Stories About Cancer and Other Catastrophes Sarah Watt's Debut Look Both Ways By Klaus Eder
by Klaus Eder
Nothing but catastrophes. On the television there is news that a train has run off the rails with a high death count. A young woman returning from her father’s funeral encounters another rail disaster when a passerby is cut down by a suburban train. The train driver is numb with shock and guilt. The photographer who records the event has just been diagnosed with cancer. Death peers from every scene, though the film doesn’t leave you with a feeling of tragedy nor even melancholy. On the contrary, it’s remarkably calm and sometimes distant, displaying an inner serenity which stems from the way it does not simply contemplate death, but rather, it celebrates life in the face of death.
Sarah Watt started her career with short animated films; her Small Treasures won the Venice Golden Lion in 1995. Look Both Ways (which she also scripted) is her feature debut. For a first feature film, it’s daring and courageous to develop multiple, intertwining storylines rather than to concentrate on a single plot. In an elegant and skilful way, Watt develops characters and unfolds episodes that refer indirectly to each other, with the death on the train track as the central generative element. She links these plot strands in a sort of networking dramaturgy.
She cares most about the young woman and the photographer, focusing on the story of how they become acquainted, meet, meet again, and unexpectedly fall in love. However, this does not prevent her from introducing and thoroughfully portraying a variety of characters with complex biographies. Sometimes she establishes this complexity in a few lines, as in the case of the photographer’s memories of his father who stubbornly denied his own impending death from cancer. Or the newspaper editor, who because of the challenges of his profession, became a stranger to his own family and does even not remember his daughter’s birthday. Or the family of the train conductor: the wordless sympathy of the wife, the terrible alienation of the son who tries to avoid all emotional contact with his father. Then there comes a scene without any dialogue: the son offers his father a beer, the father gestures for him to sit with him, and we understand that this is the beginning of a conversation that hitherto couldn’t be undertaken. This is a story within the story, a film inside the film, one of many. Watt uses short scenes such as this to provoke us to continue and complete the narrative in our own imaginations.
Watt displays a good sense of nuance in working with actors. She contradicts the impression, made by other, more talky Australian films, that everything needs to be spoken. A fine example of this is the scene in which the photographer (William McInnes) learns that he has cancer and is not able to understand the consequences of this appalling news. It renders him speechless, but he does not need to say much because we can read everything from his face. McInnes manages perfectly to keep the conflict inside, while nevertheless making it visible. The young woman (Justine Clark) also interiorizes her conflict, dealing with the pain of having lost her father through the hectic, senseless and beautiful activity of painting.
The way these two characters draw closer to each other is told very convincingly, even if the last step in their relationship, love, is harder to believe. Their love is born from desperation, from loneliness, from the fresh impression of the tragedy by the train line, from their encounter with death. However, this cannot be the basis for a life-long happiness, as the film finally suggests. Something in the chemistry is not working, but that’s not a major point, as each debut may have its weakness.
Watt tells this and the other stories in a realistic fashion, but the dramatic scenes are only one part of her narration. The other elements are photomontages and animation.
She uses still photos, which are rapidly edited into montage sequences which punctuate the narrative. The whole biography of the photographer, for example, told in a series of these photos and in maybe five seconds (a technique used also by Tom Tykwer in Run, Lola, Run). One doesn’t need to know all details of this biography, one can guess and complete it inferentially through the montage. It provides us with additional information, allows the director to segue into other scenes, and, most importantly, it creates a distance from the events and stops any sentimentality that may arise from the film’s subject of cancer and other catastrophes.
The same effect of creating distance was generated by another technique used extensively (maybe too extensively): animation. Watt introduces animated scenes to visualize the way that the disasters of the world take flight in the imagination of the young woman. For example, we see a sequence of a train carriage falling down on the young woman and crushing her. This technique is used to produce a play with a “fantasy of catastrophes”. Watt also uses animation to penetrate reality and to focus on aspects that her camera would not be able to capture such as the spreading of cancer cells in the human body and the effects of smoking on the lungs (heavy smokers should close their eyes at this point in the film). Sometimes it’s overstated and predictable, but in principle, it’s an unusual, original, and originally used element of narration that, like the photomontages, creates a distance, broadens the dimensions of the events, and pulls us deeper into the characters and their conflicts.
Watt plays in a clever and intelligent way with these different elements of narration: the realistic scenes, the photomontages, the animation. This marks the outstanding quality of her debut.
Her film starts with the train catastrophe, but slowly cancer becomes her main interest. It’s a subject where you have to take care not to wallow in pity or sentimentality. The diverse and complex forms of narration help her to avoid all these traps. She’s supported by the music, which is comprised of popular Australian songs which, at their best moments, add a poetic, and even ballad-like dimension to the film.
At the end, there’s another photomontage of the photographer surmounting his deadly illness, accompanied and helped by the young woman. It is implied that they marry and have a good life. This suggests a happy ending which is unnecessary. However, this does not weaken the impression that Sarah Watt made an astonishing and wonderful film, told in a very original and daring way, which delivers the message that, rather than murmuring against death, it is better to live and love life, here and now.
Maybe it needed the experience of a critical illness to come to this recognition.