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06: The Plains
On David Easteal's The Plains (2022), and on the car as a container of stories.
“That’s life. [...] You need the little flame.”
Against a black screen, rain can be heard hitting a windscreen. An image appears, displaying a static dashboard filmed from the middle backseat of a car. A nondescript office block can be seen through the windscreen. Other than the logo on the wheel which reveals that the car is a Hyundai, there are no other distinctive details in the frame. After 30 seconds of nothing much, a man walks past the window towards the driver’s side of the vehicle and then gets in and sits at the wheel. He is white, middle-aged, and portly, dressed in the sort of standard light blue dress shirt that immediately identifies him as an office worker employed in the sort of place that has a water cooler and one of those massive printer-scanners that can print both A3 and A4. This image is an ordinary one, ugly even; it is the sort of image that, for many good reasons, you do not often see. And yet, because of the minimalistic way that it is set up and the amount of information that can be parsed from it, this dull scene seems scintillating, almost like a driving hazard perception test with stakes that are thrillingly low.
The man turns on the radio and listens, remaining parked. Assuming that the viewer can identify the accent of the talk show host, this audio situates the scene within Australia, and then, when the host starts to talk about events occurring in places like Kensington or St. Kilda, a viewer familiar with the region can work out that the scene is taking place within greater Melbourne too. The man starts the engine and pulls out into traffic, heavy rain pouring down all the while. Next, he turns the radio off and drives in silence, leaving only the traffic sounds and the patter of the rain. The dash-display switches to a digital clock, revealing that the time is 5.09 pm.
After a while, the man puts in a pair of earphones and makes a phone call. By listening attentively to what he says, the viewer can ascertain some details about this man which expand their understanding of him outside of the information directly deducible from sensorial details within the frame. As he speeds through a series of commuter belt non-spaces, driving from nowhere to somewhere, it begins to feel like something is already happening. Shapes and colours begin to seem like distinct objects; sounds start to seem less like abstract noises and more like precise descriptions of a specific space. A body is becoming a person. An environment is becoming a place. From the most meagre of means, a story can start to be sketched out that describes the character of this man and the nature of the world he inhabits.
After 11 minutes and 21 seconds, David Easteal’s The Plains (2022) has its first cut. For a viewer already invested in the processes of participatory investigation that this film encourages, this feels like a major event. The cut answers some practical questions whilst opening up others that are new. This is now a film that will involve cuts rather than being one long take, but will each subsequent scene be the same length, or will some other kind of organising principle inform each shot’s duration and the order in which they are placed? Will the whole film take place from this position or will the camera move or exit the car? The next image comes in, and it looks similar to the one which opened the film: a fixed shot filmed from the same backseat position of the same empty vehicle parked in the same place. Some kind of format has been established, but as the film continues there will still be surprises to come.
Lasting for three hours in total, The Plains continues mostly as a series of shots filmed from the backseat of the car. All of these shots show the man, whose name is later revealed to be Andrew and whose work turns out to be related to law, driving from his workplace to his home—generally just after 5 pm. Almost always he will call his mother, a 95-year-old woman suffering from dementia who lives in a care home in Adelaide, and his wife, Cheri, who takes his calls from their Kensington home. “They expect it from me,” he says, but it quickly becomes clear that he gets as much, if not more, comfort out of this ritual than them. Often, Andrew will be accompanied by David, a younger colleague he gives lifts to, but sometimes he will drive alone. Both men’s faces are mostly only visible through the rearview mirror, as if to suggest that what the viewer sees in the film is only a slice of a life and not to be taken as necessarily representative of the whole. Andrew’s wife is seen only very briefly, and his mother is never on-screen. By listening to conversations between these four individuals, a viewer learns more about Andrew and his life, slowly developing a profile of information about his lifestyle, background, socioeconomic status, family history, relationships, work-life, and worldview from the topics he discusses, jokes he makes, or the opinions he provides. The two men also talk about how much it rains in Melbourne, debate the best lane to stay in, or wonder about the overabundance of red cars that appear on the stretches of freeway they pass through every day. No topic of conversation takes particular precedence, and often the most mundane subjects are those that are the most enjoyable to listen to—soothing because they are so inane.
When Andrew chats with Cheri or his mother, the viewer can only hear his side of the conversation, but when he talks with David, the viewer can hear both the questions asked and the answers he provides. Andrew is open about the hangups he has about his career, but also well aware that there is more to life than work. “At the end of the day, what’s the point?” he says. “Life becomes a grind of waking up, going to work, and coming home.” He talks passionately about his long-lasting marriage and the pleasures it has given him, and is candid about how guilty he is about how rarely he visits his senile mother in her home. David shares similar frustrations with work and eventually opens up about a breakup that has left him feeling fragile. They both seem to value the circumstances that have brought them into contact with each other and the time they share in each other’s company as a result. “We all know why we work,” Andrew says at one point. As much as it is supposed to be about the “desire to do something vaguely valuable,” he argues that “it’s also about social interaction” too.
