The One Who Watches, An Interpretation.
Recently I was able to download and view the feature length film, The One Who Watches, written and produced by Molly Josephson and Nicholas Sunsdahl. The piece features a host of local talent, most notably the two central characters played by Jesse Whiting (Dr. Jesse) and Sean Elmquist (Jean). The film is unique, vibrant, and well constructed, and what follows then, is a holistic interpretation of some of the more heady elements of the plot structure. This may be considered your spoiler alert. If you have an interest in seeing this film, it can be purchased online directly from the producers at a link provided below, in either digital download or DVD format. In addition to this, screenings are being scheduled in the Minnesota area.
Before examining the more subtle details of the film’s structure, it bears importance to have an overall explanation of the story. Dr. Jesse is a professor at a smaller university in northern Minnesota. The location of events surrounds a town built on Windigo Lake, a prototypical northern Minnesota town, peopled with regionally flavored individuals. It showcases the culture that sets our state apart from others, and surrounds it with the natural beauty that is the centerpiece of this film. Whatever hesitation or reservations you could have about the plot should be set aside, simply to witness the complex and well constructed visual pastiche the film presents. There is never a lull in the vibrant images that drive and partner this work. Dr. Jesse is often seen walking through nature, seemingly oblivious to the wonder around him, centered in his own world.
Dr. Jesse is working on his novel. In it, he is attempting to explain and crystallize his own theories trying to understand supernatural phenomena within a logical context. Indeed the border of logic and magic is a powerful theme that flows through this piece, hinting at the presence of powers unknown. Dr. Jesse is pulled from his routine from a series of events, starting with a séance at which his briefcase is stolen, leading to eventually be cast as the lead of a local musical. The musical is centered around the lumberjacking history of the area, as juxtaposed with the inherent wonder and beauty of nature. Dr. Jesse is not a performer, by trade, but the director, played wonderfully and enigmatically by Elmquist, sees something within him that begs to be exposed. The dynamic between these two characters is both energetic and frustrating, as each attempts to understand and respect the other in their respective journeys.
The plot, then, could be stated simply as “local college professor gets cast in musical”. However, such a tidbit fails to include both the scope of the piece, and it’s subtlety. The thing that I love about the film is that it never spoon feeds you anything. If you long for the structure and predictability of dinner time sitcom, then this story is not for you. If you are looking for the next Fargo, you will be likewise disappointed. Instead, this film presents a story in moments, that serve a larger theme. Although lacking the vulgarity of John Waters, the presentational, sometimes absurd delivery of lines and scenes would seem like Waters. Although the ensemble cast, and direction of action might seem like a Christopher Guest film, it avoids the conventions and predictability that has made Guests repetitive and homogenized.
Instead, this is something new, and living, and real. Josephson and Sunsdahl have worked together to create a cunning script that leaves the viewer constantly guessing, and evolving along with the film. Instead of being talked down to, like our central character we are asked to participate, and it is to us as to how invested we become. For my part, I have a number of interpretations about the piece that follow here, but that would have no relevance or meaning if you have not seen the film. So, this is where you get off, dear reader. This is where I tell you to go watch the movie, and then we can continue.
The first, surface theme that I thought was being explored was the long road to mediocrity. In almost every story I have seen, in which our hero is a writer working on a novel, they never finish the novel. Or, if they do, it is terrible. It is just what writers are supposed to do. Write novels. Without an ability to truly describe or synthesize his ideas successfully, the walk we see Dr. Jesse take is our own. Pointless, absurd, pretty, perhaps, maybe even a little dangerous, but in the end pointless. Dr. Jesse will never finish the novel, never perform in the play, never be able to connect, or love, and so unable we see Dr. Jesse do, at the end of the film, what we know he must. To end the absurdity and obscurity, and embrace the darkness of finality.
This is the easy story. If you get the above theme, then you are doing much better than the 99% of the world population who would think it is a film about teaching in college and lumberjack theater. But it is still not the core of the work. It is the topmost layer of the onion, and to truly appreciate the story, we have to drive deeper, and ask more of ourselves as active film critics and appreciators. It is because I appreciate this film that I explore it so, and this value is priceless. At the end of Transformers you know what to think. You know what to feel. You know what happened, because everything was explained, and then conflict was ordered, and repeated in slightly different ways, and in the end justice prevails, the rock music plays, and we are rewarded for our consumption by feeling the release of the credits. The One Who Watches is not that. If you are watching it actively, and without pretense, then you should still see the credits roll and have questions. This is the hallmark of a great work, because it demands the participation of the audience. This is the second theme, and it could be the most important, because it exposes and promotes a frank discussion of our current system. How it has failed to engage, or challenge us, as forward thinking 21st century media consumers. The best films I've seen this year have not been made by Hollywood. They have been made by artists around me, with budgets that barely exist to a Hollywood film by comparison. Fractions of 1% that create stories of value, and purpose.
The third, and final theme, and the one that I believe is most powerful and poignant, is that Dr. Jesse is a beaver. It is an absurd claim, yes, but in my examination, I cannot help but feel that it is the best. Beyond the brown coat, the gentle, open eyes, the fact that he creates his novel ON the water, with wood (paper) in the first scene, it is just the best interpretation I have. Maybe Dr. Jesse is a Werebeaver, in reverse? Most of the time he is a human, and as a human he does what beavers do best, that is organize. Bemidji, and Bemidji State University are seen within the film, and as it turns out, BSU is home to the Beavers. Being a graduate of that university, Jesse Whiting himself IS a beaver. Meta or not, it is what it is. The theme of the river, and the course of that river, is also a visual that is constantly explored. As a blockage to the river, Dr. Jesse’s career in academia represents a block in the flow of knowledge. Whether finance or ability, college controls the flows of information through it. The most obvious and overt example of bringing this interpretation home is when Dr. Jesse is on stage, being surrounded and harassed by canoe borne voyageurs. Metal or career, the film is about a trapped beaver. This interpretation is the greatest, I believe, because it leaves the ending with a hopeful bent. Dr. Jesse returns to the waters from which he came, to swim, and chew, and flow as he was always meant to.
In closing I would just like to thank and appreciate everyone who contributed to the making of this film. It really is an example of independent film succeeding. My hope is that the future of film making will exist outside of industry, and that it will be the quality of a story, and the vision with which it is explained which will determine its success. In this regard, this film is an award winner, in my book. Once again thanks, good luck, and MacBeth.