Sharunas Bartas’ Three Days
They appear to us as if emerged from the void. They have no context, no back-story, and no prior life. We discover them at the same time as they discover themselves: they are newborn men and women, plucked from an infernal factory where human beings are built and placed in a makeshift territory of uninhabitable houses. Lacking a past, lacking anything to remember, they shuffle about their dystopic wasteland with no goal in mind, having never had a past in which to choose a goal. They have no anecdotes to tell, nothing to say to each other, no shared experience to reference, no hinges on which to wrap their language and prop up a culture. These newborn men and women are lost in their prematurely aged and withered bodies. The older folk dance like children. The younger folk wander and stare at the older folk. And the children already evince tortured faces. Each generation tries to cope with its share of destitute nothingness. There is tactile and emotional interaction with dirty surroundings, but it is meaningless interaction, as if each moment of interaction were forgotten as soon as it came to pass. There is no epiphany for these lost characters, no lesson to learn from their urban nightmare, no lesson other than the reinforcement of the stagnancy that enslaves them. They rummage through the wasteland with the ease of experts. But they cannot control this wasteland or make any use of its ruins. They can only walk above it or under it. And finally, the wasteland swallows them whole.
We begin in a rural setting. We are introduced to a pair of listless boys. We end with the same rural setting, but without the listless boys. Before their disappearance, we watch these two boys as they travel to the city, meet a few girls, spend a few nights, sleep in a few hellish depths, and do all of this with horrible calm. They are not angry with the state of things. They do not protest and it is not implied that they would protest were they to be given a pulpit. Only one person hazards a silent protest: the very pretty girl who meets the listless boys and proceeds to kill time alongside them. No soulful connection is made between the trio. The disappearance of the listless boys entails no fanfare. They are present in one scene and then in the following scene they are no longer there. The symmetry of the rural bookends implies that the image of the parting boys leaving for urban adventures will be reflected in an image of returning boys coming back home. This is not the case. As the film ends, we only find a familiar old man — glimpsed during the first scenes — staring melancholically into a pond.
Perhaps the listless boys merely disappear from the camera’s eye. The boys are alive and well, or just alive, and we simply cannot see them anymore. The camera finds no more interest in the boys and abandons them. Once the boys have immersed themselves into the claustrophobic interiors of the city, they vanish into its folds. They become one more among many city dwellers, all of them anonymous, and yet all of them equally worthy of being singled out by the camera. We have three main characters — the two boys and the girl — but we know little more about them than we know about the nameless citizens around them. The only remarkable thing about the main characters is their being followed by the camera. Otherwise, they are as nameless and fascinating and inscrutable as the rest. Whether the camera chooses to focus on the main characters or on a random urban face, the human being on screen is an empty vessel. Yet these empty vessels are not empty due to some aesthetic principle that lies outside the film. They are intrinsically empty and the film is about that emptiness. Which would be quite uninteresting, except the film is not critical about its empty characters. It would rather dwell on the sadness of this emptiness and of an environment that smothers its inhabitants. It would rather be about fallen people who cannot construct a hope to rise out of their slumber.
Without a past on which to gain a foothold, no construction of any kind is possible. And these characters not only lack a past but are also incapable of doing anything in the present so as to have a past to talk about in the future. They therefore have no friendship or love either, and no language can be used in a place that exists outside of time or in a perpetual present coming from and headed to nowhere. There is, however, the faint light of a distant and more comforting past, a past so distant that it cannot be recalled. What is remembered is the memory that something has been forgotten. We feel this in the old man and his pond. We feel it, too, in the very pretty girl. Her silent protest surfaces in her refusal to completely ignore her emotions. She can be sad and dissatisfied. She reveals a tear in one scene. In another, her face floats in a black background. She is accompanied by the two listless boys, as we learn later into the scene. But she remains spiritually alone and this remarkable scene-setting shot isolates her from the rest of the world by exploding the world and excising all its contents, keeping only her face as the sole survivor of the apocalypse. The old man can also be sad. He contemplates and will continue contemplating forever. We cannot know what he contemplates. We can only imagine. But the sadness of these two people — their peculiar sadness in a world of people too tired to be sad — suggests something more, something that has been lost, something that is never referenced and that this sad pair probably forgot, something that can only be remembered as having perished.
There are a few token mentions of an immediate past or an immediate memory. The very pretty girl has a less pretty friend. We can assume they know each other and have some sort of a past together. Elsewhere, a middle-aged woman screams at the very pretty girl, hinting at the latter’s promiscuous past. This proves that the very pretty girl had a prior life before the camera gave her a celluloid heartbeat. Yet these few mentions cannot and do not shape a solid context. They are like remnants of something more that perished, ruins of a bygone world where pasts were possible. The old man and the pond do not disappear, because they hold on to the remnants, refusing to vanish in the perpetual present that can barely be said to exist. The listless boys are not so lucky. And the very pretty girl cries and looks gorgeous and squandered, and then she vanishes too. A cinematic vanishing, a vanishing from the camera–but the only vanishing that matters to us, since this world stuck in time appears and disappears within ninety minutes and can only be invoked by replaying the ninety minutes.
Maybe it is not just the very pretty girl and the old man who remember that something has vanished, but every single character, every random urban face, even the two listless boys, and the only difference is that some seem sad and some seem numb, but every single character longs for that something more, even if this something more cannot be pictured or understood, even if it is an incomprehensible echo. And so the film is partly about longing. We have to make a decision: for either these blank vessels are longing for content, context and (therefore presumably) a better life or it is we the viewers who are longing for those very things, incapable of watching so much sorrow without draping everyone and everything involved in a mantle of should-be-better.
We yearn for movement and, not finding it in these stagnant characters, we invent a time when the movement might have happened. The cycle of the seasons features in a series of interlaced recorded images. The camera seemingly lingers over the pond, watching as autumn becomes winter becomes spring becomes summer becomes autumn. Considering the previous ninety minutes, this permanent cycle can only be menacing. The dull horror will never change. We cannot invent a future when movement will happen, because the misery on screen invalidates all hope, be it our hope or that of the characters. Instead, we invent a distant past filled with movement, movement that might have meant something and gone somewhere, instead of all this directionlessness that is like garbled noise. We might do more work than the film itself, inventing what the film has failed to invent, filling up missing content with our inventions. But this is also a film about a stagnant and perpetual present without content. As the characters are born and reborn with every playing and replaying of the film, as they enter the film universe time and time again without a past and without a future, as they breathe for ninety minutes and then vanish, then so do we viewers do the same: our inventions are their inventions, and their coping , their inability to act besides the precipice, and their desire for movement in the midst of this vast swamp that slows everything, is also ours as we live through the dream of Three Days.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.