As the seasons’ pass and the weather conditions seen in the world outside of the windscreen alter, these in-car conversations continue to progress and a viewer gleans more about each man through the details they are generous enough to share. “I ask too many personal questions,” Andrew says at one point, apologising for a form of nosiness in his character that the film needs to elevate the stakes of the conversation. Small talk becomes large talk, and an intergenerational friendship is forged out of the convenience of car rides and the requirement this environment make that two people share a fixed space and time free of distractions. As something of liminal space, the car ride commute connects work and home but also blends the two environments and complicates any easily identifiable divide between them. As such, while the politics of the workplace show up regularly in the conversations, one thing that is interesting about the film is the privilege of the characters and the relative absence of real world politics in their lives, at least within the protective space of the vehicle. Events that are mentioned in news reports heard on the radio do not really seem to penetrate the suburban middle-class milieu in which the two men operate. Everything heard just seems like things that are happening to others, elsewhere.
The car ride film format seen in The Plains is nothing new, nor is the execution of it that is seen here particularly innovative. In his review, critic Neil Young points to a few precedents like Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015), and James Benning and Bette Gordon The United States of America (1975), the last of which seems a particularly apt comparison given the similarity of the framing and positioning of the windscreen shot. Another possible point of reference is something like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012-2019), a series in which the comedian chats to celebrity friends whilst driving, filming the interactions from a variety of in-car positions, or James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke (2015-date), which is similar but generally involves guest musicians singing along to their own songs. What is more unique about The Plains perhaps is not the nature of the film’s construction, but the decision to neither foreground it nor entirely disguise it, making the film play out something like a game of guesswork and speculation.
It is not necessarily apparent in the film itself—at least until the end credits appear—but the David seen in the film is David Easteal, the film’s director (and producer, writer, editor), and Andrew (Rakowski) is his real-life former colleague. Easteal’s press kit for the film explains that the pair met at a law firm where Easteal worked as a barrister (he continues to combine legal work with his filmmaking practice), and some years later decided to collaborate on a film together, developing characters out of the contours of their own lives and reworking conversations they had during the real car rides they shared into the script that the film uses. While the resulting film could be mistaken for a straight observational documentary, processes of hybridisation are so prevalent within contemporary festival filmmaking that, even if they hadn’t been suspecting some degree of construction to be present already, few wizened viewers will be surprised to learn that the film was written, or at least improvised using the starting script as a frame of reference. In his press kit, Easteal notes that the purest documentary element of The Plains is everything seen within the rectangle of the windscreen, an unmediated exterior space upon which—excluding his ability to choose to cut takes that didn’t include happenstance occurrences that matched his hopes or preferences—the director would have been unable to exert control.
Despite (or arguably, because of) its relative formal rigidity, some of the more moving moments in The Plains occur when the regular car-seat conversational setup is interrupted. In one scene, David plays Andrew one of his favourite songs, Suicide’s “Cheree”, after asking Andrew if he knows it seeing as his wife’s name is Cheri. They listen without speaking, sharing a moment together that feels like a privilege to witness. In another, Andrew shows David his cherished Horsham holiday home, handing the younger man his iPad to scroll through the photos. Most astonishing however are the drone-camera sequences that come as a true disruption. After spending so much time stuck looking on from the same position, a mid-film snap-cut into footage filmed using Andrew’s drone-operated camera as it flies over the wide empty plains of Victoria feels genuinely unexpected. At this moment, the film’s sense of confinement—of the cramped car-space, the almost time-loop-like repeating commutes, and of both men’s lives and their limited horizons—seems to be blown wide open. Freedom is embodied here in an aerial vision of an incomprehensibly vast patch of largely uninhabited land stretching out unendingly in all directions.
At the start of The Plains, viewers may find themselves obsessed with working out the particulars of the film’s patterns and structure, but after a while, formal concerns slip away in favour of content. A fussy seeming film that appears to be all about rules, constraints, and limitations turns out to be one about observing the most agreeably mundane sorts of conversations. In this sense, The Plains feels less like experimental cinema and more like reality television. Considerations surrounding the complexities of organising reality start to seem less important than the simple pleasure of being privy to two hyper-ordinary people awkwardly talking about the weather.
David Easteal’s The Plains (2022) screened at IFFR 2022 in the Tiger Competition. It was recommended to me by Julian Ross, who is a programmer at the festival. More information about David Easteal, who made several short films over a fifteen year period prior to this feature, can be found here. To receive more articles like this, do subscribe to nonlinearities. The writing in this newsletter will always be free-to-read, but donations are very welcome.