MOVIE REVIEW: Us, Forever Ago

Us, Forever Ago is the kind of movie I was glad I could watch on my laptop at my leisure, because it’s complex and opaque enough, at times, to warrant a second or even a third viewing. Irina Varina, who wrote, starred in, and directed Us, Forever Ago, has crafted a fractured, occasionally muddled, but emotionally compelling quasi-fictional narrative about what it means to be an artist, and of Varina’s own artistic self-formation.
Us, Forever Ago knocks you off balance immediately, with the screen flashing “2030,” accompanied by Varina talking about the very film we’re about to watch, as if it’s the year 2030 and she’s looking back on her career. It’s easy to imagine the framing setup of Us, Forever Ago as the prelude to a hypothetical retrospective of Varina’s artistic career in the year 2030, where Varina sits on a festival panel, introducing this first major work of film to a captive audience (I will refer to this version of Varina as “2030 Varina for clarity). Immediately, it becomes evident that Varina is playing herself as a slightly-fictionalized character, wise with the benefit of hindsight, and that Us, Forever Ago will blur the boundary between fiction and documentary. In voiceover, she talks about how she made this film in 2015, where she played a young woman (“2015 Varina”) making a documentary about “female artists;” in a pointed statement about gender equality in this hypothetical 2030, she adds as an aside: “That’s what we called them back then—female artists.” How utopian!

Building in a measure of self-critique early on, 2030 Varina recalls how when she showed this film to people, they found elements of it unsatisfying. It’s as if she’s anticipating criticisms viewers will have of Us, Forever Ago, and is choosing to acknowledge them early on—or, perhaps, shield the final product from said criticism. Per the first viewers, the love story between 2015 Varina and an older theater director, played by Peter Jensen, was “unclear.” (It is.) Other elements of the original film (and, by extension, the entirety of Us, Forever Ago) that 2030 Varina’s alleged critics highlighted include how talk-heavy it is, that the interviews were “too instructional,” there was a lack of diversity among the artists who were featured. But, as 2030 Varina recalls, the goal of interviewing these women was one of genuine curiosity tinged with fear: it’s as if these artists held the secret to successfully living and working as an artist—a secret that Varina somehow never learned.

The bulk of the film comprises the interviews Varina conducted with various women artists, interwoven with shots of New York City and of Varina herself—in her apartment, on the train, walking down the street. Voiceover bleeds into diegetic speech; Varina all but disappears during these interviews as the camera focuses on the women themselves, relating long anecdotes about their philosophies and practices. Performance artist Andrea Clinton discusses her own work as a mime, among other topics, and her goals as a performer. Dancer Emily Mcloughlin pushes back against the conventional attitudes of stability, arguing that even though she’s not living up to her family’s vision of financial security, the community she’s formed as an artist provides a kind of solidarity and security. Writer-playwright Chana Porter, whom Varina sees as “goddess-like,” talks about using her art to imagine new possibilities in the world, while Katie Frank shows us her drawings and talks about mining her personal life experiences for her art.

In contrast, Varina’s interactions with her lover strike a different tone, providing two divergent paths for Varina to follow. The director chides her gently, paternalistically, reminding her that she can’t afford her apartment by taking on unpaid projects—which Varina surely knows on her own. What worldview does 2015 Varina want to adopt?

What’s unsettling and fascinating about Us, Forever Ago, is that at no point can you be entirely sure that you’re watching anything documentary. How much of what Clinton, Mcloughlin, Porter, and Frank are telling us is scripted? Are these conversations the actual original interview footage, or have they been re-staged for the purposes of this film? How much of Varina’s own confusion and pensiveness about living and working as an artist are heightened and exaggerated for Us, Forever Ago, and how much are her honest internal deliberations? One particularly affecting scene comes when 2015 Varina describes a very real sense of alienation after performing a monologue. She compares that experience to a hypothetical door, with someone trying to get through the door in search of treasure, only to make it across the threshold, see the treasure, and say, “no, thank you.” Her art and herself, in this scenario, are an offer that has been rejected, an openness that is not reciprocated. Ultimately, though, Us, Forever Ago, seems to answer the question in a suitably meta way. 2015 Varina wants to know how to live, and asks these artists’ advice, hoping for an explicit response she can emulate. 2030 Varina seems to understand that life itself is the process of asking this question, and that we ask it every day, with every action we take.