We Don’t Talk Like We Used To, the title of Joshua Gen Solondz’s latest film, has a few potential meanings to account for. The first is an intimate shorthand, referencing a confidentiality between two people that forms the daily thread of a relationship. To speak these words can herald either a reunion or a final disbanding. The other meaning might take “we” in the universal sense, and “talk” to stand in for communication writ large. Meaning, this proposition suggests, is not transmitted how it once was. The old lines have been cut, and reunion becomes a little more complicated.
Cinematic language was developed in response to a world scarcely recognizable from the one in which we live today. Better than most, Solondz understands its inadequacies to the demands of the present moment. The filmmaker’s flicker-stutter strategy rushes the optical nerve before his images have a chance to be corralled by conscious understanding. Solondz meshes textures, rarely lingering in one format long before it’s corrupted by a strobing overlay. Our access to a stable bottom layer is perpetually thwarted. Often, this is accomplished with a stratum of clear film leader that’s been scratched, painted, and seemingly dragged through the dirt. Otherwise, collages of saturated video footage intervene, deconstructing the discreet image and veering constantly from figuration to glitch art abstraction. It’s jarring when the obstructions fall away, and a steady stream of 16mm frames proceed unmolested for a moment, but Solondz’s decision to leave the gate hairs in, persistent Morgellons fibers crowding the edges, should be understood as just that.
Smoke billows into many of Solondz’s images, and intertitles penned in dripping death metal scrawl attest to an apocalyptic climate. “It feels like you’re on fire, you say,” one asks. Another feels less cryptic: “The air is thick with poison.” The film is flush with masks, largely balaclavas with and without eye and mouth cutouts, and the centerpiece prominently features an N-95. In an arresting sequence, Solondz alternates split-second moments of a masked figure donning and removing the PPE. The cyclical movement — stretching over six minutes — is protracted to the point of hysterics, but it hews closer to the actual memory of living through Covid than anything made since. Inside one day, outside the next, masks are only for doctors, masks are for everyone, cases up, cases down. The fingers, adjusting the elastic straps in both ends of the movement, seem to twitch and squirm in a dizzying cycle. It’s a trance only broken when Solondz cuts to a scene of himself tying a plastic bag around his head.
This transition doesn’t simply echo the oft-heard complaint that masks are suffocating. Masks have been a fixation for Solondz since long before the pandemic — 2016’s Luna e Santur, for instance, found the filmmaker shooting two figures in bedsheet ghost costumes, and again working with visual obstruction, forcing the viewer to squint through a migraine-inducing flicker to perceive his images. But We Don’t Talk Like We Used To proceeds with the manic energy of one recognizing in the world what was previously known via instinct. If it’s a redoubling of his strategy, rather than a reinvention, it raises the question of post-pandemic art to the level of urgency. Covid didn’t reveal anything especially novel about society, but it did make pre-existing contradictions impossible to ignore. Solondz returns to the same drawn-out approach for his finale. Two masked figures approach one another as they simultaneously seem to pulse and flicker apart. Their final embrace is equal parts emotional and disconcerting. It reminds of an image from earlier in the film, of an empty pair of pants attached to some sneakers, with thick smoke pouring out of them. There might be a reunion, but things will never be the same. We don’t talk like we used to, because we’re not what we used to be.
Published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 1.