Mark Webber has been acting since his late teenage years, amassing an impressive CV that includes work for the likes of Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant, Todd Solondz and Woody Allen. This year, for the 10th edition of the American Film Festival, he’s the recipient of the Indie Star Award. Not for his work as an actor – although that certainly plays into the equation – but for the five films he’s written and directed.
His preceding acting career is important though, as it was through disillusionment with the process that the filmmaker devised his own working method, which he dubbed Reality Cinema. “Why don’t I create an environment that’s totally different,” he said in a recent interview, “that allows us to completely inhabit these characters around real-life situations.” Working with family, friends and a closely knit crew, Webber instigated a verité process that allowed for the investigation of emotional truths within the parameters of a given scene. Improvisation isn’t quite the word for it, even if that plays a part. Whatever the process, and whatever it’s called, the end result makes for a unique set of cinematic rules and preoccupations, which clearly evolve on a film by film basis. It’s not essential to watch the five pictures in the order they were made, but the great thing about AFF’s retrospective is that it allows you to do just that, affording a glimpse at a singular working method as it progresses and grows in confidence.
Webber was taking risks with his material straight out the gate. His debut feature, while perhaps an embryonic work, interweaves an ensemble cast of characters from across the social spectrum of his native Philadelphia. Working on an impressively broad canvas for a first film, Webber steadily draws out his thematic preoccupations before coalescing them for the final scene’s protest demonstration. The social conscience and humanist perspective is already in place, and if the search for a workable formal equivalent is in the experimental stages – not least when it comes to a beautiful fixed-camera pan through an apartment – it’s fascinating when viewed in the context of the later films.
In interviews, Webber has spoken about how his Reality Cinema method took effect with his third film, but this second feature certainly feels like a move towards it. Casting himself as the protagonist for the first time, and enlisting (extraordinary) support from his young son Isaac, The End of Love is the realist sibling to the his latest, The Place of No Words. Drawing from his own life – albeit heavily fictionalised – Webber captures the struggles of a Hollywood actor on the brink with Cassavetian intimacy. It’s arguably his most tender work, the sense of lived experience palpable from start to finish.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Terrence Malick during The Ever After, given its lyrical approach to montage and the presence of Webber’s wife Teresa Palmer, who appeared in the reclusive filmmaker’s Knight of Cups (2015). You might expect a newlywed filmmaking couple to embark on something softer or celebratory, but Webber’s third film is his most confrontational, searingly honest in its portrayal of a relationship in trouble. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) gives a sense of the emotional battleground in terms of tone, but such a touchstone only serves to describe, with such powerhouse performances belonging entirely to Webber and Palmer, the product of a working method in full bloom.
At once Webber’s most personal and assured film, Flesh and Blood sees his Reality Cinema at full effect. The writer-director once again stars, this time as the prodigal son returning home from a stint in prison. Seamlessly forging together a verité approach to both place and character, and casting his family in key roles, it’s the most organically inhabited film in his quintet thus far. As a viewer, it’s hard to know where the line between fact and fiction begins and ends – the point entirely, of course – but it’s the effect that counts. Given the performances and the emotional truthfulness Webber’s working method ekes from his cast of non-actors, you begin to wonder why anybody else would work differently.
Bringing his younger child into the filmmaking fold, Webber sets aside the real-world for a metaphorical wander towards some universal truths. The best children’s films know not to talk down to their audience, and clearly so does Webber, inviting a sense of playfulness into his work via a determinedly child-like subjectivity. It’s a perspective on the world – and the world of imagination – that he treats with utmost seriousness and sincerity, the film’s journey into fantasy a means of speaking to real-world pain and understanding. At once a step outside the comfort zones of what came before and an entirely natural evolution of his process, in-keeping with his auteurist preoccupations, it leaves one excited about where this singular filmmaker is headed next.