By rejecting creativity in its vision, it becomes a superficial film that does neither itself nor its subject justice.
The Color of Time
The story of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, The Color of Time is told through a series of flashbacks, voiced over at times by the poet’s own works read aloud by James Franco, who also stars in the film. Walking us through various elements of Williams’ life in no particular order, the film attempts to slowly unravel his existence into a series of experiences that not only inspired his poetry, but combined to make his work a visceral reflection of life as he knew it. Yet problematically, the film fails to do so in a way that delves into who Williams was as an individual, instead allowing his story to blend into the commonly held, stereotypical understanding of troubled young men becoming troubled old poets.
Written and directed by twelve students from Franco’s class at NYU, The Color of Time is a film for students; its heavily filtered aesthetic and non-linear structure will appeal far more to the artistic undergraduate than the average cinema-goer. This is not merely the result of a film that is too intellectual or abstract to appeal to a mainstream audience, but rather a fundamental flaw in the established style that has been liberally applied to the entire piece. While on the one hand it is commendable that a film created by twelve individuals is so cohesive, on the other it could certainly be argued that this is simply a uniformity born of a lack of originality. Indeed, the film is clearly inspired by the picturesque beauty of Terrence Malick films, down to the sepia-toned fields of long grass. In allowing the film to be thus influenced to the point of detraction from its core subject, the filmmakers make sure that though it may be a beautiful imitation, it will never stand out. Rather than remaining honest to the needs of the story, the different aspects of Williams’ life have been manipulated to fit a stereotypical understanding of how such biopics tend to go.
Jessica Chastain also stars in the film, but appears to essentially be reprising her role from The Tree of Life; she performs admirably, but even this does not distract from the knowledge that we have seen this character before. There is only one point at which the film seems to truly break out of its self-imposed shell, and this comes through the portrayal of a drug-induced stupor that Franco, as a young Williams, finds himself in. It is, ironically, a breath of fresh air – a reminder that the film does in fact have some creative minds behind it. Yet just as we come to hope that the film might continue to break away in such a fashion, it snaps back to what the filmmakers have no doubt decided is the “tried and true” method.
The biggest problem with all of this, however, is not simply audience exasperation, but in fact the disservice it does to Williams’ poetry. Poetry as an art demands a personal reaction: an interpretation through which it can become a powerful force in our own lives. Few would expect that film could be the medium to reduce it to little more than a series of platitudes set to melancholic piano music. Perhaps the poignancy lies only in the poetry, and not in the film—an implication only made further apparent by the lingering feeling that The Color of Time should have been far more thought-provoking than it was. Though Franco seems to have attracted other stars to the project, including Mila Kunis as his wife, and Zach Braff, they are all evidently underused, functioning as fleeting moments in Williams’ life and with no real identities of their own.
Biopics, regardless of how artistic or loosely interpreted they are, are stories about people—namely, real people. The Color of Time is not a story about people, but a story about what we expect certain people to have been. Masquerading under the honesty of Williams’ poetry, it is a confirmation of our assumptions, and a pretense of profundity. By rejecting creativity in its vision, it becomes, at its core, a superficial film that–though visually appealing—does neither itself nor its subject justice.