According to experts, imposing restrictions on the creative process is more likely to encourage creativity than stifle it. The rationale behind this is that by placing some restrictions on their process, the artist has automatically created a problem for them to solve. It gets the neurons firing and the creative juices flowing.
These restrictions can come in various shapes and forms. Consider deadlines, the bane of many a writer’s existence, and yet, most of the time, a necessary restriction for success. The famous artist, Piet Mondrian, gave birth to modernism by limiting his paintings to primary colors and right angles, and in 1939, author Ernest Vincent Wright published Gadsby, a 50,000-word novel that does not include any words that contain the letter E.
Daniel Bell-Gam, in his first short film, uses the above principle to great effect. The logline of The Pick Up is simple and interesting: “A paranoid guy with a suitcase, running from himself.” One can almost picture M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Split) making a feature film with this premise, filled with dizzying camera angles, a heavy surrealist undertone and a major third-act twist that completely redefines everything in the story.
Bell-Gam doesn’t favor such a heavy style, choosing instead to keep the film stripped-back, at least in some parts. For instance, the movie is filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio (the go-to stylistic choice for everyone from budding A24 filmmakers to veteran Joel Coen) and also in black-and-white. One of Martin Scorsese’s famous sayings about filmmaking is, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” And what’s out of the frame in The Pick Up has been removed to give more weight to what’s on screen.
The short begins with a lone car in a parking lot. The driver is lying back in his seat, looking all shades of bored. A hint of apprehension is splayed across his face. He is waiting for something or someone. A radio show host interviews Young Jonn the music producer, and asks him if he has any political ambitions. “Anything can happen,” the producer replies. All of a sudden, another car arrives. This is the first major point where the movie’s brilliance can be appreciated. Up until now, the melodic score from an acoustic guitar has suggested a serene ambience. However, immediately the second car arrives, this calmness gives way to a feeling of rising tension, courtesy of the haunting music which casts a long shadow on the film’s atmosphere.
The bored-looking driver gets down from the car as the other driver does the same. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago,” he says to him without actually opening his mouth. All he does is shoot a look in his direction which is interpreted in the yellow-colored subtitles. Bell-Gam taps into cinema’s roots and recalls the silent era when all filmmakers had to tell their visual stories were words and the actors’ performances. Praise must be accorded to the actors (Henry Ronkay and Chukwuladi Tew) as well, who, like the “models” used in films by French director, Robert Bresson, are able to communicate volumes with a mere gaze.
Indeed, the director seems to be shadowing Bresson also in the way he pays particular attention to the role of sound in the story. It is no coincidence that Daniel Bell-Gam is a self-taught music producer who has been interested in telling stories through audio for as long as he can remember. The Pick Up has commendable sound design as well as mixing, blending the score well with the diegetic sound.
The first driver collects a package from the other driver’s boot and the movie launches into the second sequence. The driver, with the package now in his possession, suspects that he is being followed on his way back. He becomes apprehensive and the actor, instead of portraying this state of mind in an operatic, over-the-top manner, chooses to maintain his poker face. After driving around for a few minutes, he parks the car by the side of the road and hides in a bush. The car he suspects has been following him all the while zooms past and slowly, he makes his way back to the car. He gets inside and turns on the ignition. The end.
The Pick Up has a lot of things going for it. The 4:3 ratio makes the story a bit more personal as it enables the audience to focus on the facial expressions of the character more than if a widescreen ratio had been used. The film also recalls Pulp Fiction (1994) in that the contents of the package are never revealed, and Goodfellas (1990) in its paranoia-inducing sequence where the main character feels he’s being followed.
Even though The Pick Up tells a self-contained story, it could very well have been a sequence in a much longer movie. Daniel Bell-Gam proves that not only do you not need a huge budget to tell a good story, you can still do that even in the absence of elements like color or dialogue.
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Watch The Pick Up below: