In the Crowd
By Jasmine Liu
Dir. Anthony Ing, U.K./Canada
Jill, Uncredited played March 16 at First Look 2023 at Museum of the Moving Image.
For a time, I lived with somebody who had an annoying habit that took on exaggerated proportions whenever we watched films together. Possessing a general penchant to point out everyday details that otherwise went unnoticed, he abandoned himself completely to this instinct with films, displaying a total disregard to A-plots and sometimes even B-plots, fixating instead on the subsidiary: a quirk of the set design or an extra quietly but surely misbehaving in the background of a scene. I tended to dismiss his comments on these elements that had eluded me as performative peacocking. One day, he made the claim that Charles Bovary was the true protagonist of Madame Bovary. I realized, with a start, that he identified with Charles. I began to see that his peculiar patterns of attention were organic to his psychology.
Through him, I have come to learn that paying attention to minor characters constitutes not just an act of care for them but a whole difference in epistemology. This insight is core to Jill, Uncredited, a 17-minute short directed by Anthony Ing that splices together scenes of 78 films featuring background actor Jill Goldston from her half-century-long career. (The films quoted in the short comprise less than five percent of the productions Goldston worked on.)
The conceit is efficiently established with a succession of clips rendered in stop-motion preceding the title card, the first few of which conclude by zooming in on Jill’s face with the click of a shutter. By the same mechanism that CAPTCHAs train AI algorithms to identify objects, the click-zoom motif trains viewers to read film scenes differently. Within the first minute, I abandoned my well-worn habits of watching, looking precisely where the camera was not, urgently searching for Jill’s long brown hair, thick bangs, and pronounced nose.
It is possible to sort Jill, Uncredited’s selected clips—severed from their initial context with no identifying information about their origins—into a few categories. There are scenes where Jill is laughing, clapping, dancing, and generally making merry, there to furnish a party with an ambience of revelry. Her situation in these scenes is recognizable to anyone who has been to a birthday party or wedding, their feelings in the moment secondary to the role they are obliged to play. At what looks like a medieval feast, Jill and a large cast of guests gaze into the camera with fear and confusion. Chaos ensues in the next scene; Jill and those around her bolt offscreen.
Following this is a cluster of scenes where Jill is a nurse, gazing over the shoulders of doctors or wheeling their beds. “Nursing is as much a social skill as it is a practical one,” a woman recites didactically in one of the clips. “It calls for tact and an ability to deal with people. The tone of your voice, your facial expression, your whole attitude is important.” Then, Jill can be spotted amid crowds, walking in the park, walking on the street, sitting in the audience of a movie, sitting in the audience of a trial.
There is a simple gratification to finding Jill in these scenes, but it is accompanied by an aura of intrigue—one heightened by the recurrent click-zoom. In one scene, Jill, outfitted in military khaki, strides confidently across a restaurant, before a seated man in a green uniform grabs her hand. She looks at him. In an instant, they walk offscreen together, his fingertips grazing the small of her back. What is the nature of their association? By this point, it is easy to neglect the forlorn woman who was once the proper subject of this scene—a woman who, in contrast to Jill, is costumed in a feminine satin dress, her hair carefully pinned up in a do, her pink accessories splayed on the table. In this context, her plight carries little weight, as inconsequential as catching sight of a stranger looking slightly distressed in a café. In another scene, which seems to take place around the holidays, Jill is in the foreground, embedded in a crowd peering at something indiscernible just above the camera. The lead characters chat gaily among themselves and soon are on the move. Jill’s character is alone and looks plaintive in comparison. What is she thinking to herself?
The click-zoom maneuver, associated as it is with the identification of suspects in detective and true crime shows, suggests Ing’s obsessive labor in tracking down Jill’s appearances, many which occur in the flash of an eye. Something about these many cinematic universes is exposed to be a sham. Indeed, the film’s intense attention to details that are not supposed to be noticed borders on conspiratorial. But in applying this method to fictional universes rather than reality, Ing shows us that it is possible to observe these details without spinning arguments and developing certitudes—ambiguities that are difficult to maintain when the focus is on main characters and plot lines. The zones where these details lie are sites of play, where it is possible for us to experiment at will with giving characters and stories more or less acknowledgment, more or less shape. Dwelling in these zones allows us to momentarily destabilize the hierarchy of values that we often have no choice but to adopt as our own to appreciate the dominant narrative in a work. It may not be strictly true that Charles is Madame Bovary’s protagonist, but operating as if it is lets us question why he who preserves the memory of a tragically passionate woman remains always, in narrative terms, subordinate to her.
I think of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and W.H. Auden’s ekphrastic poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which I was taught in school were about the supreme indifference of ordinary mankind to human suffering. This may be true, yet what makes Icarus the icon of human suffering and the ploughman and the sailor merely ordinary? What of the obverse, that those on the margins of narrative contain buds of possibility and originality? The greatest surprise is that Jill, and many similarly undefined figures, may in the end be most unfettered by the duty to serve a greater cause—teasing the bounds of recognition, holding something of themselves close to their chests, inviting and inciting our imaginations.