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The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (Joanna Arnow, 2023)

Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed opens with Ann, played by the writer/director/editor, in bed with Allen (Scott Cohen), a long-term hookup, praising him for being totally unresponsive to her needs. Is he a dom par excellence, or just your average dude? It’s a question germane to Arnow’s film, which shows how the interpersonal dynamics of BDSM relationships—the discovery of desire, the difficulty of communication, the boundaries of consent, the complexities of power—are also issues that recur, in different forms, in our more public-facing lives. Over the course of the movie, shot in New York City and populated with many familiar faces from the local film scene, Ann explores several relationships—though even when costumed as a “fuckpig” or receiving a quite gentle spanking, our often inscrutable heroine seems to be searching for something more elusive than pleasure. When a partner says “Tell me what you want,” it takes on connotations beyond the sexual.

The film is divided into chapters, named for the (occasionally recurring) men in Ann’s life; each chapter is further divided into droll vignettes, which take the measure of Ann’s sexual explorations, her numbing office job, her humdrum social life, and her sometimes suffocating dynamic with her parents (played by Arnow’s real-life mother and father with an unfakably fond, worried, and well-intentioned affect). The film moves back and forth among self-contained spaces, some designed for the expression of desire and others for its suppression, suggesting the difficulty of integrating one’s private instincts and public persona.

Ten years ago, Arnow bared her psyche and self in i hate myself 🙂, a reflexive video diary about her codependent, long-term relationship with a toxic alcoholic. In her first fiction feature, she continues her inquiry into romantic and existential indecision, sexual self-expression, humiliation, and the uses of first-person experience in storytelling. I spoke to her last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed was one of the critical and audience favorites of the Directors’ Fortnight. The film screens October 5 and 7 at the New York Film Festival.

I’m curious about the relation of Ann’s everyday life to her sex life. There are little suggestive overlaps: she complains about being micromanaged at work; she gets all these affirmations about power and control at yoga. 

One of the things I was excited about was showing how we’re more than one person, and how often that depends on the context, on who is sitting across from us. I wanted to allow the audience to draw connections. Sometimes they’re overt, through the editing, but other times they’re more subtle. I wanted to show how Ann navigates relationships, self-expression, communication, and the power dynamics across all her friends. Sometimes they’re in line with each other and sometimes they’re opposed.

I also wanted to subvert conventional narratives. For the sake of narrative simplicity, so it starts at Point A and ends at Point B, characters generally have to be very consistent in who they are. I wanted a wider spread of character identity throughout the film, so—in addition to the change that comes from not being so neat about getting from A to B—it’s smaller and more uneven in nature, and the characters are less consistent in some ways.

In exploring that objective across a series of vignettes, this becomes a modular film. Did you find an overall narrative arc in the edit, that unified those vignettes? 

The structure didn’t change too dramatically from script to edit. I found a lot of it in the script itself. A lot changed in the edit mainly because we edited it from the first assembly—and I guess by “we” I mean “I” [laughs]—from four hours in the initial assembly, as it was scripted, to 88 minutes, where it ended up. I wanted to use short scenes and elliptical storytelling to give a very impressionistic sense of the protagonist’s experience. Time feels like it passes more quickly or slowly depending on what’s going on in our lives. The variation of the film’s different sections reflect that, each having their own rules. So, for instance, some sections stay just in one place with one character for a long time, whereas others jump around, to reflect the different energies. I wanted it to be like a scarf, where there’s a multicolored pattern in one area and then another multicolored pattern in another area. I wanted some variation in this very busy film, so people could feel the contours of the changing landscape.

Ann ages from 33 to 35 over the course of the film. There’s a joke about how long she’s been in her job: it feels like one year but it’s already been three and a half. 

Sometimes at the end of the day you close your eyes and think about all the places you’ve been in a day. The jumble is so strange when you think about those experiences all together—and how they impact you, on a day-to-day level, and also throughout the years. I think that’s what I was interested in: time passing in different movements in the main relationships that make up your life—even the not-so-main relationships, like [Ann’s] with the yoga teacher, shape you on a day-to-day level. I think this complex mosaic of experience informs who we are. The task of figuring out how to be as time passes is something everyone deals with in one way or another. And it’s not something that goes away. Coming-of-age stories are for any age. Probably everyone is coming of age all the time.

