Adrift in Self-Pity: Review of Ralph Martin Fleischer’s Driftwood
By: Darida Rose
Ralph Martin Fleischer’s short, Driftwood asks its audience a difficult question: Should we feel sorry for Barry or not? One of the first things we learn about him, in a long drawn out shot is that he likes to lie in bed with the sun streaming into his room while the world goes about its business outside. Perhaps as a way of emphasizing the mental fog that permeates Barry’s brain, this shot is cloudy and out of focus.
After lolling about in bed for half the morning, he gets up, makes himself some coffee and then becomes angry at a radio broadcast criticizing white privilege. We can’t help but feel that Barry’s rage stems really from the fact that the broadcast has hit a nerve: Barry isn’t rich or famous. He doesn’t hold high political office. But he is, in many ways, the epitome of white privilege. The primary symptom: he can afford to wallow in self-pity and he can afford to burn his time and energy feeling sorry for himself. And he can afford to destroy radios in fits of childish rage. His radicalized roommate, Ian, calls him on his self-absorption, calling him spoiled and arrogant. This exchange sets up the rest of the short.
By 4:30PM, it’s clear that Barry has little interest in doing anything other than feeling sorry for himself for the entire day. The parts of Barry and Ian, played by Luke Stevenson and Jeremiah Olaleye respectively, are played with real intensity. This is believable dialogue and a believable situation. By the end of the short, we detect a slight change in Barry’s attitude – but only a slight one. And again, Stevenson plays this role masterfully. So masterfully, you’d be forgiven for thinking he agrees with the character he’s playing; the mark of any truly great performance.
The entire production, in fact, is very well done. The entire action takes place in a sparsely furnished and colorless apartment, and yet we never feel bored. The camera keeps us interested at every moment. One of the most striking features of the house is its ubiquitous gleaming white paint. The shining walls and doors almost remind us of being in a hospital, or perhaps a psychiatric ward where Barry is being examined. Whether intentional or not, the interior shots of the house give the short a clinical air. The white could also be considered as a representation of the one-sided character of Barry’s self-absorbed thoughts. The very slight change brought on by a simple tablecloth and a candle seem to be enough to break up the whiteness and force Barry to open his eyes to the fact that he’s not the only person in the world. Indeed, it seems to be the appearance of the tablecloth and the candle that signal a small but significant change in his character.
Ralph Martin Fleischer’s is also credit as screenwriter of the short, Memories of a Lake, which is more experimental and more of a noir. Driftwood, his directorial debut, is more grounded and emotionally powerful, despite its simplicity. We see here a filmmaker who is intensely interested in the subtleties of human emotion and the human heart. Driftwood almost serves as a kind of exploration of the soul. Even if we do not agree with Barry, my guess is that many audience members will see at least part of themselves in his and this short will serve as a springboard for self-reflection.
Just a much as Barry is a cautionary tale, his roommate Ian serves as a role model of kindness and understanding, even in the face of someone destroying a radio he’d been given as a gift. He manages to stay cool, and not only that, but he manages to keep his own irritation under wraps in an effort to help someone who, as far as we can tell, isn’t necessarily one of his best mates. We get the sense that these two are simply rooming together and not close friends.
All in all, this is a simple, well-written, well-acted and well-shot film that wrestles with an important issue for many today. We would do well to keep Mr. Fleischer on our radars.