It's hard to make art out of real life. Accuracy is paramount, in many aspects. There are people you will need to get right, and attitudes and emotions. If you don’t, the piece will seem phony. In her not-quite-twelve-minute film, director Jane Campion avoids any sense of counterfeit emotion. With its brief parade of unelaborated vignettes, the resonance of Passionless Moments comes through in its honesty.
There is a lot of connective tissue between Campion’s film and the everyday. The scenes and their accompanying narration are chosen for their familiarity. For representative art, this is crucial. According to Goran Sorbom, a professor of aesthetics at the University of Uppsala, “pictures and mimemata are man-made things intended to raise mental images of individual things with their contingent shapes and qualities in the minds of their listeners and spectators.” (1) As an audience, we are expected to be able to see ourselves in the moments presented to us.
The individual scenes Campion deals with are almost humdrum, which is intentional. Her sketches, by design, seek out the quiet and introspective times in her characters lives. The scenes are played out a million times a day for just as many people. We’ve all passed time trying to guess the source of strange sounds and we’ve all turned a dull errand into a near Mittyesque adventure to amuse ourselves through it. Campion’s art shows us our idle thoughts, our halfhearted waves to people who may not have waved to us to begin with.
Though art imitates life and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Campion’s short film is not designed to simply ape reality. “Mimesis adds a new dimension, ‘it re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship’ in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way.” (2) Passionless Moments presents the audience to itself. For all its relativity, the vignettes are still fiction, designed for an optimal sense of connection in its viewers.
It can be more than a little disheartening to watch a past-his-prime man wait for his shirts to dry, slurping down a beer, and remembering that one great pass that defined his sports career and still commands a large place in his thoughts. The scene ends with a voiceover informing us that the man is going to quit boozing and get trim again. It’s the kind of declaration that sounds inherently routine and said so that the audience should expect none of the promised action. I know, because it is the same declaration I make for every New Year without ever meaning to live up to it.
But it isn’t as bad as it seems, really. If we insist on getting dejected by the man’s fixation on his school-day sports career and his bit of chub, we forget that the man has a decent apartment, a job to go to, and a fridge full of beer. He doesn’t really seem overly worried about his life. It’s a good example to follow.
Passionless Moments has no qualms about showing us at less than our best and our least exciting. There is nothing engrossing about washing clothes in a bathtub or ignoring a hurt lover. Still, this is life. Campion gives us the good with the bad, which is only fair. It helps to know that we aren’t the only one who find themselves laying on the floor, having failed to get our lives together for the past three or four years.
Even in showing the collected audience their least successful moments, there is no sense of meanness to the scenes. No criticism of the audience is meant. Rather, there is a sense of humor, one that comes from remembering when we were that sick child stuck in bed in all day.
But Passionless Moments is not an expose of our peculiarities. Campion acknowledges these moments and shares their universality. Their ownership is important, for “it might be the minutiae and/or our ‘quirky’ aspects that connect us to one another, a humanity found in the small, quiet, sometimes embarrassing moments.” (3) Campion’s piece shows us, if nothing else, that we aren’t so badly off. We can’t be. Getting hung up on pop songs and rolling on the floor while waiting out an important phone call is the express territory of no one.
If we judge the success of art - even partially - by its ability to create a reaction, we must credit Passionless Moments for doing so. It is hard not to attach ourselves to Campion’s short film knowing that we have personally starred in some, if not all, of her scenes. Seeing said moments in the lives of others - even if those others be fictional creations - is good for us. We aren’t such special little snowflakes, after all. That’s important to remember. It keeps us from looking for whatever cosmic force cursed us to accidentally wave at a neighbor we’ve never talked to and it helps us recognize that shit happens. More importantly, it helps us recognize that it isn’t the end of the world. We don’t need to try to find anyone to blame and we don’t need to agonize over it. It’s a lesson worth learning.