It’s not just about who to be, but also who not to be, from all the possible versions of yourself in your narrative. 

Since it’s a comedy, I hope people feel lighter about it at the end. I like to entertain people. I hope there’s an openness to it, because that was the intention.

Class and politics are subtle themes in the film: it seems like all of Ann’s “masters” are a little more affluent than she is. How did you go about shaping her relationships with these people from all these different walks of life in New York City? 

I feel like films that deal with romance and sexuality often don’t address politics enough. I wanted this film to explore the full selves of people.

In terms of the different spaces, I was hoping to reflect the variety of neighborhoods and spaces in the city. I wanted Elliot’s [Parish Bradley] apartment to be a high-rise, and to give a sense of who he was. He lives in a new development in North Brooklyn. For the composer, Thomas [Peter Vack], there’s some slightly dissonant choices I hoped would affect the viewer’s perception of those scenes—perhaps the question of why they’re always playing together in a music studio instead of their homes suggests a slightly off-kilter relationship. I guess I hadn’t really considered that much in terms of class, but there is a curiosity about exploring, which extends to meeting people whose experiences are outside of her own.

I wanted to ask about the production design as well. At one point, a character walks into someone else’s apartment and comments on the fact that there’s nothing on the walls. You used these existing spaces, which were presumably those of friends and friends of friends that fit the needs of the script, but did you change anything about them when you went in?

To find these locations, it took close to a year of me asking everyone I know, everyone who they might know, and really chasing every lead because we worked with such a low budget. And I had a lot of help from the production team and our co-producer Daniel Ryniker, who really helped secure a lot of these. I chose locations with the production design in mind, and with the help of the production design team. We were looking for spaces that worked in contrast to each other in some ways, and that gave a sense of who the characters were. We wanted the music studio to really look like a music studio. I wanted the comedy to play out in wide shots—having enough space was one of the top-line considerations, so that we could block it in the way I was hoping to do.

I wanted the production design to reflect the messiness of the story; often, the characters themselves are messy. I feel like you can see a lot of personality in someone’s mess. Grace Sloan, the production designer, and Tommy Mitchell, the art director, really worked with the spaces to amplify their characters, creating color palettes to give each section a slightly different tone, and using things like bedcovers and curtains instead of having to paint the walls.

You don’t do the obvious thing of having posters on the walls that signify the characters’ interests.

No, I was also interested in sparse production design. Even though this is mostly a naturalistic film, I wanted a slight layer of removal from reality, in spaces like Ann’s apartment or the office space. It’s like an abstraction of a place instead of having to have it fully populated.

As far as blocking for wide shots, is that just to give a bit of a remove and to make the audience observers rather than participants?

Looking at a scene through a slightly objective lens allows the humor to work more. For instance, in the scene that involves running back and forth from the bed to the wall, it was important to me that we found a space where that could all play out in one take. The long shot and long take allows one to see the full absurdity of the comic context. In terms of reference, I think about the work of Tsai Ming-liang for that style, and for letting the action play out. But also, the sparsity of the production design gives the slight feeling that these characters are a little bit on a spaceship, in the sense of the uncomfortable way the main character moves through the world.

What about directing performance? What notes were you giving the actors?

It varies so much from character to character. One thing that was consistent across directing all the actors, including myself, was just wanting to allow time around the scenes before shooting—20 seconds before and after. But also in the scenes themselves, I like to allow time for thought. In a scene in which people might be less comfortable, having room for thought was important, I would say. I wanted more stillness than might be typical, too, because there’s such a blunt deadpan style to the comedy; I wanted the words and specific gestures to pop. I suppose even though the film is mostly naturalistic, there is a little bit of stylization in that stillness and those extended pauses.

Mark Asch is the author of Close-Ups: New York Movies and a contributor to Reverse Shot, Little White Lies, Screen Slate, and other publications.