The distance between us: thoughts on The Florida Project and The Square

Spoiler Alert: if you’ve not yet seen either of these films, the following piece mentions various scenes and plot points.

The difficulty in writing a review of The Florida Project is twofold, and both of these aspects speak to the power of the film.

The visuals are overwhelming in an aesthetic sense, with the pastel (yet vibrant) colours, with motels that seem to have fallen – and been damaged in the degradation – out of a Disneyland paradise, overwhelming architecture (Project must be seen on the big screen) that proclaims a dreamy ideal that is repeatedly, and directly, exposed as false by the characters on screen. The base lives of quiet desperation chronicled by the characters belies the “fairy tale” facades of the scrubby motels that are the backdrop to their daily struggles. All of my words there are not the equal of the few seconds where Mooney or Dickey traverse their decayed “Disneyland”.

But going deeper than how The Florida Project exposes a facade of America that’s often – still – obscured by performative, or slightly worn, artifice (like sequins worn from a gaudy costume), the emotional resonance of the film is hard to put into words. The stories of the people transcend the idea of “players”, or “actors” (unsurprisingly, Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince are fresh faces, unmitigated and truthful in their portrayals. But they hold their emotional weight with Willem Dafoe here, like tragic participants in a inevitably sad story….).

It’s a rough, emotionally raw film: the manner in which it ends is perhaps one of the finest examples of the vision of Sean Baker (director / writer) and Chris Bergoch (writer). As the story builds to what can be seen as an inevitable confrontation, we’re given a scene that is alternately a visually enticing “escape” but also one that we know is fake.

The Florida Project has been praised in many reviews as a story about childhood, and I’d echo that, in that its a contemporary foray in that genre. But I’d add go beyond that, in light of the ending (in conversations with many, both within and without the cultural sphere, the closing scene has marked us all without exception). Firstly, the manner in which the Disney “castle” backdrop suddenly comes to the fore, in Mooney’s world, took me back to watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child, after supper on Sunday nights, with my siblings. What we watched eludes me, and like many memories, it’s more visual and emotional than relatable in language. This experience was elicited so immediately, and so easily, by this scene, when I’d not thought of it in years.

Less warmly, the lies we’re told in childhood and the loss of innocence that comes hand-in-hand with the loss of those years is implicit to the desperate nature of Mooney’s flight from the failure of her domestic situation and the intrusion of cold reality into her world. An addendum to that last statement: Halley (Vinaite, as Mooney’s mother) jokes at one point that she’s a “failure as a mother”, in an amusing exchange with Defoe where the privileging of “tourists” above all else is discussed. But Halley reminds me of a lot of parents I know, who do the best they can with what they have, and that are doomed to fail despite doing all they can. Their situations say more about “America” than anything else. In full disclosure, I saw I, Tonya (the story of Tonya Harding’s brief rise and long fall) the same week as The Florida Project, and class and the lies of the “American Dream” inform my interpretations.

I hesitate to cite Donald Trump’s America. Too many of my critical brethren (especially in privileged sites like Canadian Art) seem to think they have an obligation to cite Trump in any and every piece they write, whether relevant or not. I eschew the idiocy that artists are magical unicorns that can change the world, to quote an excellent response to the 2017 Berlin Biennale. But the fact that The Florida Project is fictional does not make it any less true, or any less resonant, for what America is, right now, as opposed to what it would like to pretend it is (Horatio Alger is dead, and the American Dream never was true). Like Disneyland, once you see the facade, you can’t pretend that it is not there. The centre doesn’t hold.

The Florida Project is that rarity, in that it seduces and saddens, simultaneously. It’s required viewing for 21st century America (like a look in the mirror…).


The Florida Project could be described as exposing a reality often obscured by artifice. The Square is something else entirely, and to attempt to encapsulate what it was about is as difficult as trying to define relational aesthetics, which is an art world citation that appears, either by direct reference, or implicit in interactions and artworks, throughout the film.

