Documentarian Brett Story is out to map the storm and stress of modern life with her disorientating third feature

Ruairí McCann on Brett Story’s ‘The Hottest August’ (2019)

Brett Story’s third feature, The Hottest August, as suggested by this title, was shot over the span of August 2017 with its testing ground being the length and breadth of New York. With intent both ambitious and elementary, director Brett Story (speaking occasionally off-camera) and crew spend the film traveling the five boroughs in order to take a city-sized litmus test. Drawing opinions of work, politics and community from people hailing from a myriad of backgrounds, though class-wise, the film gives a preference to working and lower middle-class people. The primary, and only constant, query being: what are your hopes for the future? A question that seems overly simplistic at first goes complexly indistinct as the answers accumulate, with the portent and present reality of political instability and ecological collapse as an influence mostly in the back and sometimes at the fore.

This summary could seem twee, her approach reductive and scattershot to a fault given its huge canvas. So, not unlike Humans of New York, the social media turned multimedia phenomenon which stripped one of the most diverse cities in the world to the level of an individual paragraph of fatuous humanism, with each entry funnelling a “life story” into a portrait. In this mode, anyone’s experience, no matter how unfulfilled, confused or downright painful, can be understood and elevated by being placed in the spotlight. The effect of which is that the rough edges of said experiences are purged clean by the glare, trimming the thicket of loose and dead ends that make up a life, excised by the tendency to epitomise.

The Hottest August differs from this totalising impulse because it expects and embraces incoherence. Barely out of the gate, the voiceover deprecatingly describes Story’s quest with its vague process and goals. Here it signals the impossibility of a precise and complete reading of society at a particular time and space. To make an equally precise and well-behaved object would be misleading.

Story expresses this in large part through a lack of heavy-handed curation in the interviews. Conducted with a wide web of people from different races and creeds, at home, in the streets, at work and at the beach. Some are clearly pre-planned while others seem stumbled upon, a result of being alive and open to the moment. Like an exchange with a couple old union guys, yelled back and forth to the ground from an upstairs window, to a stop-off at a cop bar where two retirees go from obnoxiously needling Story to calling racism resentment. Moments like this illuminate how a concept like one’s political beliefs is governed in the immediate by their means and conditions. How many, maybe most, find their viewpoints sculpted directly by their, and their family’s, economic situation, aspirations and a handful of entrenched, or enforced, institutions. For the union men, the latter are numbered three and are university, the military and the union. While for a young black man late on in the film, who not only has emerged in a more atomised age but belongs to a section of American society more alienated than others, education and the military remain while the collective “union” is pointedly replaced with the singular and survivalist “a job”. Sequences that are more overtly staged, such as a sit down with an economist, who elaborates on capitalism’s unpredictability and insatiability, then mounts its defence, comes across as staid in comparison. They over-expound, labouring points that have been made both more clearly and with more complexity in other, less didactic interviews.

Initially the most jarring element is the aforementioned voiceover, provided by the actor Claire Coulter. It sits on top and apart of the film in both the technical sense, mixed high and separate from the film’s array of city ambience and voices, and in origin and tone from most of the talk featured on-screen. In a film that is a feast of New York working class and immigrant accents, the narration is a featureless save for a soft Ontarian lilt and the practiced clarity of a performer and/or someone vaguely middle class. While most people featured talk informally or with the theatrical quality of a presentation, Coulter’s tone, apart from the occasional hint of sardonicism, is uniformly even. For her every intermittent return she also brings a new form of rhetoric, none of which are represented by anyone on-screen. Putting on an analytic lens of the cultural criticism variety, she talks about the dearth of non-scientific terminology for describing climate change.

Later her way of speaking becomes more poetic, describing the onslaught of a great, dark cloud. One that moves with such speed that all you can do is scream before you’re struck. An analogy that sums up both the dread in the face of global catastrophe but also, on a much smaller scale, the precarity of living paycheck to paycheck, perpetually half expecting the next to be your last. A state of permanent exhaustion expressed by much of the film’s population, especially the young. The narration then functions, intentionally, as a hampered authorial voice. One that speaks with objectivity with no real consistency or certainty. Just like the lives and world it dares to describe.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.