A Friend at the End of the World: The Key to Common Structure

What would you do if it was your last day on earth? Would you spend it with your best friend? In Bill Kirstein and Anne Hollowday’s short film Common Structure, two young girls find themselves at the crossroads of free-spiritedness and fear, as a foreboding sign of the end of days hangs over their wilderness excursion. It’s a dreamlike haze of an experience, punctuated by fragmented memories and almost no exposition other than the presented friendship between the girls and what appears to be a looming, existential threat. The film plays like a half-remembered dream – maybe that’s what it really is.

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The girls, nameless, spend what appears to be a day and a night in the woods, speaking in vague poeticisms and thoroughly embracing one another’s company. There’s a strong sense that the bond between the two girls runs both deep and fierce, even hinting at a romantic aspect to the platonic friendship, but never letting on much more than what we can simply infer. As the girls step precariously towards the edge of a cliff for an adrenaline rush, they glance at a black, circular mass hanging amongst the clouds – like a solar eclipse pulsating in the sky, huge beams of light emanating from all its curves. One of the girls wonders if it’s getting closer, and then the matter is dropped entirely, never revisited again in the film’s eight-minute runtime.

It’s a loose plot with very minimal structure – simply allowing us to revel in the relationship between the girls and this exact moment that they’re spending with each other. The girls feel, all at once, very present, as if the past is no longer consequential and the bleak future has yet to run parallel to them. In this moment, nothing else matters to them except each other, and the dread imbued in the undercurrent of the film from the apocalyptic orb is almost as much of an afterthought for us as it seems to be for them. Why should we find ourselves worrying about what is clearly not the focus of this story?

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Common Structure ends on a note that makes the word “ambiguous” feel slight, as text appears across the screen indicating that this film is only part one of an ongoing story. There is an added implication of something quite sinister at hand as things draw to a close, but with how vague the events have been portrayed, it’s hard to know for sure if what we’ve seen is really how it all appears. “A few people told us that Common Structure lacked that exposition, of course,” said director Anne Hollowday. “But those people didn’t get what we were trying to do.” It’s true, that this is all intentional on part of duo directing team comprised of Hollowday and Bill Kirstein, both of whom were committed to creating a film hinged on emotions and feelings as opposed to a color-by-numbers path to clear resolution. “It's often boring to just explain things or talk at people,” Kirstein explained. “In the film, we tried to go straight to the emotion and just give you clues about what's going on.”

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Both Hollowday and Kirstein are accomplished, award-winning filmmakers: both based in New York City, their respective work ranges from commercials and branded content to documentaries, narratives, and music videos, and they’ve had their art featured in the likes of SXSW, Atlanta Film Festival, and Berlinale. Though their individual talents are quite clear, their collaboration on Common Structure feels effortless, and this is not a product of happenstance. “This was an idea that Anne and I got really excited about,” says Kirstein. “It started off almost casually because of that excitement. The feeling of wanting to do an experiment with film and try some things that neither of us had done before. The collaboration was great because Anne thinks extremely visually.”

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For Hollowday, the inspiration came from a short story she read as a teenager that had four possible endings to choose from. “I deliberated over which one to choose for a while, made my choice and read it. Naturally, afterward, I wanted to read the other three. Even after I did that, I felt underwhelmed and a little disappointed. You might think you want to know everything about what happens next, but when you do, you’re never satisfied and always want more. There’s no beauty in that.” Thus, the beauty of Common Structure derives from its images, feelings, and a constant sense of mystery; the film keeps you mostly in the dark, and instead of leaving you unfulfilled, you only want to find out more. It’s gifted with an immense amount of restraint that feels quite commendable, when it often seems like many films would rather make sure exposition is laid out clearly for an audience. As Kirstein explained: “Sometimes we want to be told everything, but sometimes it's fun to become a participant in the storytelling, and I think that's the case with this film.” 

The film was shot over the course of four days in the Catskills region, and all began with a “conversation about the sublime.” Both Anne and Bill “had a preoccupation with those moments where life feels so immersive, like time is somehow suspended and yet every detail is hyper magnified. We observed that life often gets in the way and prevents us from doing things we want to do. Somehow years pass and doors close and we haven’t even realized. We forget. And we forget the emotion of these things because we don’t do them anymore.” Anne wrote a treatment to convey the sense of style and tone she intended for the film, and then she and Bill wrote the script together. Bill “couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.”

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Both filmmakers have proclivities towards different themes and ideas in their past work, which all melds together as one to inform Common Structure. For Anne, it’s bending our notions about gender, for Bill it’s an exploration of real and unreal; both come through in the perplexing nature of the girls’ true relationship in the film, and the seamless interweaving of light sci-fi into the realistic setting. Similarly, the pair believes these themes only make their film come off as more genuine. “I think it adds to the narrative and in some ways is more realistic,” says Bill. “Walking around New York City, I feel more and more like we're living in a William Gibson or Phillip K. Dick novel every day. When the world changes before your eyes and becomes what we used to think of as sci-fi, it makes sense to consider incorporating that into your art.” As for Anne, the murky circumstances of the girls’ relationship are akin to the grey areas of real human connections. “We’re confounding, complex beings and I think any character that isn’t open to that can’t ever feel authentic.”

In the end, only time can tell what fate lies for the girls of Common Structure, but Anne and Bill are immensely satisfied with what they’ve accomplished thus far. As Bill explains: “I'm most proud of the sense of momentum that I feel like we get towards the end of the film. The way we captured the sensation of a resolute new beginning paired with the nostalgia that often accompanies change.” For Anne, it’s that the two of them made something that felt true to them. Indeed, Common Structure bears the mark of two deeply devoted artists, and whether or not future installments of the story lay bare what’s lurking below the surface, it’s a joy to go for a ride with a film so intent on keeping us guessing.

 
 

Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs) is a freelance film journalist based in the Philadelphia suburbs. She's a staff writer for Screen Queens with bylines in Bloody Disgusting, Film School Rejects, Vague Visages, and more.