Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Quiet City

directed by Aaron Katz
USA, 2007, 78 minutes

"Mumblecore" is the new buzzword for independent films about twentysomething slackers - you know, the type people who hang out at Baltimore's Ottobar in nondescript t-shirts, tight jeans and hoodies - though some people also use it to describe films by John Cassavetes (aka "Slackavettes") and some brogue-heavy films from Scotland and the UK's Midlands. It's also sometimes called "bedhead cinema." According to Wikipedia, "Mumblecore is an American independent film movement that arose in the mid-2000's. It is primarily characterized by ultra-low budget production (often employing digital video cameras), focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors." Filmmakers in this genre include Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha), Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City) and Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs). In 2007, New York's Independepent Film Channel Center even presented a 10-film mumblecore series that it called "The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y." to address the phenomenon.

I recalled that Joe Swanberg's LOL (2006) and Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) were screened at last year's Maryland Film Festival, but other than that, I didn't know anything about the genre. So when my library received a copy of Aaron Katz's Quiet City, I took it home to check it out. Hand-held camera work in the beginning scene on the New York City subway gave me a moment's pause as I was afraid the entire movie would be one of those overdone herky-jerky handheld indie flicks that induce migraines. But I stuck it out, and I'm glad I did. This movie was really good. Like Seinfeld, it was about nothing, but most people's lives are about nothing. Isn't that why we watch reality TV and get high? We're looking for something to occupy our time.

The non-narrative narrative, according to IMDB, is this: "Jamie is 21. She's from Atlanta. She's come to Brooklyn to visit her friend Samantha, but she can't find her. Jamie tries calling, but Samantha's phone is dead. Jamie meets Charlie when she asks him for directions. Nothing to do and nothing but time leads them to bowls of coleslaw, footraces in the park, art shows, and after parties."

It sounds a lot like Richard Linkletter's Before Sunrise, except Katz's film never follows the "strangers meet and romance blooms" storyline. And, unlike Linkletter's carefully (and brilliantly) scripted Slacker, what the characters say is never profound or thought-provoking, instead being the kind of natural, often awkward and inarticulate, speech people use in everyday life. In fact, the two most frequently used words are "like" and "awesome." Not exactly David Mamet material. The two leads, Cris Lankenau (who is credited along with Aaron Katz as the film's script writer and who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Adolf Kowalski, lead singer in my old punk band Thee Katatonix) and Erin Fisher, just hang out. Even at the end, we're left to savor their time together and not see it turn into anything other than what it is. A moment. A brief connection. Maybe the two new friends will become lifelong friends. Maybe not.

Portait of the Artist as a Young Adolf: star Cris Lankenau

But there's a method to the nothingness here. Katz uses beautiful still shots of trees, parks, skylines, and the signature sunset at an airport to serve as placeholders linking the "hanging out" vignettes that make up the film's brisk 78-minute running time. This is probably a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese director who liked to use shots of static objects as transitions between scenes.

In between are the two leads who make the film the success it is. This film is all about casting - we like the leads and we want to follow them on their journey to wherever it is they're going in Mumblecore's Mecca, Brooklyn, NY. They don't emote. They don't go Method Actor on us. And they're not overly beautiful or overly plain; they're just plain ordinary. They walk and talk like us, going about their business, eating, drinking, sleeping, commuting. Making small talk and drinking wine out of coffee mugs. Just ordinary folks waiting for something interesting to happen. Just like real life.

FYI: Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau, director Aaron Katz and producers Brenden McFadden and Ben Stambler were all nominated for the John Cassevetes Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.

Related Links:
Quiet City (IMDB)

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