It seems appropriate that the first words you hear in “Once Every Day,” a fascinating thicket of images, sounds and ideas from the formidable avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman, are “Help me!” The words are emphatically delivered, more a demand than a plea, by an off-screen woman and dropped repeatedly into the movie’s visual and aural slipstream. Sometimes the words brush up against other words, creating a glimmer of larger meaning; at other times, they bob along alone. The sound quality of the two words is muddy enough that I initially thought that the woman was yelling, “Hell me!,” which suggested that we were being readied for a tumble down the existential rabbit hole.
Although primarily set in the nondescript, sparsely furnished rooms of a theater, “Once Every Day” takes you into another world that is consistently energizing, largely pleasurable, occasionally baffling and altogether unexpected. With most movies, you may not know where you are at the start, but you pretty much know where you will end up. Convention dictates, as does the marketplace, that there are only so many things that can happen after boy meets girl, or even boy meets boy, as a lifetime of movies teaches you. Mr. Foreman, by contrast, doesn’t play with established forms; he invents his own. I suspect that he would agree with the principle behind one of Bertolt Brecht’s script ideas: “Boy Meets Girl, So What.”
Shot in video that looks like video rather than like video that’s pretending to be film, this densely packed 66-minute movie opens with the sounds of “Help me!” reverberating against a black screen. The first image is of a young man with dark hair, an aquiline nose and penetrating eyes looking directly at the camera.
Like the other men and women who will soon drift in and out of frame — walking, talking, gesturing, looking, taking direction — this man remains unidentified, more of a type than an individualized, psychologically fleshed-out character. Mr. Foreman, who in addition to writing and directing, also edited the movie, shifts from one similar shot of the man to another, to create a series of slightly different takes (variations) on the same image. At one point the man rubs his eye.
The series of images suggests that Mr. Foreman is engaging in a type of serialism, though it may be as important that they are also close-ups of a face. For early filmgoers the close-up, especially that of the human face projected on big screens, signaled a crucial aesthetic difference between movies and theater. Mr. Foreman, who founded the famed Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968, has for years incorporated video into his stage plays and may well have included videotaped close-ups in his theater works, but as a stand-alone, recorded work rather than a live performance, this feels like a new frontier for him. (He has directed a handful of “video plays” and one feature film, “Strong Medicine,” released in 1981, which featured a glittery lineup, including Raul Julia, Buck Henry, Carol Kane and the filmmaker Jonas Mekas.)
By opening “Once Every Day” with a close-up of a face, Mr. Foreman signals that he’s working in an arena different from where he usually does, though there’s more here than meets that (rubbed) eye. Perhaps more important, these close-ups create a sense of narrative expectation that the face will soon be attached to a name, actions, emotions and the inevitable story.
Mr. Foreman, however, consistently deviates from the stories that are deeply inscribed in your consciousness, breaking familiar chains of signification. The man’s face, for instance, is not followed by (swallowed up in) some drama. Rather it becomes the first in a number of faces, bodies, objects and words that don’t seem to cohere narratively but instead form patterns, evoke themes and suggest contingencies.
Picking out those patterns and themes and divining their meaning amid the movie’s choreographed cacophony of sights and sounds is enjoyably challenging. In one particularly dizzying passage, Mr. Foreman can be heard in sotto voce voice-over delivering the line, “A world in which choice, choice, the best choice, to have an original idea may not be the best choice available.”
This statement takes a while to piece together because it’s repeatedly interrupted by other voices, including those of a woman (“I’m always right”) and that of Mr. Foreman, in a more conversational tone, saying, “You just made a big mistake” and “Amenda, look at the camera, slowly.” Meanwhile, the performers move from right to left, and look and don’t at the camera as the by-now-familiar yelp “Help me!” rings out several times.
Mr. Foreman’s looplike use of the words “choice,” “best” and “original” gives them thematic weight. “To have an original idea is to swerve,” he says, ironically or not, “swerve from the path of truth.” The words can sound like fragmented philosophy, but they also suggest a critique of originality and the acknowledgment of the impossibility of choice or maybe free will.
And while he rejects old forms and norms — the title “Once Every Day” suggests vitamins, health, prescriptions, prescriptive thinking, genre, canons, codes — he holds onto gestures and words as if to a sacred ritual. At times it can feel as if you were watching a series of disconnected scenes from a theater rehearsal. But what Mr. Foreman finally, and wonderfully, does here is to bring you to the edge of narrative and that moment before a face becomes a story.
Once Every Day
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written, directed and edited by Richard Foreman; produced by Bridge Film NYC, Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the Center for the Moving Image and the Department of Media Studies, State University of New York, Buffalo. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32-34 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 6 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Dana Block, Sarah Brown, Ryan Cupello, Diane Galdry, Neill Garvey, Hannah Lipkind, Abby Marianetti, Paul Martin, Amenda McDowall, Roy Roussel, Linda Stein, R J Voltz, Paul Hern and Yuri Hreshchyshyn.