Barney Cokeliss’ ‘Night Dancing’ is something special. A short film not for all tastes but with an undeniable sincerity and mystique about it – a dwindling quality in films today. Told from the point of view of an isolated loner (Jason Thorpe), the film documents his visions of a mysterious woman (Louise Tanoto) dancing gracefully on the leaf-strewn pavement outside his window. The dialogue is minimal, the meaning initially unclear, and, in its mere six minute runtime, has a haunting quality that most films struggle to obtain given twenty times the length. Sitting down with the filmmaker we discussed the film in detail.
What exactly is the film about? Keeping the mystery of the film intact, Cokeliss doesn’t give too much away. ‘I will say on one level that it’s a snapshot of mental illness’ he states, in reference to the clearly troubled state of Jason Thorpe’s anonymous protagonist. Cokeliss is careful to point out that the film was not conceived as a rigourously drawn-out narrative. ‘We’re incredibly narrative-orientated beings’ he points out, explaining how the entire film grew out of an image he had of a mysterious dancer, an idea that brings to mind Miller’s Crossing developing from the Coen brothers’ simple image of a hat blowing through the woods. However Night Dancing originated, it clearly came from a place that was separate from the over-written, heavily plotted screenplays of Hollywood. ‘A story is easier to write when you’re discovering it’, Cokeliss suggests.
“‘I will say on one level that Night Dancing is a snapshot of mental illness'”
Our conversation strays towards the film’s unconventional ending, the dance sequence. Cokeliss is adamant however that although the film ends with an emotional resolution of sorts, its outcome is far from definite. Is the protagonist genuinely free or simply deluded? Cokeliss won’t say for certain but he is clear on the fact that he doesn’t set out to make simply a ‘mood piece’ and that there is a precision and meaning to his work. ‘I would like my work to be narratively satisfying without being formula based’ he states. The ending of Night Dancing maybe unusual but there is substance behind it.
A lot of this substance would seem to link back to Jason Thorpe’s hard-to-gauge but admirably understated performance as the isolated bachelor watching the dancer outside his window. Cokeliss describes him as ‘bringing a humanity and subtlety to everything he does’ and also being a ‘wonderfully cinematic actor’. Given Thorpe’s comedy background he doesn’t seem an obvious fit for the lead of the film but he proves incredibly versatile regardless of genre; his minimal amount of dialogue requires him to convey his emotion with something often as inconspicuous as a sigh.
Our conversation flits around for a while as we discuss everything from films in cinemas today to the likeness between Louise Tanoto and Blade Runner’s Rachel. Asked about the film’s use of music and dance, Cokeliss passionately recalls watching contemporary dance when younger, at the same time feeling something of an outsider to it: a parallel clearly echoed in Night Dancing. As a filmmaker however, Cokeliss is adamant in just how important the process of collaboration is. Although he is credited as writer, director and producer of the film he stresses the importance of his numerous collaborators throughout the process of making the film giving praise to Anne Kulonen’s elegiac score, Andreea Ghergel’s impressive production design and naturally the gorgeous composition of the shots achieved by cinematographer Phillipe Kress. From a filmmaking perspective it would seem that Night Dancing’s production team were as closely knit as you could possibly want.
As our conversation draws to a close I ask Barney about the lack of dialogue in the film; something that I expect some will baffle and intrigue people in equal measure. Cokeliss’ response is simple but highly illustrative of his style: ‘The most powerful moments in film will generally not be verbal. After all, it is a medium that began without speech’. Having seen Night Dancing roughly four times now and become gradually more absorbed in its graceful, sad, symphony of pure movement I think I can safely say that I agree with him wholeheartedly.
Image: London Flair Pr.