The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Best Indpendent Films of 2011

Although the overall quality of this past year’s independent films remained strong, most still had difficulty finding an audience. Of the films on my list, Martha Marcy May Marlene grossed the highest amount, at nearly $3 million; Take Shelter and The Future made less than their budgets.

Todd Solondz claims his films don’t make money any more and is struggling to release his latest effort, Dark Horse, while Hal Hartley is looking to raise funding on Kickstarter. Even Spike Lee got tired of waiting to find financing for his latest commercial film, and wound up self-financing it. Everyone keeps talking about new distribution models, but let’s face it: the theaters are, for the most part, empty when independent films actually do have theatrical runs. DVD appears to have died as well, as we know from the fiasco involving Netflix. I believe that only 6 of the 10 films on my list played in my home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

No matter how cheap films are to make these days, filmmakers can’t continue to lose money. VOD doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Ti West literally wrote a letter to fans begging them not to pirate his latest release, The Innkeepers. He claims he hasn’t made any money from his films. Joe Swanberg seems to have found a viable model, but it appears to involve sheer quantity. Frank V. Ross, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire (Hohokam, 2007 and Audrey the Trainwreck, 2010) told me he doesn’t ever expect to realize any return on his films.

On a personal level, I’ve struggled to keep up with this blog because I’ve been consumed with completing my latest book, The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012), which has taken up so much of my time. It’s due out this spring. Publishing, however, isn’t all that different from making movies these days. Unless you’re a celebrity author, you can’t expect to get rich on book sales, especially writing academic books.

I saw a number of inspiring films from outside the USA: Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Certified Copy, to name a few, but I also missed a number of important films that I hope to see shortly. Ironically, I saw some terrific American indie films this past year that I can’t include them because they didn’t have a theatrical opening: Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever, Sophia Takal’s Green, Gregory Kohn’s Northeast, and Mark Jackson’s Without. I’ve written about four of the five already. I saw Alex Ross Perry’s film at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April, and intend to write about it at some point this year.

To be honest, it’s difficult to write blogs about films that many folks simply haven’t seen, but I remain committed to doing so if it can bring more attention to independent work. I have to say that no blogger has been more supportive of my efforts than Mike Everleth at Bad Lit, whose site I consider essential reading for anyone interested in alternative film.

If there was one major theme that emerged this year, it was the feeling that the end of the world is imminent. Melancholia might serve as the model, but Take Shelter, The Future, and Bellflower share the same vision of impending doom.

I saw Meek’s Cutoff twice when it played to the New York Film Festival in October of 2010. I found myself driving to the theater when it played here in town many months later. I felt under a spell like in a Miranda July film. Once the first image appeared, however, I suddenly understood why I was there. It was without a doubt my favorite film of the year. Jon Raymond, the film’s gifted screenwriter, has a new novel coming out this spring, entitled Rain Dragon. Jon (who co-wrote the screenplays for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy as well) is a terrific writer. I strongly recommend that you order his book. It’s already listed on Amazon.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2011:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
  2. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
  3. The Future (Miranda July)
  4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
  5. Bellflower (Evan Glodell)
  6. Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield)
  7. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)
  8. Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter)
  9. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)
  10. The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal)

Two of the filmmakers on my list have been included in this year’s upcoming Whitney Biennial: Kelly Reichardt and Matthew Porterfield. I try never to miss a Whitney Biennial, if at all possible.

There were many extraordinary performances this year: Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Jacob Wysocki (Terri), Robert Longstreet (The Catechism Cataclysm), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff), and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). Austin Vickers (Jess + Moss) is a natural. For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009” as well as “The Best Indie Films of 2008.

For the record, I always post my list in February.

Posted 24 February, 2012

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) established his career as one of the best young independent American directors. Quiet City abandoned a written screenplay in favor of structured improvisation, allowing his actors – Cris Lankenau and Jamie Fisher – to improvise their scenes to the point where they shared screenwriting credit with the director. What serves to distinguish Katz’s films from those of his peers who employ similar strategies are strong formal concerns – his films are visually striking in ways that the work of certain other filmmakers simply aren’t. Memphis-based filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who made Team Picture (2007) and Open Five (2010), for instance, recently told an interviewer: “I try to be visually tame . . .  But I’m basically of the opinion that style is the easy part, and I always resist doing the easy thing.” Yet Katz’s films benefit precisely from the tension that arises between a casual approach to structure and working with actors and a more rigorous visual style. This holds true for his absorbing new film Cold Weather, a mystery set in his home town of Portland, Oregon.

