It has unfortunately become clearer and clearer that over the past twenty or so years, as a result of a confluence of factors spanning new media, television, streaming, and a shortening of attention spans, cinema no longer has the cultural prominence it once had. Mainstream works rarely hold the same ability to influence fashion trends, new vernacular, and hit songs they once had, while the arthouse scene, judging by any recent festival lineup, is starting to feel more and more like a gerontocracy, with older auteurs holding down the fort whilst younger filmmakers struggle to produce sizeable bodies of work.
This begs the question: what does the modern world look like on film and what are the aesthetic qualities that define it? This question may take years, if not decades to unpack in retrospect, but the films of Vytautas Katkus, who, at only 30 years old, is presumably on the pulse of what’s cool, seem to potentially hold an answer, combining recent trends with fresh outside influences.
With Cherries (2022), Katkus is maintaining the thematic trajectory of his previous film Community Gardens (2019), exploring the increasingly tenuous connection between ageing father and son, and the unstoppable flow of time, with the added wrinkle that Katkus himself plays the son while his actual father plays the father. But, perhaps even more so, it’s an avenue to further develop his aesthetic preoccupations, with the film consisting of various wide shots and slow camera movements, playing with the geometry of his frames in order to produce a continued distancing effect. Yet, what sticks are the seemingly superficial qualities of his work, which appear fine-tuned to fall under some modern definition of cool.
The most decisive element may be the actual medium of his film, shot on beautiful 16mm Kodak film stock, the same frequently adopted by the current gatekeepers of quote, unquote “hip” cinema A24. The visual qualities of Katkus’ film best resemble the work of Sean Baker, particularly The Florida Project (2017) and Red Rocket (2021), with a saturated colour palette that artfully deploys blown highlights and pillowy shots, extracting beauty from the mundane in visuals as simple as a ladder becoming luminescent when interacting with sunlight.
This devotion to good taste extends to the film’s sartorial choices as well, with Katkus adorned in the uniform of a Gorpcore yuppie: oversized vintage t-shirt (particularly of John Waters mainstay Divine) and a brightly colored pair of baggy shorts. It may be presumptuous to assume, but the outfit signifies that Katkus is potentially attuned to the recent trends of male fashion, and when viewed through this lens, the aesthetic qualities of Cherries start to make more sense. After all, who are the biggest gatekeepers of what’s supposedly cool, if not male, fashion brands?
A little-explored phenomenon of recent years, at least from mainstream film publications, has been the fashion campaign film: works commissioned to coincide with new releases and to essentially be commercials for the clothes, even though they try their hardest not to draw attention to them and assert themselves as works of “art” in their own right. The volume in which they are produced has created some stylistic hallmarks of the niche genre: grainy film stock, mundane reflections of the everyday, and a healthy dose of surrealism, clips that immerse you into the aesthetic world of a brand before quickly drawing you out.
At a glance, Katkus’ film does every one of these things, with the character of the son, which I failed to mention earlier, having the ability to float off the ground. Katkus also plays around with the ironic clash of subcultures and sensibilities brands love to play with—like when the elderly father puts on a tape of rap music, which is reminiscent of the cheeky, yet wholesome contrast designer Teddy Santis peddles in his campaigns for his brand Aimé Leon Dore, which adorn the elderly in his seemingly unfitting clothing.
Of course, this being a short film that seeks to answer the demands of narrative cinema, it is not only the sum of its superficial aesthetic choices. At the core of Katkus’ film is a rather tender exploration of ageing and the distance created by time. The film’s opening stands independently from the rest of the proceedings, with what appears to be a real interview with a local woman, who bemoans the loss of her youth and the toll hard partying has taken on her face. The way the scene is shot is also a deviation from everything else in the film, with the woman being filmed in a Cassavetes-esque extreme close-up, the camera ducking in and out to capture the details of her expressions. The confrontational nature of the scene and the playful fatalism on display intentionally blunt the thematic impact of the film, directly stating Katkus’ ideas to the camera, the woman’s oversharing serving to illuminate the later lack of communication we witness between father and son. The rest of what follows is quite simple as we watch a father and son take a trip to the smoked fish store, pick cherries from a tree, and share a quiet meal. Katkus’ compositions and dialogue, or lack of it, become tantamount.
With every new shot, Katkus attempts to suggest a level of distance between the audience and his characters and between father and son. Wide shots are most frequently deployed, which divide the frame either between the two poles of each character or between foreground and background, which the father and son alternate between, both working on the same process, yet seemingly being on two different planes. Katkus makes use of various frames within frames, whether through glass which provides a reflective surface that conjures the background of the scene, drawing attention away from the father and son, or through windows, which the son peers through while his father is outside, emphasizing the distance between the exterior and interior environment.
The emotional divide between them, their relationship having seemingly ossified over thirty years, is also reflected in their dialogue which never goes beyond meaningless small talk. While their staging within the frame reinforces this as well (as we typically view them with their backs turned, keeping the audience at an emotional arm’s length, with father and son rarely making eye contact), the only exception being the meal, the majority of which they spend looking at their plates anyway. In one particularly memorable shot, while cooling down in front of a fan, the father’s face is obscured by the leaves of a plant, suggesting the same imperceptibility for both the audience and the son.
What does eventually break the emotional insularity of these carefully manicured frames comes not from the visible image but from sound, as recorded over the aforementioned rap song (“O.P.P”) are the sounds of the son as a child, a memory conjured from the past, as he tenderly describes his love for his father, communicating what both men cannot seem to express both physically and verbally. Katkus is once again uninterested in ambiguity as he abruptly releases the repressed emotions of his film onto the viewer.
But perhaps the most poignant aspect of this scene is when the father declares, “They released it on the day you were born”, when talking about the song, ageing the audience as well, reconfiguring the dominant narrative that rap music is a distinctly modern art form and embedding it into our vast collective memory, promulgating the existence of “Dad Rap” if you will. Suggesting how much can change, not just interpersonally but culturally too, in the span of a lifetime.
Though the casting of the filmmaker and father as father and son seems to suggest an element of psychodrama within the film, their relationship is not portrayed in a manner of hyper-specificity but, in fact, holds a certain universality. In that sense, when read metaphorically, Katkus’ film can be viewed as immediate and shallow, yet its aesthetic qualities are hard to deny, such that even with a concluding shot that so unsubtly illustrates the insurmountable distance between father and son, you can still be swept up in the weightless beauty.
Much more than what he’s communicating thematically, he’s communicating aesthetically. Indeed, the medium is the message, but perhaps describing it as “the vibe” is more fitting. What we can most importantly glean is a potential path towards conceptualising a new way to portray the dominant feel and creative climate of our era by borrowing not just from cinema itself but the array of forms, disciplines, and tastemakers adjacent to the medium and affixed within the wider cultural sphere of aesthetics. Even if watching this ultimately makes you feel like buying a new pair of pants.