Bobbi Jene Smith is an incredibly talented dancer and a worthy subject for a film.
Bobbi Jene is a documentary with the format of a drama. And by that, I mean that if you were to show me this film sight unseen without any foreknowledge of Bobbi Jene Smith, I might reasonably assume, from the way it’s shot and edited, that I was watching a slice-of-life indie flick.
The filmmakers followed Bobbi Jene around at a time of great transition in her life: after nearly ten years, she decided to leave the prestigious Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv and move back to the United States to pursue a solo career. We see glimpses of her creative process and moments of personal turmoil as she tries to maintain a long-distance relationship with another dancer in the company.
But at the end of the film, I felt as though I had no greater insight into her, her life, her ambitions or desires than I did beforehand. Which is a shame, because Bobbi Jene hints at some great drama, but the filmmakers don’t delve into it the way they could have. It all feels so disjointed, and I as a viewer felt disconnected from anything I was seeing. Bobbi Jene doesn’t feel like a cohesive thought or a compelling story. For as expressive as Bobbi Jene herself is through her art, I felt mostly unaffected emotionally by the film about her life. Watching Bobbi Jene is more like catching up with an old acquaintance at a bar after many years apart than it is being told a remarkable story. You listen as she tells you of her life, one full of successes, heartbreaks, and amorphous ambitions; but the remembered bits and pieces are spoken of in emotionless monotone, because now it’s all a matter of record and, let’s face it, she can’t imagine it going down any other way.
Bobbi Jene’s fatal flaw is its structure. To be brief: there’s very little of it. We are not presented with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, nor with characters who face adversity and come out the other side changed. Instead, we’re shown a woman’s life out of context. All we know of Bobbi Jene herself is that she’s a dancer, and we must take it on faith that she’s a dancer of some importance. Bobbi Jene the movie doesn’t elucidate. It follows its subject respectfully, unobtrusively, and without comment or questions, like a student trying to keep it cool around the older kids he’s shadowing at the high school.
Without structure or a deliberate rejection of structure, there is no meaning ascribed to any of the drama. The themes and ideas are rendered impotent, if not lost altogether. Instead of a story, some sort of narrative through-line for the audience to connect to, all we have is what is. By that I mean we’re given a sequence of events with little obvious correlation or sense of cause and effect; it’s A then B then D. That is though, ultimately, how life works. It is chaotic and random and all we can do is try to ascribe some sense of meaning to it: school, job, family, art, something to focus on and work towards. Even a kid keeping a diary of her stutter is an attempt at interpretation. Just give us some reason to pass the time other than not having a choice in the matter.
But Bobbi Jene doesn’t seem to try to make sense of anything we see. All we can do is watch and wonder and wish we could understand what the film is trying to tell us about an important figure in modern dance. Bobbi Jene shows us a period of time in the life of Bobbi Jene Smith, but it does so without interpretation. Good art teaches. It gives meaning to what is. And if a piece of art — whether it be a film, a play, a novel, a painting, a dance — doesn’t make an honest stab at translating the indecipherable muck of a language that life speaks in, then it fails as an interpretive document. And to have no interpretation, to have no structure, nothing to teach or to give is to merely present us with the existential aimlessness we must live through until eternity relieves us of the burden.
And then what’s the point of creating the art in the first place? Or watching it? Why take the time? Good art tries to find meaning in the meaningless; Bobbi Jene, unlike its incredibly talented subject in her own art, doesn’t. Which is a tragedy. Not to mention a great irony. And in my opinion, that is so much worse.
The film is now playing.