Senior Night

Senior Night
a still image from Senior Night, a short film by David Delaney Mayer premiere on PBS across North Carolina. To view the trailer:

Part I: An Experiment in Style

Senior Night is an experiment in style. It sets out to answer a specific question: What would a documentary look like if all details were to stay inside a very strict narrative frame without any political, moral, psychological, or cultural context being supplied by the filmmaker? In other words, what types of narrative constraints arise if I avoid using the traditional contextual frameworks that an overwhelming number of documentaries use? The result of this experiment is a movie about the final game of a high school basketball player’s career in which the narrative depends entirely on the details of the game and what happens in the gymnasium that night. The movie represents a finite moment in time: a single basketball game. The audience never finds out who the main character, Anthony, was before he played the game, nor does an audience find out who Anthony becomes afterwards. Visually, there are no exterior shots or attempts to contextualize Anthony’s location outside of the gymnasium. in this way, Senior Night is a reaction to a tendency in the documentary tradition that allows ideas, not the object of a film itself, to control the direction of a film. This idea has surprising and radical implications.

Answering these questions means agreeing to narrative constraints. By removing context, different types of moments and devices were needed to move the story forward. In maintaining these narrative constraints, I have married Senior Night with the philosophy of the imagist poets at the turn of the century who sought to use words to create visual and sensory images that represent specific moments in time rather than general, broad ideas. The imagists had three goals with their poetry (as stated by Ezra Pound): 1) Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective 2) To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation 3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. According to these criteria, Senior Night should be considered an imagist, documentary film.

In Senior Night, the main character is Anthony Peak, about whose life we learn very little. Instead of hearing about his successes, struggles, home life, or future prospects (all familiar elements of familiar stories about personal development), we simply hear what he is thinking about in the moment. The figure of Anthony is not made to serve some political or cultural agenda. In this way, Senior Night is aggressively apolitical. Instead of following or implying a narrative that might immediately place the movie inside of political or cultural commentary, the rules that govern Senior Night are poetic. The rigor in style and the lack of contextual information suggest a wide range of meanings that the film never resolves. The audience is left to ask their questions and then fill in the blanks: who is Anthony? What does he want out of his life? What can we expect his life to look like in the coming years? Will he play in college? Where is he headed? Members of an audience must each use their imagination to answer these questions, and their answers certainly reveal something about who the members of the audience are.

Part II: Listening to an Audience

When I held a work-in-progress screening of Senior Night six months before finishing the movie, something remarkable happened that solidified my desire to create an imagist documentary. Hoping for good feedback from the audience, I screened a rough cut. After the movie finished, the audience clapped, and then the room fell silent for some time. A moderator asked if anyone had comments. After a moment, two young basketball players raised their hands, conferred with one other, and said they liked the movie, but they wished they knew more about why the game mattered: was it a playoff game, or a regular season game?

I sat quietly and listened.

A woman who had brought her children to see the project raised her hand and said she liked the movie but wanted to know more about the coach because he seemed to care so much about the kids on the team.

I sat quietly and listened.

A film buff in the crowd said he felt like the stakes needed to be raised: why does this school matter? Is it a largely underprivileged school? Is the basketball team particularly good? He felt like I needed a better “hook” to gain people’s interest in the film.

I sat quietly and listened.

As more audience members talked, it struck me that each person wanted a familiar story that resonated with their lives. Each of these stories was different because the story they wanted said more about them than it did about the documentary.

Then an old man raised his hand and said it felt like a movie about an old man, even though the main character was a high schooler. This time, I spoke up. I asked why he thought this. He told us that the movie seemed to represent the best moment of Anthony’s life, and therefore it was sad to watch. We all considered this for a moment. There was a moment of silence. Then, a woman in the crowd asked him, how do you know that this is the highlight of his life? There was silence after that, too, and it felt like everyone was contemplating the question, thinking about their own feelings about the film and about what the woman had asked. I took the opportunity to interject, “I like her question. How is it that we know Anthony’s life won’t get better”?

The obvious, underlying point, is that we don’t. The man had drawn this conclusion on his own, based on his own memories and his own beliefs about Anthony, a young black man playing high school basketball. It was at this moment I knew I could never change the film to accommodate any individual audience member. I had created a documentary that viewers struggled with. Audience members wanted more social details, or more historical depth, or more political commentary so that the film would make better sense to them. Their comments revealed their preconceived notions and preferences for what makes a good story. The imagist documentary revealed the frameworks the audience wished the documentary would fit into that make it easy for the audience to find comfort and closure in the documentary’s resolution.

This strikes me as a very uninteresting way to engage with our films. I want an audience to wonder.

Part III: A Craving for Information

In the documentary world, there is a demand for information. Audiences do not crave the complexity of an imagist story. Instead, audiences crave amazing (or horrific) information about amazing (or horrific) people in amazing (or horrific) places. It is, in a way, a very elite form of gossip, or, as we say in the documentary world, a chance to peer through a window into people’s lives.

The evidence of this is in the way that the documentaries are reviewed and talked about:

a must-see.” “illuminating” “groundbreaking” “a window into another world” “essential” The list goes on and on of ways that documentaries are described by virtue of the information they convey rather than the craft itself. These marketing techniques reveal an audience’s craving for information more than they reveal anything about the way the film was made.

This craving for information is really about wanting a familiar story. It tells us nothing about life and nothing about the subjects of our films. Instead, it offers a simple narrative that allows an audience to feel safe. It allows uncritical thinking to dominate spaces that should be dominated by radical forms of expression and wonder. People do not live simple lives with simple endings. Senior Night ignores the safety of the audience, and instead, sticks to its imagist philosophy. In this way, it creates a more emotionally complex and lasting viewing experience capable of embracing the many contradictions we all experience every day. Imagist films simply ask us to quietly sit with the moments of not knowing, of not having a familiar story to hang events on, and of feeling alone. Imagist films allow us to enjoy quiet moments, and they allow us to be swept up in a moment of life full of energy, full of drive and full of hope.

David Mayer Films, L.L.C. © . All rights reserved.