Sixteen minutes into I Used To Be Darker you’re led into a house show behind 19-year-olds Taryn and Abby. The inside looks like an art gallery, people are smoking and dancing and stage diving, and the lead singer is shirtless, flailing around onstage. Honestly, it feels like you’re in Minneapolis.
But the scene is set in Baltimore. Why, then, was I instantly transported to Minneapolis? Is it because it reminded me of a house show I went to? Not really, the underground rock scene in the Twin Cities usually ends up less raw, less punk, more nonchalant shoegaze.
Everyone, to varying degrees, subconsciously views movies through their own personal experiences, trying to make sense of characters and scenes from the people and memories from their life. This may seem obvious—don’t we all view our entire lives through our past experiences?—but people who are even slightly involved in the Twin Cities music scene are going to connect to I Used To Be Darker more than people in New York City and definitely more than people in Los Angeles.
While it’s certain similarities and my own history that made me liken the film’s portrayal of Baltimore to Minneapolis, it’s very deliberate elements of the film that immersed me in its environment and let me make these connections at all. This is Matt Porterfield’s doing. As the director and co-writer of I Used To Be Darker, which screens this Friday and Saturday at the Walker, Porterfield layers the film’s narrative with dynamic musical performances that will stick with you long after the film ends. But it’s not the songs in and of themselves that will touch you, because music is not the basis of this film, despite what the trailer and title will make you believe. The music is more of an expertly crafted character element that works because of much more essential principles. The foundation of this film is built of two things: camera movement and relationships.
“Every single shot in I Used To Be Darker was held by Jeremy [Saulnier, Director of Photography] on his shoulders. That breath, the sort of tie to the biological functions of the camera operator really gave it an intimacy that if it had been locked off, if the frame had been still, we wouldn’t have had.” - Matt Porterfield
Giving your movie a handheld feel, with the camera never quite stopping even when it’s focusing on one shot, is not something Porterfield invented. It is new territory for him though, whose two previous features, Putty Hill and Hamilton, were shot on tripods and other tools that kept the frame relatively still. One technique is not necessarily better than another, but one was the right choice for the movie Porterfield wanted to make—and he made it.
What you remember from the movie will undoubtedly be vivid snapshots—the sweaty frontman of Dope Body playing the house show, Bill winding up to smash his acoustic guitar, Kim and Taryn flipping through the scrapbook—but what’s more important than what you remember seeing is how you feel while watching. You’ll find yourself walking behind Taryn and Abby, sitting across the room from Bill, feeling like the camera lens is reflecting your own vision, not an omniscient one. This is a greater task than we realize now that every other blockbuster is in 3D and people don’t differentiate the experience of having things fly at you with the experience of feeling the characters’ presence.
“Taking a cue from 18th century modes of melodrama, it’s full of big emotions, broad gestures and song, but like the best cinematic realism it also finds time to explore the quotidian.” - Matt Porterfield
This is not usually something wise to do, but I must go against the director’s stance here. Yes, I Used To Be Darker has moments of big emotions and broad gestures, but it is far from “full” of them. I also would never describe this film as melodramatic, acknowledging that he’s not doing so here. I would go the opposite route and say this film is utterly realistic and true to human emotions and human relationships. There are endless moments in this film where Porterfield could have crescendoed into a scene-stealing monologue or pushed a character to lash out physically, leaving the audience wide-eyed and silent. Instead of going this route, he and co-writer Amy Belk chose to think about how humans actually act in real life. The most dramatic outbursts and moments of passion in this film ebb as fast as they swell. The result is far from melodrama, but the audience still ends up wide-eyed and silent—for the film’s realism is more potent than any exaggeration could have been.
“We made this movie because we needed a document of good existing inside of terrible…We thought it might be something other people needed too. And if it succeeded in no other way, it would have a really good soundtrack.” – Amy Belk
Whether it’s the physical and musical thrashings of Dope Body’s Beat or the pre-guitar-thrashing melancholy of Ned Oldham’s One That Got Away, you’re going to leave I Used To Be Darker with one or more songs seared into your brain. Belk shouldn’t worry though—the film succeeds in a multitude of other ways, but it doesn’t hurt that I’m now a Ned Oldham and Dope Body fan.
I Used To Be Darker screens at the Walker on Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm. A discussion with director Matt Porterfield and producer Steve Holmgren follows.