Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, with a screenplay by my old friend Charles Mudede, is a lovely and strangely disorienting film: too laid back and withdrawn to be mind-blowing, yet too jagged and disjunctive to be comforting. Despite its low budget, it was shot, not on digital video, but on 35mm film, in ultra-widescreen (though I only got to see it on DVD). Its Seattle settings — verdant, but diffusely lit under cloudy skies (I think they may have used filters as well to capture that muted Seattle lighting) — are so gorgeous that they actually made me nostalgic for Seattle, where I used to live (this is the first and only time I have felt this way, in the more than two years since I moved away from it). For Seattle is more than just a backdrop to Police Beat; it’s one of several superimposed layers whose juxtaposition drives the film.
The setting — semi-bucolic Seattle — is the first (or deepest) layer. Next, or above that, comes the series of bizarre crimes and incidents (mostly taken from actual Seattle Police reports, via Mudede’s “Police Beat” column in The Stranger). Three dudes are drinking and playing with a pistol, and one of them manages to blow his head off. A man is trimming a large hedge, and discovers a street person asleep inside. A woman complains of an assault, but the assailant turns out to be a dead tree. A man bursts into a woman’s house, masturbates in front of her pet, caged bird, then leaves without uttering a word. A man stands in his front yard sharpening his machete, which a neighbor finds threatening. And so on. This all might sound like we are entering David Lynch territory; but the incidents are so underplayed, often in dispassionate long shots that distance us from the action, that they come off seeming everyday and humdrum.
The third and top layer is the story of Z (Pape Sidy Niang), the Seattle Police officer who comes upon most of the aforementioned incidents. Z is an immigrant from Senegal, working as a uniformed bicycle cop, and yearning for promotion to a squad car. Like the camera, he only reacts dispassionately, and without much engagement, to the scenarios he comes across — he doesn’t even seem to regard them as particularly strange. Instead, he obsesses endlessly over his relationship with his girlfriend, who has gone out of town on a supposed camping trip with another man. Though there are occasional flashbacks to the girlfriend, or brief scenes in which Z imagines what she is doing, mostly this obsession is conveyed through Z’s voiceover narration, spoken largely in Wolof, his native language, with English subtitles. Niang, a professional soccer player with no previous acting experience, has a powerfully charismatic onscreen presence. This is appropriate, because Z, caught in obsession, is unable to do very much in the course of the story; he is just there to be looked at, and to be listened to. His inner monologue turns and turns around, and goes nowhere — as is always the case with romantic obsession, all the more when the love object is absent.
What makes the film work, and gives it its strange beauty, is the juxtaposition of these three layers — I was going to write “interaction”, except that the point is precisely that the layers do not interact, or redound upon, one another. They are co-present, but incapable of affecting one another. Z doesn’t see the crimes he comes upon as metaphorically related to his romantic despair (though if we wish, we are of course free to read them this way); they are just chores he has to muddle through while his mind is elsewhere. And the sordid and somewhat ridiculous Seattle whose social dysfunction is revealed through these bizarre events is only arbitrarily related to the gorgeousness of the physical city and its natural backdrop. For his part, Z doesn’t seem to notice, much less comment upon, the scenery through which he rides his bicycle, and within which he confronts or comforts people; his body may be objectified for us (the viewers) as part of that landscape, but his consciousness, his subjectivity, is elsewhere. What I am calling the film’s three layers work together precisely by the fact that they have no links, nothing in common from one to another. Their mutual non-relation, their incessant simultaneity and disjunction, is the real subject of the film. This non-relation is what Deleuze and Guattari call a “disjunctive synthesis,” the collocation of nonlocalizable connections, elements “holding together only by the absence of a link”, inextricably co-present without being related to one another — which, they point out, is how Lacan and his followers define the ultimate elements of the unconscious, and also how Spinoza and Leibniz define the ultimate attributes of the one real Substance (Anti-Oedipus 309).
Police Beat works primarily on an affective level. By this I do not mean subjective expression — since the whole point is that Z’s subjectivity, expressed in voiceover, and for the most part in a tongue that will be foreign to most viewers of the film, is continually accompanied and shadowed by visuals that do not echo it or even refer to it. The film is often comic, and its emotional tone is primarily quite cool. But the film’s very distance — or perhaps I should say the space it creates between the three planes it presents to us — is itself equivalent to a kind of free-floating, not-quite-subjective affective tone. It is rooted in space (in the specificity of the Seattle landscape, in the particularity of the grotesque and unlikely crimes depicted, and in the narrowness of Z’s longings and obsessions), but also mobile and unanchored. This affective tone is a postmodern intensity: too muted to be called anxiety, too formless and all-embracing to be called alienation (since there is nothing left to be alienated from), but nonetheless undefinably uneasy and edgy (Z’s onscreen calmness, stolidity even, doesn’t detract from or hide, but actively expresses, the sense of being adrift that we get from his voiceover).