The Square seems more a series of vignettes that are interconnected, that in some ways enhance each other, or do the opposite, or do nothing at all with each other. It’s a long film: at some points it drags, but several scenes evoke a visceral response that is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé and his irreverent fracture of what film is / should be / “shouldn’t” entail (Enter The Void, perhaps, or Irreversible). Ruben Östlund is both the writer and director of this lauded film, as it won the Palme d’Or and been vetted at various international festivals.

A “digression, but a pertinent one” (to quote Mordecai Richler’s verbose Barney Panofsky): I’ve been consuming a lot of film lately, and one of note that I saw for the first time was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

It’s not good: I can’t help but feel that it benefits from how, in the visual arts world (especially the Canadian contingent), “meaning” and “relevance” is projected into something whether its there or not, and that ontological quality is neither relevant nor to be considered, comrade.

But – a very large “but” – there’s an idea suggested in the article Cinema crudité in Harper’s Magazine, that what Wiseau does is refute – or ignore – our expectations of what film should be, that are not any more set in stone than the idea that once the camera didn’t move at all, or that characters couldn’t speak over each other (Robert Altman’s Nashville). As one critic said to W. D. Griffiths indignantly, why didn’t he show people’s feet? Our expectations of what is a “movie” is as facile as anything else, as prescriptive as any propaganda: consider David Lynch, or Eisenstein’s invention of the “cutaway” in Potemkin or Anger or Riefenstahl. Film is not an old medium, and what we expect is not always all that can be done. “Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.” (Doris Lessing)

I must mention Adorno’s idea from Minima Moralia, that when many are confronted with something genuinely new they often fall back on the “shamelessly modern assertion that they don’t understand.” (I mentioned that I’ve been a bit of a cinephile lately: Luv, from Blade Runner 2049 spits that “in the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it”).

Returning to The Square: it’s a complex film, that bores sometimes, but then holds your attention so well that you’ll “awake” when the scene is done to realise that the action that just elapsed has affected you physically, with heart racing.

I offer two tangential observations, and I reserve the right to change my mind later (the aforementioned Harper article on Wiseau, by Tom Bissell, spoke smartly of how repeated viewings of a film, or time to digest what we’ve experienced, can and must change our opinions).

Firstly, in its overt and subliminal exploration of relational aesthetics, I return to Richler: “Life [is] absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else. Not a comforting philosophy…”

The conversations, arguments and confrontations suggest this gulf that exists, whether occurring naturally or influenced by characters’ actions. Exchanges are fraught with potential disaster. The stuttering, angry and resentful exchange – only to be resolved in some manner – between the critic Ann and the curator Christian (Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang), with the dangerously tilting artwork in the background, and the accelerating crashing noises suggesting impending failure was one of the finest scenes in The Square. It blended humour and pathos well, and was alternately touching and moronic.

That’s a scene that slyly but audibly threatens: but the second observation I’d offer about The Square is more grotesque, and its a tableaux that’s haunted me. It’s a scene that could be removed and presented on its own, and in the succession of vignettes its one that balances some of the banal segments with a violence (implied and literal) that shows what performance art could be, if it wasn’t so irrelevantly self referential and self aggrandising.

Another digression: my dismissal of performance art is because I’ve endured too much of it that proclaims transgression and not only fails to deliver, but gives you boredom instead. It need not be like this: if you’ve seen The Artist Is Present, I suggest researching what Marina Abramović and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) did when they were still collaborators, and many of their works (Relation in Space, or Relation in Time) made audiences uncomfortable, and skirted danger to themselves and others. Ambromović’s seminal Rhythm 0 where she invited “participants” to do what they liked to her with objects provided, maintaining a passive role, is horrifying (that took place in 1974. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, since..). But if it’s strained and anxiety inducing, it is indisputably (as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, from 1971), and perhaps criminally, real.

