Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine For Melancholy” (2008)

Notable Festivals: Southwest, Toronto

While the 1990’s are often (and rightfully) regarded as a heyday for independent cinema, the late 2000’s saw the proliferation of truly indie films— a microbudget wave fostered by the rapid advancements of digital video, the rise of democratic digital exhibition formats like YouTube, and a do-it-yourself ethos that made almost any subject worth making a movie about. Soon enough, a distinct subgenre emerged: the mumblecore film. Given critical legitimacy by tastemaking festivals like South By Southwest and Sundance as well as prominent distributors like IFC, this particular movement of American cinema is marked by a lo-fi digital aesthetic, and is mostly concerned with the low-stakes romantic exploits of upper middle-class (usually white) American twentysomethings. Cornerstone works — Andrew Bujalski’s MUTUAL APPRECIATION, Aaron Katz’s QUIET CITY, Joe Swanberg’s HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS — were praised for their abundance of emotional authenticity and lack of melodramatic artifice, but to those more accustomed to a “polished” cinematic experience, these works were frequently derided as needless, boring, empty, even masturbatory (in Swanberg’s case, quite literally). The general sentiment is right there in the name, dismissing a whole swath of naturalistic characters as a generation of ineloquent and inarticulate mumblers.

Like the French New Wave before it, this particular movement isn’t for everyone — nothing that merits the designation of “art” ever is — but to deny it of cinematic “legitimacy” because it doesn’t conform to cultural expectations of mainstream filmed entertainment is a form of gatekeeping. All too often, the cost and resources required in making a Hollywood-caliber theatrical feature are used as a kind of cudgel to beat back the inevitable democratization of filmmaking. By establishing a high barrier to entry, this approach works to ensure that the industry is controlled by the whims of an elite few. The entire concept of independent cinema has always challenged this ecosystem, but mumblecore — a subgenre nimble enough to be produced on four-figure budgets in their creators’ own apartments — stood as a particularly acute threat to the status quo. The movement is more or less extinct now, having failed to catch on in the mainstream sense while its founding fathers (and mothers) have blossomed into mature filmmakers in command of higher budgets and more-polished resources.

Director Barry Jenkins’ debut feature, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, is a product of the same DIY ethos & by-any-means-necessary attitude that define the mumblecore movement, but its thematic sophistication and acute focus on social justice sets it apart. If films are a reflection of their creators, then mumblecore as a whole reflects a white, relatively-privileged and over-educated segment of the artistic population. For all their individual charms, these films reinforce the unfortunate truth that the pursuit of art as a lifestyle is a luxury afforded primarily to those who don’t have to work for a living. In contrast, by the time Jenkins sat down to write MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY in 2006 (3), he had already cultivated a substantial resume out of sheer necessity. Within a week of graduating from Florida State University, Jenkins had already moved out to Los Angeles to work his way up the professional ladder. For the first couple years, he worked as a production assistant, most notably as an assistant to the director for THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING (2005), produced by Oprah Winfrey’s production company Harpo Film (1). During this time, he also co-founded a full-service production and advertising company named Strike Anywhere, which still operates today..

Only two years later, Jenkins would move to San Francisco, having decided Los Angeles wasn’t the right fit for him. Though he was drawn to the Bay Area’s film community, he mostly limited his interactions to special repertory screenings while he worked in the office of a local political campaign. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY grew out of his fascination with San Francisco’s sociopolitical climate of gentrification and contentious racial assimilation, but found the inspiration for its narrative framework in the breakup of his first interracial relationship (2). In processing his heartbreak, he came to see the episode as an opportunity ripe for dramatic exploration— and on a scale accessible enough for his limited resources. Produced on a minuscule budget of $13,000, the scrappy MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY makes up for its lack of technical polish with its fierce display of ambition and thematic conviction. Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins headline as Micah and Jo, respectively— two Black San Franciscans brought together by their shared affection for alcohol, and yet have little else in common. After a night of partying, the two strangers wake up in bed together and begin the awkward process of navigating their newfound intimacy. 

