the flimsy, sad future of bartholomew’s song

IMDB.com estimates that Bartholomew’s Song cost $2,500, a figure that’s been rattling around in my head while I’ve been thinking how damn good it is. The short is only about 10 minutes long, but the directors, Lowell Frank and Destin Daniel Cretton, have made a virtue out of a low budget and a brief run time.

B.’s Song takes place in a dystopia where workers sleep in cell-like rooms and assemble little cubic things at an absurdly slow rate. Life for Bartholomew 467 and his fellow Bartholomews (it seems that every man is named Bartholomew) is monotonous and comically repetitive, but their blank faces suggest that this isn’t generally a problem.

This is a good world to set a cheap short in, because that basic premise can be established in only six static shots that begin Song. The simplicity of the shots echoes the mechanical, modular quality of the Bartholomews’ world, where everything is as discreet and functional as the cogs of a pocket watch.

Just as with the short running time, it seems that the low budget wasn’t a limitation for the filmmakers so much as a spur to inventiveness. I don’t know if Frank and Cretton could have made their future society look spotless and shiny, like those of Equilibrium or Gattaca. Credit to the directors, though, for not even trying to make this world look awesome. Their future dystopia isn’t sleek and soulless so much as flimsy and soulless, like what you’d imagine if North Korea built an office park and didn’t have enough pale green paint to do a proper job of it. The hand plates used to open doors, for example, look like they’ve been scrapped together out of an Erector Set:

It’s a pretty pathetic dystopia, in other words, and when the short shows you what Bartholomew is spending his days assembling, it’s even more poignant — I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s funny and sad.

Another way that Frank and Cretton do a lot with a little comes across in the geography of Bartholomew 467’s world. Presumably because static shots are cheaper, the camera never moves in Bartholomew’s Song, and there only about five distinct locations in the film. So we cut right from Bartholomew 467’s cell to his commute to the assembly line with no space in between:

You really feel the disjointedness of this sequence when the Bartholomews walk off-screen right in that middle shot, and, instead of seeing the space they walk into, we jump immediately to the assembly line, with the Barts ready for work. Rather than a natural flow, there’s a choppy sense of transition, a feeling that carries through the rest of B.’s Song. In this way, the directors have turned a limited budget — which translates into a limited number of static camera set-ups — into an aesthetic that is appropriate for the factory environment, where goods are manufactured by turning basic materials into only slightly more finished products.

Anyway, on top of all these clever creative choices, the story of Bartholomew’s Song messes with the normal plot lines and conclusions we get with movies about hellish futures. The average dystopian story throws some kind of wrench into the workings of the failed society that it depicts, usually by the flourishing of the human value that the society is supposed to deny. In Equilibrium, Christian Bale’s sudden appreciation of art overturns a world where emotion is eschewed; in Gattaca, Ethan Hawke’s indomitable spirit overcomes a society founded on the idea of predestination.

But this arc isn’t really where Bartholomew is going. I won’t spoil the unexpected ending, but I can elaborate without giving that away. Things start when Bartholomew runs into a reel-to-reel tape machine on the way back to his cell. Curious, he takes it back to his room and plays around with it, producing haunting, beautiful music. I assume you assume you know where this is going, but let’s spell it out: My guess is that Bartholomew, freed by the power of music, might develop more of a soul and go on to reject the regimented existence he seems to have been leading.

But it’s hard to read the short that way without complication. The speaker on the reel-to-reel is compared to the speaker that feeds the Bartholomews instructions on the assembly line. As B. 467 becomes more enthralled with the reel-to-reel, he sees how similar it looks to the assembly-line speaker, which he approaches one day with a kind of fascinated look on his face. He reaches out to touch it, but a cut takes us back to the reel-to-reel when his hand makes contact.

My reading is that the reel-to-real, which ought to represent art and freedom and all that good human stuff that’s been lost in this dystopia, is actually associated with the voice of control and command, which is a stand-in for all the structures that oppress Bartholomew’s soul. The surprise is that the movie isn’t contrasting these two domains of ideology and ethos. Instead, with the cuts that compare the speaker of one to the speaker of the other, the directors are connecting and entangling the two (seemingly opposed) forces.

This may explain why the last minute or so of the short is not at all what you’d expect. Happily, none of it is precisely explained, and all of it makes Bartholomew’s Song an example of exactly what brilliant people do when given few resources: They still make great art, if only on a smaller scale.

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