The 14-minute short Bullet in the Brain came out eight years ago and since then has established a certain reputation, especially at film schools, where it has been absorbed into the academic curriculum - possibly due to the boldness of its structure, but also (perhaps unconsciously) because of the pedagogic spirit it exudes: the first third of the film takes place in a classroom, where the topic being lectured on is storytelling.
So "literature", in a way, is the subject of the film, and the pretext for what is, at first glance, by far the most striking thing about it: I mean its unapologetic wordiness. In the space of the film's short running time, three distinct usages of the spoken word are dramatized contrastingly, corresponding to the three main "acts" of the movie: the first, a classroom monologue, spoken (perhaps, more accurately, orated) by the film's protagonist, a once-charismatic but now disillusioned teacher of creative writing; the second, a dialogue, or series of dialogues, taking place in a bank that same afternoon, at which our protagonist fatally stumbles into a hold-up; the last, a classic voice-over, narrated by a third party (whose timbre of voice and even class accent is strikingly different from that of the protagonist) detailing the protagonist's final mortal thoughts as a bullet from one of the bank-robber's guns enters and then exits his brain.
The received wisdom is that short films should be as sparse as possible in dialogue, the message - if any - being put over by visual means. Bullet in the Brain, on the contrary presents us with a torrent of words, and the interesting question, aesthetically speaking, is how (indeed whether) it gets away with it. Opening with the diatribe spoken by the teacher against the cliché-ridden output of his students, and proceeding into a second act where in some way language is also at issue (our protagonist pays with his life by mocking the second-hand movie lingo of the gangsters), the film, you could say, "saves up" its true verbal fireworks for the third and final sequence, a virtuoso cataloguing of some of the memories that did, and did not, flash through the protagonist's mind's eye during his last moments on earth. One memory above all is privileged - an afternoon's baseball match from the narrator's childhood, from which he remembers, in particular, the peculiar vocal nuance of the reply he was given when he asked one of his youthful team-mates which position the boy would like to play in on the field. "Short stop", says the child (a tubby creature); "short's the best position they is."
We are meant to take in, I believe, that the writing of this interior monologue is a sort of answer or riposte to the adjudged apathy of the students in the opening class-room sequence (an apathy, of course, that the audience must take on trust, since we aren't actually exposed to any examples of the "shoddy output" that set off the protagonist's original verbal tirade). It is as if, in this finely-wrought elegiac meditation, the protagonist would show us, from beyond the grave, what "real writing" is made of. Its virtuosity is demonstrative. Another way of looking at the matter would be to say that the demonstration is for our benefit also, not just the students': the film-maker wants to show us that it's possible to have real writing - writing with a wow factor - inside the medium of the short film, where we may not be usually disposed to look for it.
Is it convincing? An only slightly more expansive version of the monologue in question is printed as part of the original short story on pp. 10-11 of this issue of P.O.V., so the reader may judge for himself. What one doesn't get in reading it cold is the gentleness and (so to speak) the sumptuous weariness of Bill Plimpton's patrician voice, such an interesting contrast to the harsh pedagogic irony of the actor playing the protagonist (although this speech is written in the third person, at some level of course the two voices are supposed to incarnate the same person). Nor does one get from simply reading the text the force and opulence of the visual imagery that comes on stream at this culminating point in the movie: suddenly the aesthetic becomes salient. Of course it is clever, too, conceptually: the images that aren't remembered (mainly erotic in content) are given as much prominence as the images that are. He (the protagonist) may not remember them, but we are privy to them nonetheless (so, in a way, he does remember). The whole speech has a kind of spaciousness, a modulation, that partakes too of the film's conceptual intelligence, since part of the fun - part of the gamble - is to find out how much thought and remembrance can be crammed into a split second without contravening unwritten laws of vraisemblance.
"He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else."
The film came out, as has been noted, eight years ago: the persons involved have all moved on (some, alas, in the literal sense: witty Bill Plimpton has died in the interim). Whose film is it, exactly? Concerning such a writerly exercise, the question of authorship is interesting. The script is credited to the director, David Von Ancken, based on a short story by a certain Tobias Wolff. The writer of these lines is not acquainted with this author - nor able to state for certain whether the idea of dramatizing the last moment before violent death by gunshot is original or not. Hemingway is cited in the film, and certainly the artfully-contrived mixture of brutality and tenderness seems "Hemingwayesque". One wouldn't be surprised to find the descriptive task (that of itemizing random last memories) being set as an exercise in creative writing - in fact, the kind of exercise that might well have been put in front of his students by our disillusioned protagonist (who sports, by the way, the Hemingwayesque name of Anders). The actor playing this character, Tom Noonan, is also, it is intriguing to hear, a writer himself - a published playwright - so there may even have been some input into the script from this quarter too. It's not crucial to know, and maybe indeed better not to know. The film stands by itself: a model of energy. It has a confidence, a vigour, and a structural boldness, that are surely impressive by any criteria.
A Hemingwayesque ambiance. Tom Noonan as Anders in Bullet in the Brain.
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