In 2009 Jenny Slate was fired from Saturday Night Live for a slip of the tongue. Despite SNL producing a number of controversial skits, there are some words you simply can’t say on network TV at 11:30 at night. This one happened to start with “F” end with “G” and rhymes with “sucking” which SNL can be from time to time.
Since then Slate has been seen in just about everything from Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the recently amazing Obvious Child. Apart from her success in TV and Film, Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, have made a number of short films together including the popular and heart melting “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On“. “Self Esteem: Jenny Slate” is another one of their many short film contributions directed by Fleischer and starring Slate. It’s a film that shows the dichotomy between expectation and reality as a group of mysterious onlookers watch and comment on Jenny Slate’s life. Like “Marcel The Shell”, “Self Esteem” manages to be humorous and heart breaking at the same time.
What particularly struck me about “Self Esteem” is the usage of conflicting visual and audio elements. In it, we never see the onlookers who are clearly enamored with Slate and spend the whole film speculating on how amazing it must be to be her. In contrast, we have Jenny Slate, who says virtually nothing. Through subtle looks and actions Slate shows the audience the reality of her life, which is often in direct conflict with her onlookers observations. Through voiceover “Self Esteem” creates an unreliable narrator in the onlookers while Slate’s actions convey her true story to the audience, presumably unbeknownst to her. What results is a film that manages to address how the expectations put on us can belie the realities we face everyday while also managing to comment on the dangers of putting people of fame on a pedestal.
This mixture of contrasting audio and video has been used to varying degrees in film. David Lynch relied on it heavily to jar the audience in his film Eraserhead. In other films, music can been chosen to conflict with the feelings audiences commonly experience when viewing scenes of extreme violence like in Reservoir Dogs.
Audio doesn’t always have to complement a film. Sometimes by deliberately choosing what we hear to conflict with the mood of what we see, a filmmaker can explore complicated scenarios without any one character actually addressing it. What results is a film that interacts with the viewer, relying on their senses to connect with the underlying message rather than telling it outright. As an experiment, try watching “Self Esteem” on mute. Note how the message of the film is lost without the onlooker’s constant narration. By doing this you may get a better understanding of how audio and video can work together to tell a story.