Back in 2011, Jamie Stuart had an improbable hit on his hands with Idiot with a Tripod, a Dziga Vertov–inspired three-and-a-half-minute reverie he shot on a whim one night during a blizzard that slammed the East Coast that month. When Roger Ebert wrote a rave review, his film became a viral sensation, and Stuart found himself giving interviews to local, national, and even international television programs. Over the past seven years, Idiot with a Tripod has been seen by more than a million people.
Stuart actually caught my attention well before Idiot with a series of oddly endearing videos he made for Filmmaker Magazine starting in 2007 during the Sundance and New York Film Festivals that were impossible to classify, something of a cross between a report, an essay, and a personal diary. While he’s continued his work as a DP and editor, we haven’t seen his work as a filmmaker for a while—until now. A Motion Selfie, his debut feature, is a wryly comic portrait of a lone and lonely filmmaker that blends the realities of New York with flights of fancy. Stuart released it last week on Vimeo, and it’s such a unique piece of work that it deserves a closer look.
What’s initially striking about A Motion Selfie is the editing. Consider this: The average number of shots in a feature film released between 1997 and 2016 is 1,045, according to Stephen Follows, a film industry data researcher. Romantic comedies had fewer (just under 900), while action movies averaged around 1,900. Anyone who’s sat through all two and a half hours of Michael Bay’s 2009 glut fest Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will have seen 2,503 distinct shots. Running at ninety minutes, A Motion Selfie is composed of around 3,600 shots—and it’s a testament to Stuart’s skill as a filmmaker that it never comes off as if it’s trying to blitz the viewer into submission.
As with Idiot, Stuart is the sole crew member behind A Motion Selfie, essentially a silent movie that borrows just a few tropes from that classic era to tell a contemporary tale of a life lived just one notch above the poverty line. Playing a version of himself, he becomes something of a twenty-first century Little Tramp. The story begins four years after the media spotlight has dimmed. Jamie is alone, washed up, in debt, abandoned by his girlfriend, and hounded online by an abusive film critic (played with relish by Glenn Kenny, now a regular reviewer for the New York Times). Wringing his somewhat goofy getup and demeanor for comic effect, Stuart cranks up the rhythms of silent classics and sets them to the beats and clicks of a score that Stuart has, of course, composed and performed himself.
And there are gags, some of them golden oldies—a woman takes a drag from her cigarette and kisses Jamie, who then exhales a plume of smoke—and others that are fresh and of the moment: A close-up of a cursor hitting “Send” on a message cuts to a flushing toilet. Moments like these punch up a narrative that sputters and stalls at times before gaining traction at about the halfway point when a buffoonish stalker becomes a genuine threat. But even during the lulls, there’s no sequence that isn’t at least interesting. Without dwelling on a scene, Stuart somehow manages to explore it, splicing in beautifully composed and photographed details or long shots that establish a mood, a sense of place, the hour of the day, or the changing of the season.
In this video posted earlier this year in the run-up to last week’s release of A Motion Selfie, Stuart discusses the evolution of his personal style: