The Words Don’t Matter: A Review Of ‘Shredder’

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Shredder (2011)
Written & Directed by Cody Clarke
80 min.

I feel strange writing this. Not just because a personal blog post about Shredder led me to corresponding with Cody, and subsequently becoming a guest writer for this site in the first place, but because Shredder as a creative work is now so familiar to me it’s difficult to imagine being someone who hasn’t seen it.

Shredder is not simply a movie. It’s a test, like when someone tries to beat a video game with their feet. The director (you might have heard of him) set out to tell a story, but with the added challenge of doing so entirely with still, unbroken, black and white shots.

The film works on many important levels for me. Firstly, it’s a great example of art from adversity. It endures not only its self-prescribed limitations, but the rest of the troubles with any low-budget indie film as well. In spite of this, or because of it, the viewer can still engage with the characters and experience a complete narrative. Every film is a jigsaw with numerous parts, and Clarke’s stylistic choices make for unique extra pieces of the puzzle.

A disastrously surface-level description of the story would be that it’s about a guy who has a few issues with his girlfriend while he finds his musical taste is changing. Now, I personally can’t stand stories about young people in modern-era America because they quite often feel shallow and ignorant of larger cultural problems. The sheer weight of the fact there are much bigger things out there in the world than if a girl likes you, or if you’re popular, or battling the ‘inner demons’ everyone deals with every day crushes my interest. This is one of the main reasons why films like Orange County have no emotional core whatsoever.

Shredder seems completely aware of these movies and why they suck, and dodges this problem perfectly. For starters, the characters feel like people. None of the drama is manufactured, but rather grows naturally from a slow and purposeful progression of their own personalities and motives. On top of that, the acting is pretty brilliant. No line ever seems fed to the actor. Although I’m sure this movie had a script, the whole thing feels improvised by the characters—that’s right, the characters, not the actors. I don’t think I’ve ever been more invested in scenes where two characters just talk to each other about stuff before, and that’s great. The camera’s lack of movement means it never tries to accentuate an emotion, or jostle you into thinking action is taking place. There is no editing to remove pauses in conversation, or find an angle that better catches an actor’s ‘good side’, thus eliminating all kinds of pretension that normally come into play in movies, as if the camera were a truly objective entity. This gives you the remarkable opportunity to develop your own perspective on the characters.

At one point, a conversation is briefly interrupted by the sound of a motorbike outside. They ignore it and move on, because that’s what people do in real life. This story doesn’t take place in that simplistic, pristine movie-world where people beyond the walls of the room don’t exist and all time is stopped for the on-screen action. Instead, the world moves around and past these characters, because in many ways, they don’t matter at all. That level of awareness of the world outside makes this film, and its story, feel truly genuine. All these things are tremendously interesting to try in a film about young people, in an age where films like Juno are praised for their ‘well-written’ characters, inventing a version of reality where all kids are witty pop-culture machines possessing none of the legitimate fleshiness of real humanity. Normal people are not witty. That’s why people like Oscar Wilde are remembered at all; they were the exceptions to the general rule of humankind. Great writing captures people, warts and all. But I can imagine someone watching this film and not liking it for the same reasons I think it’s great: ‘Where’s the smart ironic one-liners, and what’s with all those natural pauses in conversation? Why, this sounds like a real talk I had with someone once! I thought this was supposed to be a movie!’

Which brings me neatly to the other big reason why Shredder is great. Remember all those limitations I talked about? (Black and white still shots, not to mention the complete lack of non-diagetic sound?) Shredder highlights the fact that these limitations aren’t even limitations at all. It acts as a reminder that the bells and whistles of modern movies are completely superfluous. Monochrome used to be the norm when you went to watch a movie, and there’s a good reason why colourized versions of old films are rarely remembered as well as the originals. Simply put, black and white visuals can often be done better than colour, even in an age where we have both. Hell, not even sound is truly necessary in telling a complete and engaging story, a point I think Cody is also well-aware of, considering his next film Siobhan is going to be completely silent (but we’ll get to that when it comes out). In and of itself, Shredder proves, simply by being good, that so many aspects of filmmaking are completely unnecessary, and that’s liberating. It might make you feel more interested in going back and watching more old movies. Suddenly, the lack of colour and movable cameras won’t feel like a return to the dark ages. It might also be liberating to young, fresh filmmakers who are worried their movies will need explosions or rapid cuts or extensive backing sound design to be good. At least, that’s exactly what it was for me.

In one scene in Shredder, we see two characters talking on Instant Messenger in two separate shots. At no point do we actually see what the characters write to each other. The shot is framed so you can’t quite make out what’s on either screen. This is because the words don’t actually matter. You don’t need it to understand their relationship; you can see it in the character’s faces and their reactions to one another. But it also communicates another thing: the knowledge that these words don’t matter. In modern life, the fleshy, subtle, and, well, HUMAN depth of traditional relations have often been replaced with the cold, clinical dance of text on a page, not just in the form of Facebook, Instant Messengers, texts, emails and the like, but you can find the same reductionism in every budding writer’s first screenplay. By taking these words away, Clarke demonstrates how pointless they were in the first place, because you still know what’s happening without them. It also makes you pay more attention to the acting. You have to read the characters for the information, rather than their literal words, and that’s just more fun than being subjected to the banal messages of two young adults. Why would anyone want to read that stuff anyway?

Shredder isn’t the sort of film an average movie-watcher might enjoy. It’s clearly made for film fans, people with a deeper interest than the norm. In other words, it’s made for you, Smug Film reader. I can’t personally judge Shredder as a film anymore, because for me it was a big part of the development of my own understanding of the medium. It awoke me to the depth and power of movies as a whole, and what you can achieve with only a tiny portion of its faculties. So if you want to expand your awareness of the medium, Shredder might just be a useful tool for you. There’s also some sick guitar solos.

5 Codys out of 5.

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One Response to The Words Don’t Matter: A Review Of ‘Shredder’

  1. Pingback: Watch My Films, ‘Shredder’ and ‘Rehearsals’, For Free! | Smug Film

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