The cinematic carnival freak show – perhaps most notoriously seen in the 1932 exploitation film Monsters, which has seen a divisive modern reappraisal by destigmatizing its mostly disabled cast, or more recently, Guillermo del Toro’s remake of alley of nightmares– appears as the predominant vector of disability in films. Director Reid Davenport personally cannot escape the shadow of PT Barnum, who got his start in showbiz as a literal slave driver and found success by exploiting various people with physical differences. Even after moving from their shared hometown of Bethel, Connecticut to Oakland, Davenport finds himself haunted by a circus tent erected in front of his house. Davenport, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, explores this enduring legacy and his own artistic identity in his abstract documentary I didn’t see you there.
More poetic than confrontational, I didn’t see you thereThe methods of embody its purpose better than any synopsis. The doc hums along with a hypnotic affinity for architectural patterns and urban textures, the visual infrastructure appealing to Davenport strongly since it allows him to immerse us in his point of view without being the view himself. He is an attentive observer, filming satisfying parallel lines, color-blocked concrete and disoriented wall tiles with a transformative slow burn.
But he’s also always remarkable, both textually – thanks to his figure (juxtaposed against that red and yellow tent in the reflections of shop windows, visually anchoring and personalizing his descriptions of artists in freak shows) and his voice (se complaining about renting shit-a-scooters obstructing his path) – or metatextually through certain formal specifics of the film. It’s not just in the frames, often explicitly defined by Davenport’s own range of motion with his handheld, wheelchair-mounted camera, but something you even notice in the captions, which offer sound effect notations much more descriptive than most. It’s not only “[music]” corn “[band-like, ominous music barely present]; ” not only “[rattles]” corn “[wheelchair clatters, scrapes against bricks].” The filmmaker’s care surrounding these accessibility features draws attention to him in a way that highlights his thinking…only because other films often don’t make the same effort.
While Davenport laments making a career out of himself, even these small details reiterate the inevitable: that the personal is political and that all cinema is, to some extent, personal. But are Davenport’s cynical worries about submitting to a modern monster show justified? That he is ringmaster and subject of his own exploitation? These are questions raised by many modern artists, such as the only non-white writer in a television writers room or those whose life experiences are tapped to “watch this“Unpublished essays commissioned by unscrupulous publishers. These are also questions that Davenport does not satisfactorily address, raised like many of his asides as vague undercurrents complementing I didn’t see you thereeveryday expressionism.
At times, the film’s attempts at pure visual empathy (not in a hokey “I’m an empath” way, but in a literal POV assumption of Davenport, or at least one navigating the world alongside him) are cut short. too much of that voice-over—too much guesswork or explanation—sometimes only creating figurative images like a dog scratching at a door, unable to fully dictate its own movements. But Davenport’s doc is best as a visual collage built on involvement and experience. We see how her enthusiastic niece walks away with the camera and how her mother’s wry foot follows her emotional state in the corner of the screen. We see him mundanely exploiting systems built with him after the fact, like taking the train for free because the elevator was built in front of the turnstiles, and dealing with the daily indignities of strangers.
Like I didn’t see you there largely tries to situate us through Davenport’s eyes, it’s best when he fully commits to his subtlety. Long, dialogue-free passages showcase Todd Chandler’s flickering music and clever, sometimes ironic editing. Rather than directing our thoughts too much or coming into play as some sort of exposition, Davenport’s understated travelogues do the work for him.
Director: Reid Davenport
Release date: January 24, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is a film editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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