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Aviva

(Boaz Yakin, USA, 2020)


 


It’s a curious thing that when English-language filmmakers around the world started enthusiastically emulating the French New Wave – and Jean-Luc Godard, in particular – by the end of the 1960s, they mainly fixed on the business of reflexivity: the film showing itself (often rather strenuously and obviously) to be, you guessed it, a film.

Several specific tropes soon came to deluge every second student effort, let alone the ambitious art movies in this tradition: seeing the camera crew reflected somehow in the shot, spotting the microphone at the side of the frame or above the actors’ heads, and – that fail-safe stand-by – having someone turn to the camera and (whether in character or not) ‘direct address’ the audience.

What’s odd about this act of borrowing is that Godard himself – a few notable exceptions aside – rarely went in for these exact reflexive touches. Reflexivity was either something built right into the premise of the diegesis from the start (as in Contempt [1963] and Passion [1982]), or explored through unusual metaphors and formal inventions (as in Vivre sa vie, [1962] and Sauve qui peut (la vie) [1980]).

The fact is that, for many filmmakers, the aura of Godard came to them bundled up with a related mythology: that of Brechtian theatre – with the level of comprehension of BB and his work (you won’t find any glimpses of the crew in, for instance, Kuhle Wampe [1932]) being, in most cases, no more thorough than the modish grasp of JLG. Yet there it was: the constant show of ‘breaking the illusion’ at strategic points of a film (but was illusion, as theorised, ever really so totalising or powerful?).

This carnival is never over: from such milestones as Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1968) and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) right through to … Aviva, the most surprising entry (so far) in the filmography of Boaz Yakin (Fresh [1994], Remember the Titans [2000]), whose work I’ve always keenly followed, albeit with some disappointments along the way.

The auratic tie-up between (the myths of) progressive cinema and radical theatre is a cultural phenomenon worth studying in itself, because it appears to be so tight and durable. (In Godard’s career, only La Chinoise [1967] really fits that bill in toto.) The 21st century proof of this agglomeration is Aviva which, beyond the standard-issue reflexivities (one nice touch here: one of the main actors holding the in-shot boom mic for a change), plumbs a range of largely theatrical modes, redolent of drama workshops everywhere (and sometimes resembling the superb parody dished up by Brian De Palma in Body Double [1984]): there’s the mime of driving an imaginary car; a performance-piece soliloquy spiced with dance movements; and a to-camera yack justifying why there might be but won’t be a La La Land-type song sequence … None of this is very surprising when one discovers that Yakin’s parents are involved in stage craft (mime in particular) and that he conceived the project in terms of what he calls movement theatre.

Movement theatre? Aviva has such a complicated, double-barrel premise that the first minutes of the piece are devoted solely to reflexively leading us in, as gently as possible, to the starting gate. First barrel: the two main characters, the couple comprised of Eden (Tyler Phillips) and Aviva (Zina Zinchenko), will be twinned/ghosted by two other figures – of the opposite gender. So Eden is also played by Bobbi Jene Smith (Yakin’s principal story-collaborator and choreographer here) and Aviva is also played by Or Schraiber (soon to be seen in Terrence Malick’s The Way of the Wind). More on this in a moment.

Second barrel: the story is essentially (but not exclusively) to be told in dance (‘movement’). With disarming candidness, the film tells us that it decided on casting dancers-who-could-act rather than actors-who-could-dance – which sets and clarifies the aesthetic priorities straight up.

Aviva is at its best where – to cite Smith – it feels like “the film itself is dancing” (see this excellent interview), following, at whim or will, the vibrations and metamorphoses of movement, somewhat in the mode of certain Claire Denis films (Beau travail [1999], Friday Night [2002]). Dance mutations!

It’s less impressive, and more conventional, when there are detachable dance-sequences defined by a location and the pertinent stylisation of a fistful of habitual gestures (such as carousing at a bar) – although, in general, I do admire Smith’s gestural choreography.

Nuttiest of all the movie’s experiments is an extended flashback into 12-year-old Eden’s streetwise rap fantasy, which truly looks like it strayed in from the Step Up franchise (I ain’t knockin’ the “I Won’t Dance” sequence from SU3D [2010]). Yakin even has Eden expressing his admiration for that wayward excursion later, as if to persuade us it was OK, after all!