As they traverse the city, visiting coffee shops, museums and each other’s apartments, Jenkins frames their fumbling romance through the multifaceted prisms of race and class. Micah is a relatively sedate young man whose passions are fired up by political and racial agitations unique to San Francisco (but have since been snaking their way to other major metros). Stung by a recent heartbreak, he’s further frustrated by the downwardly-mobile trajectory of Black San Francisco, already massively underrepresented in a majority-white city that’s only grown richer and whiter with the arrival of Big Tech and the artificially-inflated economy that follows. He’s also frustrated by the need to “assimilate” his racial identity into the nascent hipsterdom of his generation. Conversely, Jo has seemingly shed herself of racial preoccupations in favor of an easygoing upper-middle-class lifestyle. While Micah pays his ever-increasing rent by installing aquariums, Jo’s worry-free lifestyle is subsidized by her white art-curator boyfriend, freeing her days up to focus on her passion for making t-shirts emblazoned with the names of female filmmakers. Though her minimization of racial identity has allowed Jo’s personal individuality to flourish, Micah perceives this as nothing less than a complete abandonment. This all leads to a cold, lopsided chemistry— indeed, there isn’t much in the way of “romance”, let alone connection. In its place, Jenkins seems to be positioning his framework as a conduit for conversation about how these disparate viewpoints can harmonize towards a better realization of racial self within an oppressively homogenous environment.

Like so many indies of the mumblecore era, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY possesses a unique video look that has since been eclipsed by higher-quality formats. Though digital cameras that could approximate the qualities of celluloid existed, they remained out of reach for the budgets of most independent productions. As such, they used the cameras available to them: prosumer HD camcorders that could be bought off the shelf at Best Buy. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY employs the Panasonic HVX200, a fixed-lens HD upgrade to their wildly-popular DVX200 model, which was one of the first digital cameras capable of recording at twenty-four frames a second. Jenkins recruits James Laxton — the cinematographer of his student shorts at FSU — to perform the same duties on his first feature, resulting in a striking 1.78:1 frame that turns the perceived shortcomings of the video format into narrative assets. The most immediate aspect of MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s aesthetic is its lack of color: not purely monochromatic, but heavily desaturated to the point where otherwise-strong primary colors are extremely washed out and dull. The peculiar look plays directly into Jenkins’ thematic interests, dialed back in post by editor Nat Sanders to 7% color saturation— a visual reflection of the fact that African Americans make up only 7% of San Francisco’s population. Indeed, the only moment where Jenkins allows his image to achieve full color saturation is a short sequence shot on Super 8mm film, meant to evoke the aspects of San Francisco that evoke Micah’s affection rather than his scorn.

Because the lens was fixed to the body and couldn’t be swapped out for different glass, this generation of digital cameras limited filmmakers’ ability to fully shape the contours of their image. A few aftermarket solutions were available that offered an advanced degree of fine tuning, like the popular Red Rock line of adaptors that softened the harsh lines of video while simulating a shallow depth of field to better approximate the look of film. Such a look present throughout MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY suggests Jenkins and Laxton took advantage of this option, which also results in a rather interesting side effect: a visible vibration at the frame’s edges, as if the focal plane was hanging on for dear life in terms of retaining its clarity. This could be considered an aberration or a defect, but it subtly reinforces the roiling tensions that course underneath Jenkins’ narrative. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY makes no further effort to impose a deliberate “style”, arguably a reflection of the filmmakers’ attempt to simply capture the desired image quickly with whatever resources were at hand. As such, the camerawork toggles between handheld setups, locked-off compositions, and stabilized tracking moves with little in the way of aesthetic consideration besides whatever method was best to quickly and effectively capture the shot in question. This is not to say the end result is unprofessional or chaotic; it simply speaks to the practicalities of independent production at a scale such as theirs, in which success lies in maintaining as small a production footprint as possible.

What the film lacks in technical flourish, it makes up for in an energetic mix of musical tracks that convey an idiosyncratic “cool-kid” character. Beginning with “New Year’s Kiss”, a downbeat indie pop number by Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s soundtrack incorporates a variety of under-the-radar pop songs and electro beats to underscore Micah and Jo’s offbeat romance. In the aggregate, the musical sound is decidedly “hipster”— that is, a distinct cooler-than-thou attitude that lies at the convergence between tastemaking anticipation and esoteric indulgence. A more mainstream-minded (if reductive) approach might have leaned into hip-hop and R&B tracks to signal the protagonists’ racial identity, but a gifted storyteller such as Jenkins realizes the metatextual opportunity in “counterprogramming” his music. His usage of a musical milieu characterized by a predominantly-white fanbase of privileged, creativity-minded college kids & young adults becomes a metaphor for the overwhelming gentrification of San Francisco and the co-opting of working-class aesthetics. To place two Black protagonists into this environment is to reinforce the friction they feel against it— they stand out because they don’t quite fit. Their inherent incongruity makes true assimilation impossible, and makes their attempts all the more contrived and deleterious. The more they try to blend in with their surroundings, the more they lose their unique character.

