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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

The Glass (2021) directed by Tom Van Scoyoc - "Community Short" Award at The Montauk Film Festival

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

At the 3rd annual Montauk Film Festival on July 26th, I attended the director's panel and screenings of four films: Cracked, Wasted Talent, The Glass, and Queens of Pain. The following is a review of my favorite short from the festival: The Glass (2021) written and directed by Tom Van Scoyoc, starring Matthew Courson, Rosie Dean, Jes Davis, Taylor Petracek, and Phoebe Holden. Afterwards, I had an interview with Scoyoc where we discussed his influences Krzysztof Kieślowski and Edward Yang, the history of Sag Harbor, and his life as a filmmaker.

This 20 minute narrative short follows the coming-of-age story of Del, the son of a Sag Harbor boating family displaced by condo developers and the changing sea levels of Long Island. The film begins as a visual poem to the sea. Scoyoc and DP Sachi Bahra’s photography is meditative and moody with frames of the rippled water near Havens Beach, the dwindling light, and the lines and mast of a sailboat. It’s no surprise Scoyoc lists Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life, Thin Red Line) and his environmental formalism as an influence. Scoyoc is very attuned to the natural landscape of his hometown; when he’s not making a movie, he’s building a boat in his garage.

Soon the theme of gentrification is explored via vignettes of seasonal residents of Long Island from the city who fail to connect with the history or natural landscape (the nautical poetry of “the glass”) and merely exploit the town as their summer destination, an enclave of The Hamptons. But not all these city people are villains; Del and his friend meet two girls from the city who show an unfamiliar sensitivity to them and their world. Eliza resents the posh attitudes of her fellow Hamptonites as much as Del and aspires to be a teacher who can help improve the world.

Del and Eliza begin a summer romance, shot vividly in 16 and 35mm film in golden hour lighting on the beach and during a night stroll through Sag Harbor’s main street. The neon red Sag Harbor Cinema marquee has the hazy grain and rich color that only celluloid film can capture. It is an extremely atmospheric and weighty long take. Here, another of Scoyoc’s influences rears his head; the low-key lighting accentuating shadows and high contrast with saturated warm colors is reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai’s (In the Mood For Love, Chungking Express) pyrotechnics. Beginning his career as an AC (assistant camera) in Brooklyn, Scoyoc tells me he likes using the constraints of film as a directing tool. The amount of time and pressure in a take adds a heightened importance that is entirely lost when shooting on digital.

Scoyoc began with these small moments in the writing process like Eliza climbing onto the boat at sunrise or the kiss in front of the cinema and later strung them together with a character dilemma to create The Glass. “A person’s life is a collection of events that begin before and after the film, so I like movies that are not these big life changing events but the small moments of solitude.”

Yet what inspired Scoyoc the most were the social and environmental changes sculpting his hometown. “One summer I came home to pure shock about how much Sag Harbor had changed” he told me. “‘I need to make a movie about this,’ I thought. It did feel urgent. I wrote the first draft of the film a month before we shot it.” Scoyoc went on to give me a social history of the area. In the last century on Long Island, the tradition of fishermen living off the land has been in steady decline. This trend of the erasure of local fishing communities was explored by another film at the festival this year, Darby Duffin and Adam Jones’ Fish & Men, which shows how consumer tastes, commercial trawling, and local regulations have rendered the angler lifestyle nearly impossible.

Gentrification of the town’s racially integrated communities is another troubling trend. Like Colson Whitehead’s 2009 novel Sag Harbor explores, the seaside town was once occupied by a robust black middle class in the 20th Century, following a string of 1930s and 40s black pathfinders like the Terrys and the Pickens (the Pickens hosted poet Langston Hughes in 1952 who famously wrote poetry in Sag Harbor). Developers have increasingly seen Sag Harbor, as opposed to the more heavily saturated markets like Southampton, as a cash cow, in turn leading to higher real estate prices. “I definitely wanted to make a movie about climate change and gentrification, but didn’t want to make a movie just about those concepts because they’re too big to tackle,” said Scoyoc.

Scoyoc's shipbuilding is another hobby that appreciates the local history. He tells me that most oystering and clamming techniques were taught to settlers in Long Island by Native Americans.

For the first hundred years of colonization, everyone was still using the boats the Shinnecocks and Montauketts invented. These white pine log canoes had impressive carrying capacity and could hold bushels of oysters. Once the Industrial Revolution kicked in, the large white pines became scarce because people were using them for housing construction and the masts of ships. As a result, many of the working class fishermen could no longer build boats. Around the same time, Scoyoc says, sawmills started to pop up and the design of the “sharpie,” the first original American boat design, arrived. They were cheap to build and became the de facto watercraft. Learning all of this history, Scoyoc wanted to preserve it by making his boat and by making the film.

Along with his appreciation of local history and 35mm film, Scoyoc is an example of a young filmmaker scraping things together to achieve his vision. He tells me that although he knew he wanted to shoot the short on 16 and 35mm, he knew it would be expensive. Yet he was able to save money by acquiring short ends from other projects he worked on as an AC to shoot more than half of The Glass (short ends are the last 100 feet or so of a roll of film that is put into a can when a project is finished). As a young filmmaker myself, I see many of my peers clinging to excuses about why they couldn’t achieve the look or sound they wanted from their short. Scoyoc made it work.

One element of the film that I thought lacked the nuance that characterized the rest of the story was the portrayal of the “cidiots” or the insufferable people from the city who value money over common courtesy. While this archetype certainly exists, their representation seemed cartoonish and flat at times. “I don’t care if the car is $600, get her out here by helicopter if you have to,” a woman in a flouncing sunhat yells into her phone on the beach. No doubt this person exists somewhere, but perhaps a more complex portrayal could have grounded the scene closer to reality or even offered some troubling dimensionality to the “cidiot” archetype: why would such a person act this way?

Otherwise, The Glass was a memorable and pensive short that captures the natural beauty of Sag Harbor and the insensitivity of those who abuse it. Leads Matthew Courson and Rosie Dean delivered two strong, emotionally nuanced performances about the very delicate period before entering adulthood when the whole world seems to shift beneath one’s feet, just as the changing climate alters the future of the East End. 4/5 stars.

This piece was originally published on Nest by Tamara, an interior design and lifestyle journal. The 3rd Annual Montauk Film Festival was held Saturday, July 23rd to Sunday, July 31st in Montauk, Long Island at various venues. Visit here to learn more.

Miles Stephenson

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