When we see what passes for performance art now, of eating too many Big Macs or sitting on an ice cube with a lit candle and expecting your “audience” to endure the boredom you’re inflicting, apathy is understandable. In conversation with an audio performance artist and a painter once, in Regina, I let slip that I often secretly think of many Canadian “performance artists” as akin to the obligatory, somewhat abusive, porn scenes where the “money shot” is on the female performers’ face, and she’s just being used as a reluctant receptacle of someone’s unpleasant manifestation of ego….

A funny story: several years ago, at the now closed Mendel Art Gallery, I was in the audience for a performative work that was in the tradition of 1960s musical “happenings.” Afterwards, several individuals who identify as “performance artists” complained about the length, “boring” nature and “irrelevance” of the work. My demeanour was tested as I had often thought the exact same of their practice, and wondered at their blinders in walking out of the piece, when they’d often attempted to shame viewers who had tried to flee their own exercises in ego….

Returning to The Square. What the character Oleg (portrayed by Terry Notary) does, for a performance work at a fancy gala at the X Royal Museum transcends all that garbage.

It’s not surprising that the promotional images for the movie have been Oleg atop a table, looking aggressively Simian. His physical posture asserts he owns the room and anyone within it (as he demonstrates, pushing it further and further, rapaciously). What begins as the usual “art” that toys with transgression and discomfort escalates into true violence. Again, reality and film collide and merge: this piece is a reinterpretation – in homage – to Oleg Kulik’s various works where he has, in the role of a dog, been known to bite gallery goers who ignored the warnings. In the larger issue of relational aesthetics that The Square offers, its worth noting that Kulik (the real Oleg as opposed to the film Oleg) states his “intention is to describe what he sees as a crisis of contemporary culture, a result of an overly refined cultural language which creates barriers between individuals.”

The manner in which the scene ends – is abruptly cut – leaves us wondering if it terminated with the ultimate act of murderous violence (by a righteously aroused mob, what Slavoj Žižek prosaically terms “divine violence”, where the reaction is immediate, unthinking and thus “pure”). The thin veneer of society, as exemplified by this moneyed, privileged gathering, erodes at this artistic scratching. 

This lack of clear resolution permeates The Square: in conversations, to conflicts, in how this is not the sole death  – or more exact, murder – that may have happened in The Square. We’re left to decide for ourselves what transpired here. In conversation, several people asserted that a disturbing sequence is due to the “ghost” of one of the “victims”….

This bring us around again to a “problem” with relational aesthetics: a failure of narrative consensus (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” My apologies: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a poem I love and is often in my mind).

The tagline (both for the movie, and the artwork in the film from which the name is taken) is how “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

This wasn’t true to my experience of (the film) The Square. I’d cite, more accurate to my impression, an artwork that curator Christian demonstrates to his two daughters. A gallery visitor, to gain entry to a show, must push one of two buttons. One declares that you trust people, while the other states that you mistrust people. The LED displays on the wall keep count: those who trust are nearly fifty, and only three seemed comfortable enough to openly declare their cynicism for humanity.

But the exhibition (based on the detritus and protective covers), indicates its not yet been opened to the public. The numbers are thus false: and I found myself wondering if the “mistrust” numbers were to encourage honesty (so you needn’t be the “only” one to doubt), or if the numbers were presented to force a more positive, hopeful facade (people are exponentially more trusting, “people are essentially good” but civilisation corrupts, as Rousseau would say. But flouting this is the opening sequence where Christian has his phone and wallet stolen in a grift that is unique enough to demand respect, and that plays on trust. However, we find out later he also assumed his cuff-links were taken, and they were not. For a moment in the narrative you wonder how reliable his recounting of his experience is…do we “trust” Christian, or “distrust” him?).

The Square offers us hints, but not resolution; narratives but no conclusion. In some ways, its a different story constructed from the same components as The Florida Project. Both offer truth and artifice, allusion and honesty. I plan to watch them both again.

The Square and The Florida Project were both on view at the Film House in the Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in January of 2018. Many thanks to the staff of both the Film House and Niagara Artist Centre who have a strong hand in programming films unavailable elsewhere in Niagara. The upcoming schedule can be seen here.