Along that line, there are several equally detachable-conventional music-video sequences (motivated by developments in Aviva’s career), engaging only to the extent that you find Asaf Avidan and his (see below) music to be engaging (I liked it). Yakin did have the inspired idea to hand over reins of the 30 seconds of Aviva’s film-within-the film to another director entirely (Erin Li), so that it doesn’t just replicate the style of everything else around it. Few movies-within-movies have passed that test.

Let’s get back to the (deliberately slim) plot idea. Aviva and Eden start in different countries – so there’s an epistolary exchange churning back and forth between New York and Paris (shades of the less-usual rom-coms A Couch in New York [1996] and Your Place or Mine [2023]). This section is where the movement theatre worked best for me: outbursts of gesture in the streets, or privately at home, in alternating montage …

Once Aviva makes the trip over the seas (“for love”, I can identify with that), Yakin and his collaborators – alongside trying to work in issues of class, race, and Jewish religious belief (ref. Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies [1998]) – struggle with a format that has been made into a pitiful cliché by a million finance ads (for banks, life insurance … ) on TV: those ye olde Scenes from the Book of Love that stream by in condensed tableaux.

From first kiss to rapturous physical passion through to arguments, separation, hospital visits … and, eventually or inter alia, marriage (also divorce and remarriage options) and childbirth. Why not throw in the decisively concluding tombstones or skeletons as well, as did (respectively) Buster Keaton in College (1927) and John Boorman in Zardoz (1974)? Aviva opts for a more whimsical cap-off in a melancholic, Jacques Demy mood.

This final shot involves the two Edens, male and female. How about that idea? I presume a broadly Jungian influence, although Yakin speaks only of a ‘division’ or ‘contradiction’ within human nature. However, since he divides on the gender line, there’s no escaping the anima and animus concepts. To my mind, this does not pan out equally in its efficacy.

Whereas Eden has a fistful of problems with his emotional/feminine side (gay ‘subtext’ included) – so displacing those attributes onto his double makes perfect sense, schematically at least – Aviva seems already enough of a Wild Free Spirit not to need her animus to bring that out or develop it. Thus Aviva 2 never quite finds a function in proceedings.

Despite everything, Yakin is unable to really budge the familiar axis of Eden as blocked male narrator (with which he identifies?) and Aviva as whispy/fugitive/mysterious love-desire object – the tried-and-true formula of Malick’s Romance-based films, already turned on its head by Luis Buñuel in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) … which is, curiously enough, Yakin’s stated source of inspiration for the doubled-casting trick.

Craft-wise, the ever-shifting four-way diagram of unreal figures risks confusing the viewer, which is not entirely a bad thing: often, the accent (French or American) is the only thing that keeps us anchored to who is arguing with whom!

Time to say what is genuinely surprising – and risky – in Aviva. Beyond the dancing and the doubling, the film’s chief novelties are that: a. the actors are frequently full-frontally naked, including when they dance; and b. there’s a lot of relatively graphic (for a 21st century American feature) sex. And, in both cases, Yakin does not shirk the consequences: gendered genitalia receive equal-opportunity exhibition; and the sex scenes – since they also involve the walking-talking animus and anima – involve every queer permutation of two or more bodies.

Another queer touch: Israeli-born music star Avidan sings his own tunes (his voice is pitched high), mainly derived from the 2014 album Gold Shadow – but in the film they are mimed by a black, female character named Zeke played by yet another dancer-actor, Natasha Diamond-Walker (brought into the project, like almost everybody, from Smith’s choreographic circle). That bait-and-switch necessitated a real rabbit’s-hole digital dive on my part to sort out!

Aviva – released during the first year of the pandemic and inadvertently sucking in some its agony – appears to have had little play (and less attention) anywhere. Theatrical runs were probably doomed in that context, and so there’s only a small list of festivals (mainly of the specialist variety: dance events) and streaming outings for this brave, strange effort. It’s more – shall we say – “interesting” than actually terribly good, but it’s a frisky experiment worth checking out.

MORE Yakin: Uptown Girls, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

© Adrian Martin 19 March 2023


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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