This approach extends beyond the music, to the narrative thematic of the film as a whole. The spectre of gentrification looms large over Jenkins’ story, becoming a conduit through which he can explore the tribulations of the contemporary Black experience in America. A centerpiece sequence sees Micah and Jo briefly cede center stage to listen in on a community meeting, rendered in an observational, documentary-style manner. Jenkins uses real people, not actors, simply letting them vent their frustrations about ballooning rents and the existential trauma of being pushed out of their own community. As the seat of power for the Big Tech giants that wield so much influence over our daily lives, San Francisco’s housing market has become artificially and unsustainably inflated by a perversion of the supply & demand fundamentals. The absurdly-high market valuation of companies like Facebook and Twitter have created a new kind of Gold Rush for the twenty-first century, attracting an endless stream of very-well-compensated workers who subsequently pay top-dollar for the precious commodity that is the city’s housing stock. Slowly but surely, authentic & colorful neighborhoods like the Castro, the Mission District, or Haight-Ashbury are replaced by a homogenous populace and the artifacts of a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. These powerful market forces, then, become oppressive to members of the minority or the working-class; an insidious ecosystem that privileges the elite few while dispassionately dismissing those who can’t succeed within it as “not ambitious enough”. In making MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, however, Jenkins doesn’t set out to burn down the system; he’s more interested in fostering our empathy for those who are slipping through the cracks. Rather than use his art to shame or alienate the majority, Jenkins’ compulsions as an inclusive filmmaker instead invites them to pull the scales from their eyes— to bear witness to the fact that capitalism is ultimately zero-sum game, and there is always someone who has to have lost something (or everything) for every economic gain.

The unconventional nature of the film’s central love story further establishes Jenkins’s emphasis on empathy. Though their initial connection is driven by (drunken) amorousness, the cold light of sobriety reveals them to be ultimately incompatible. They’re barely friends, let alone lovers. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, then, becomes a portrait of two lonely souls struggling to empathize with each other; to find the kernel of connection that they can build a relationship upon. That it ultimately isn’t there doesn’t mean they haven’t touched each other on an emotional level; indeed, they each come away with a fresh perspective on the complicated nature of the city they call home. The profound empathy that distinguishes the film prevents Jenkins’ voice from becoming too angry about the story’s political preoccupations; it’s less of a condemnation than it is a pointed critique— a compassionate confrontation that’s ready to ask hard questions and, perhaps more importantly, is ready to listen.

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY was released at arguably the apex of the mumblecore wave, during the brief window of time where a homegrown feature with no stars could secure a coveted screening slot at prestigious festivals like South By Southwest and Toronto. After playing in both, Jenkins’ feature-length debut was acquired and released by IFC. Though it was (and still is) criminally unwatched at a mainstream level, it nonetheless made a splash among indie enthusiasts proactive enough to read its many positive reviews. The traction wasn’t enough to immediately launch Jenkins into a high-profile directing career, but the film’s quiet strengths would translate to a decent number of fervent admirers (this particular writer being among them). Some of them would be in high places, in a position to help him climb the precarious ladder towards higher scales of production. For Jenkins, however, this particular ladder would be 8 years tall— he was about to enter a kind of limbo period, marked by scattered output but increased entrenchment within esteemed film circles. By the time he was ready to make his follow-up, he would be in a much stronger position to realize his vision, his convictions reinforced by the fortitude of life experience.

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY is currently available on standard definition DVD via IFC.

 

Credits:

Produced by: Justin Barber

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography: James Laxton

Edited by: Nat Sanders

Additional music by: Mondo Boys



References

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  1. http://sf360.org.mytempweb.com/?pageid=11117
  2. Via Wikipedia: Lim, Dennis (21 January 2009). “With ‘Medicine for Melancholy,’ Barry Jenkins Examines Race and a Future Beyond It”. The New York Times. Retrieved 22 October 2016.

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