P.O.V. No.25 - T-SHIRT

Notes on a T-shirt:
fact and fiction with no time to think

Daniel Alegi

surface is not what it seems Nothing one-sided can provide solutions. To the contrary: unawareness, ignorance and biased first impressions can - and will - escalate conflict. The T-Shirt in the end reveals both sides. There is a hidden dimension to explore, shadows to fill with honest curiosity. Purpose, meaning and truth may just lie in expanding one's visual, spiritual horizons. The design of the story is apparently plain, as is the monochrome cinematography, but the premise of the film has multiple dramatic, structural, storytelling, life-like layers to look at.

audience position The opening sequence puts the audience in the passenger seat of a speeding Jeep, hitchhiking with a silent stranger. A dangling cross, a soldier's picture and a slogan in English not only delimit the mental perimeter of the driver, but make the audience an active witness, a participant in the film.

opposites Is the audience riding with a villain or a victim? This is the first of several polarities the filmmaker creates and exploits. Urgent choice between opposite sides of an argument (about a symbolic world of prejudiced paradigms) is both a powerful narrative development device AND a reflection of the polarization of spiritual, philosophical and religious positions in the world out there.

What does your T-Shirt say As the stranger's SUV reveals its Texas license plate and pulls up to a store, the audience enters a space which contains experience, pain, hope as well as many brand name products. It is not clear until words are spoken what country we inhabit. Symbols and signs are, if anything, global common ground, identical, well known superficial references to generic needs. Inside the store another human has set and lives by different rules, images, fetishes, obsessions, and dreams of hitting fly balls over some center-field fence. Both the storekeeper and the stranger share a devotion to America shaped by their own distance/engagement to it, their subjective positioning. Not surprisingly, the flag in the store hangs tilted, and the stranger hates the "God is Dead" T-shirt the storekeeper is wearing.

narrative escalation towards head-to-head conflict is deceptively simple. The stranger's archetype, in a way, is the freedom to notice, criticize and question the habits and details he sees others live by daily. The storekeeper, open yet protective of the legitimacy of his own convictions, stands his ground - politely at first - against perceived aggression. The stranger's attack is a defense of his adoptive country, which will be disrespected by blasphemous and ignorant associations. Sound familiar in the fact vs. fiction domain?

catalyst is a T-shirt with slogans on two sides, but readable only one at a time. The metaphor is plain to see. Which one? There are so many. The argument about the use of the US flag in connection with religion degenerates. Patronizing comments and offers of money to fix the store spark into violent threats. As in any TV cop serial or reality show, we face the barrel of a gun. For the bearer justifies it as a legitimate defensive act against unequivocal (if only verbal) aggression. Perception drives misunderstanding. Yet, he claims, it's nothing to worry about, "it is just an argument". On one level: violence comes easy. On another: the hero can become a villain in a split second.

Timing reaching first the violent climax, then the ironic flip-side conclusion without succumbing to the force of its obligatory premise is one of this short film's merits. The urgency of choice permeates the Now - the narrative real time - without pause. I - as audience - do not feel manipulated into the obligatory violent finale. The choices the stranger faces are immediate. He must act in the moment and in so doing reveal his deeper nature. He chooses not to accept the behind-the-back offense murmured by the storekeeper. He does so not because the story dictates it, but because the moment forces a sudden, unintellectual choice upon him. No time to think. Deep character is nested below the surface of predictable standard convictions, one-sided allegiances, cultural conditioning, prejudice, stereotype. Film characters, no matter how tall the premise's orders, can never be only a sketchy summation of their pre-existing political religious beliefs. They must choose fast.

straddling the fading border between fact and fiction, the film asks about the world's personal set of beliefs. Tolerance vs. Intolerance, Openness vs. Paranoia, Fear vs. Forgiveness. The film develops an unpredictable event (based on the sudden encounter of two different sides, two uncompromising and confident POVs) and asks urgently how would anyone else react, think, comment. When alternatives grow into outright polarities, what ground will be worth defending? What role does righteousness play in conflict resolution? And forgiveness?

salt on open collective wounds years of meaningless military devastation and loss of life, a gap between pain driving the stranger, desire for freedom and positive change powering the shopkeeper's batting practice. This gap is filled by action, violent confrontational action. Is violence the only way? The questions in the layers below the T-shirt's surface are abundant. No one-sided answers are exhaustive. In the gap between right and wrong, hero and villain, good and evil, there exists only personal choice, awareness. Character motivation must find its way. The film asks these questions, and they resonate as urgent. We have no more time to think.

showdown in the store is richly metaphorical. The store environment is pregnant with product, sales, price tags, magazines, appearance, modernity, globality. Every object is charged with layers of polarized symbolic meaning but the film does not succumb to its overuse of symbols because they are never one-sided. They are contradictory, debatable, conflict-ridden: a multi-cultural hieroglyph so familiar to audiences already saddled with overdoses of high-voltage media. Can all meaning be manipulated with partisan eyes? Has it become impossible to avoid arbitrarily selecting one of two sides of a conflict for personal gain?

misunderstanding Does the filmmaker set out to slant the story-map a priori, in a Lajos Egri sense? The storekeeper does not show the back of the T-shirt although he holds the power to stop the madness. The violent narrative trajectory seems determined by the imperative to go all the way. Why does the filmmaker ignore the option of peaceful settlement? To show that ignorance is deadly? Surprisingly, neither of these two devices (premise-based story, predictable final confrontation) has an overall negative impact on the film because of the power of the Now, of the moment-to-moment development of character through urgent choice.

ideas are many and at play together, thus creating the multiple layers I refer to, and yet never cutting away to other story strands, forcing attention undivided to the moment. The film bears multiple viewings better and better, the best compliment I can offer to a short film and a testament to the force of its ambition, design and execution.

characters the shopkeeper can still dream the American dream, from the safe distance of story, sporting heroes and myth. For the stranger, flag and country are no longer a dream but money, blood, without mental escape. He is proudly engaged in a participatory experience of defending his own commitment and sacrifice, no matter what other-side of the debate (or T-shirt) is beyond his view. What if that stranger were America itself, wounded and aggressive, incapable of going beyond its own dominant paradigms? As I said, the layers of interpretation beneath the surface are endless, because it is fact that this fiction wants us to discover, by using story to catalyze an inescapable moment of reckoning. God vs. Nietzsche is an imaginary debate. Of course both are dead. No, wait…

One-sided defensiveness, voyeurism and passivity are for real. The drama of daily life without forgiveness goes on, and I am thankful for this short film, as it gives us 10 minutes to think, with focus, about it.

to the top of the page