era.

As LeBeau uncovers the truth, the narrative mirrors the change of the genre’s form, and not dissimilarly acknowledges how slight or in part that change can be with the awakening of the unconscious to reveal one’s true nature. Gemini is a tale of moral ambivalence. Its sense of self-awareness has a decidedly pessimistic air.

The simple, succinct and clean cut narrative establishes Katz as a writer-director who understands that a film is a field sown with seeds. It is one in which images and scenes are capable of inference, which the audience latches onto and develops. Similarly to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), Katz hands over responsibility for judgment to us – to ask those questions that form a reaction. That he should pass over judgment to the audience is only fitting, as Gemini forces us to ask introspective social and cultural questions.

Most disquieting of all is perhaps our role as enablers for the media to both exploit and to be exploited, a cultivation of a morally ambivalent culture in which truth is compromised by the demands of entertainment value, and personal and corporate self-motivation. It is an example of a storyteller escaping the limitations of narrative as an offshoot of early fables and morality plays, or even the need for an opinion on the choices and decisions of the characters. Instead, these are provocations meant to create a compelling noir drama that is delightfully humorous in as much as it is a dark dramatic tale. Yet it leaves room for audience participation, who take the kernel of an inference, and assign the meaning and message from of the film text, alongside the moral status of the characters and their world. But more significantly is the film positioned as a mirror that reflects our world, contextualizing our judgment as an indictment on ourselves and our reality.

Yet compellingly, Gemini taps into the ontology of storytelling, and specifically the concept of truth within the context of any single narrative. One can look at the film as suggestive of truth as merely a human concept, and Katz masterfully uses the narrative as a provocateur to leave us with a question. He presents us with two stories, in which both ploy or coincidence have the appearance of truth, and through this ambivalence, he further suggests the falsity of fact or even objectivity.

As a stylised noir, Gemini paints a stark contrast of the city by day and night, echoing the strong aesthetic contrasts from the early monochrome noirs. The film evokes a pleasure through its cinematic presence -- the writing, the performances, and the music are tailored to express cinematic realism. In spite of noir pessimism, it’s an evocative and tantalising world, where control and power are contradictory, compounded by those moments in which it feels caught between the cinema and the theatricality of the stage. Kirke and Kravitz's performances are as bold as the writing and the direction, LeBeau, in particular, remains in our minds, not only with an immediacy but perhaps the conclusion of her quest for the truth is a lasting and evocative image of ambivalence.

Katz’s fourth feature frames him as a storyteller with a clear and decisive vision, crafting a clean cut film that moves at a satisfyingly brisk pace. Fitting into a tight 90-minute window, it validates the advantages or merit of brevity in a time when some filmmakers unnecessarily surrender to their creative indulgence. One prominent example may be Darren Aronofsky’s Mother (2017), which could be considered guilty of drawing out the nightmarish and fevered chaos to heighten the sensory experience, yet consequently, compromises the integrity of the narrative. Unlike Aronofsky, Katz shows a confidence in inferring and presenting his audience with the seeds of ideas, to then be developed independently. Here is a film of genuine merit, deceptively simple, yet one in which the filmmaker understands the layers of the aesthetic and the artistic language, with the social and the cultural conversational context, that bridges cinema as introverted entertainment offset by an extroverted social conscience.

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