Love letters aren’t necessarily meant to be made public. There’s an intimacy between the lover and the beloved that can leave those who are not in the loop feeling like the third wheel, unsure of where they fit in the conversation.
Such was the case with Justin Nathanson’s Charleston: a love letter, which despite its frequently excellent cinematography and several glimpses of interesting human stories, felt for the most part like an extended, exclusive, and wordless exchange between Nathanson and his beloved city. The documentary, which Nathanson created from more than 100 hours of film shot around the city, consists of segments of shots that are generally pulled from one, or a few similar, scenes: surfers at Folly Beach, birds swarming above downtown, King Street shoppers, dance parties, etc. There is no narrative or apparent pattern to the shots, and the film is silent except for an outstanding score created by Entropy Ensemble’s Andrew Walker and performed by live musicians. Their music added some much-needed liveliness to the experience.
While many of Nathanson’s shots are beautiful — we do live in a beautiful city, after all — they seem repetitive and over-long, with four minutes of beach time when 30 seconds would do just as well. Long scenes at Lowcountry Local First’s Buy Local, Be Local breakfast and at the coffeehouse Hope and Union feel almost commercial in their smug admiration of the coolness on display. This unfortunate aspect of the film at times makes it difficult not to feel like you're watching someone show you how plugged in to the 21st century aesthetic they are. Now, to be clear, Charleston’s local, independent vibe is one of our favorite things about the city, and we love seeing local businesses get the attention they deserve. It’s not the intention, but the way it was communicated that we found difficult to swallow. It lent a Chamber of Commerce video feel to what was otherwise an artistically executed documentary.
The more exciting, unique aspects of the film are the moments when Nathanson manages to capture an intriguing human story that leaves you wanting to know more. There’s the waif-like girl shopping in a boutique on King Street, touching pretty items in an unself-consciously vulnerable way. There’s the lovely basket-weaver holding a conversation with an unseen person as her fingers continue weaving, seemingly of their own accord. And then there are the shots that are just fun to watch, like of a hula-hooping girl that was shot with a camera attached to the hula hoop, so it seems that the girl is rotating, while the hoop stays in the same place. Nathanson also caught some incredible footage of a flock of birds forming, breaking apart, and re-forming in an eerie display of group consciousness.
Charleston: a love letter is an ambitious, if self-indulgent piece of filmmaking, and Nathanson deserves wholehearted applause for undertaking a project like this. At its best, it reminds us of all the things we love about our city. But maybe this love letter could do with a bit of editing to make it more palatable to the public at large.