July 22, 2005
Forest Grove is a haunting, beautifully shot Web narrative based on John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer.” You might want to watch it before you read the rest of this, ‘cause I think it might help to be a little bit unspoiled. (Warning: When I say “Web narrative” I don’t mean it’s some frothy little 8-minute distraction. Forest Grove runs about 45 minutes altogether.)
Funded by grants from the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council for the Arts, Maya Churi hired an architect to create the large wooden model of a gated community that serves as the set for the piece. The characters are all played by unpolished, amorphous clay characters.
I think it makes the film feel more evocative than if it had depicted live actors on a set. Its clear phoniness mimics this particular reality (people in the suburbs) better than a more “real” depiction probably would. The eerie, handcrafted perfection of the model seems very, very suburban. In fact, the exact same too-perfect audio clip of birds twittering and the vague, distant splashing of water introduces almost all the opening scenes.
And although I couldn’t immediately make out from the characters’ shapes whether they were supposed to be male or female (made worse — better? — by the fact that one woman voices almost all the characters), their actions and emotions seemed very recognizably human. The imperfection of their physical forms only reinforces the theme of the piece, that the suburbs’ outward perfection hides the ugly human realities. So at one point, when the clay model of an elderly woman is replaced by footage of a real elderly woman talking about her ailness, it doesn’t feel jarring.