The credits start rolling while Kim Taylor is still singing, holding a guitar in her arms, and expressing all her melancholy through a song that hasn’t left me since I first heard it: Days Like This. You look up at the sky above you/ Days like this/ You think about the ones that love you/ All I wanna do is live my life honestly/ I just want to wake up and see your face next to me/ Every regret I have I will go set free / It will be good for me. I sighed, a little tear rolled down my face and later I came back for a second screening just to see and hear that song again. It was a rather absurd moment because my father did the exact thing more than 50 years ago in a small town in Germany – coming to see a film for a single scene. Back then it was Ben Hur, and people came to see the chariot race whose start would be announced on a special piece of paper in the window.
What an absurd comparison – a Hollywood big-budget period action picture on the one hand, and the sensitive, quiet, moody, and tender coming-of-age drama on the other hand. But while the first successfully seduces its audience with production values, stars, pompous music, and bright costumes, I Used to Be Darker is the very proof that neither of these ingredients are necessary for a touching and honest, gripping and sensuous film experience. In fact, director Matt Porterfield (Hamilton, Putty Hill) is quite known for being a brilliant representative for a different kind of cinema – observing, unobtrusive, and almost documentary-like with stress on the invisible insides of his characters and not so much on the all-too-obvious outsides.
I Used to be Darker, like Porterfield’s other films, is not so much about creating the great illusion, but more about giving his audience an authentic insight into the emotional world he wants to share. His actors, like singer-songwriter Kim Taylor and debutante Deragh Campbell, have little or no acting experience. The setting of the film is Baltimore, where Porterfield lives, and the specific theme of divorce is something that the director has experienced himself twice. The poetic camerawork by Jeremy Saulnier and the unanimated slow-paced editing add to a filmmaking of introspection, a strategy of presevering the moment and giving it space, instead of jumping to the next plot point.
We see a young Irish girl named Taryn who is leaving her summer job after breaking up with her boyfriend. She pays her relatives a surprise visit only to find out that their marriage has come to an end and Kim and Bill are in the middle of picking up the pieces while trying to find consolation in their music. In one very memorable scene, Bill is lost in a song and seems to channel his pain through the chords he plays, only to smash the guitar and the memories of a happy past once the song is over. The folk music, and especially the enigmatic physical and musical presence of Kim Taylor, are one of the major threads of the film, culminating in a beautiful song that seems to sum up the entire film.
Apart from her yearning and slightly smoky voice, it ’s Taylor’s body language that speaks where other filmmakers would have needed long monologues and clarifying words to bring their points across. In her face you see love, anger, despair, and sadness and her posture often expresses her realisation that it hurts when something comes to an end which you know was impossible to maintain. Likewise, Taryn’s young and lanky body is a constant focal point not only of her own observations (“I’m fat”, “I’m colossal”) but also for the curious observations of the camera eye. Her corporeality and the functionality of her body play an important part in the course of her journey and we often see her in poses that tell us that she doesn’t really know what to do with her body yet.
“All I wanna do is live my life honestly,” Taylor sings and I realized that this might be the hardest part of all when it comes to relationships. What is honesty, after all? Does the honesty towards myself count more than the honesty I show towards my partner? Many questions are left unanswered in this film and that’s often the best way to leave the cinema – with a mood and a feeling in your heart, with a song on your lips, and the wish to think a little bit more about this unbearable lightness of being.
I Used to Be Darker, USA 2013, 90 min.
director: Matthew Porterfield, cinematography: Jeremy Saulnier, actors: Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Kim Taylor, Ned Oldham, Nicholas Petr, Geoff Grace, languages: English, distribution: Arsenal distribution
Berlin screenings (English with German subtitles): Fsk (special screening on Thursday, 09.01. at 8.15 pm with Kim Taylor Q/A and a small concert)