Expectations ran high when, working on a larger budget (reportedly low six figures) after micro-budgets, Katz turned his attention to genre. We all remember what happened when David Gordon Green, who, like Katz, also graduated from the film program at North Carolina School of the Arts, tried to be more commercial by making Undertow (2004). After the brilliance of the character-based George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), the genre elements in Undertow wound up seeming fairly contrived. Katz’s Cold Weather, on the other hand, manages to have fun with genre without getting too wrapped up in audience expectations of what needs to happen. Rather than an Agatha Christie-type mystery, Cold Weather might better be described as a slacker mystery, as epitomized by a stakeout scene in which the film’s protagonist, Doug, his co-worker, and then his sister sit in a car and eat “Swedish Fish” for several minutes. Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope talks about the film having “a crackling plot,” but, for me, Cold Weather uses plot merely as an opportunity to delve deeper into his characters.

Cold Weather begins with a shot of a rain splattered windowpane with the background out of focus, followed by a buoyant original score by Keegan DeWitt. The focus changes to reveal the courtyard of an apartment building, as a light rain falls. Doug (Cris Lankenau) enters carrying a large package. The shot cuts to Doug, a forensic science dropout, and his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), preparing a meal. There appears to be an awkward tension during dinner with their parents. Lankenau, looking scruffy and in need of a shave, proves that his endearing performance in Quiet City wasn’t a fluke. His self-deprecating demeanor once again gives him a certain charm. Lankenau has a way of breaking up his thoughts into discrete units, as if they comprise pieces of a puzzle. In response to his stepfather’s question how long he worked at an internship at a restaurant, he responds: “Two months. Like twenty hours a week . . . I mean I could have kept going, but I kind of quit . . . because . . . I didn’t get paid. And I started getting bored.” Doug discusses buying a coffee table – the large package we initially see him carrying. He tells his parents: “I’m assembling it. It’s coming right along . . . and by coming right along, I mean, not at all.”

The dialogue in Cold Weather involves excess verbiage; assertions end in negations. In the next scene, the camera focuses on a door that changes from yellow to cream color as Gail turns off the light and addresses Doug, who’s reading a book.

GAIL: All right. I’m going to go to bed now.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG (sing song): Good night.
GAIL: You gonna go to bed soon?
DOUG: I don’t know. I’m not really tired.
GAIL: It weird you’re never tired.
DOUG: I’m tired in the morning.
GAIL: Yeah . . . me too. (After a very long pause) All right, I’m going to bed.
DOUG: Okay.
GAIL: Good night.
DOUG: Good night.

Screenwriting professors no doubt would flag the above dialogue as “chitchat,” but, as the scene indicates, we’re in the realm of naturalism. Between Gail’s first line and Doug’s last, the redundancy of their sentences merely attempts to fill up empty space between them, in a similar manner to Katz’s pans back and forth between the two characters. Gail’s pregnant pause indicates her concern for Doug, who is crashing with her. The next day he persuades her to skip out of work to go “whale watching” with him. The trip up the coast serves no narrative function other than to provide a sense of the Oregon landscape.

Doug’s takes a job at the ice factory, which provides Katz and his talented cinematographer Andrew Reed (using a RED camera) with an opportunity to explore an assembly line where bags of ice are produced. Doug meets a DJ co-worker, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), with whom he becomes fast friends, and at roughly fifteen minutes, he meets his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), at a coffee shop after she turns up unexpectedly from Chicago. She asks, “How’s living with your sister?” Rachel presses, “You like it more than living with me?” Surprisingly, he equivocates: “I don’t know, maybe not.”

The two guys and two women get together to play cards, which is followed by a montage that includes a spectacular shot: the camera slowly zooms in on Doug and Rachel as they stand on a bridge that overlooks a breathtaking waterfall. Carlos and Rachel attend a Star Trek convention together. Soon afterward, Carlos shows up at Doug’s apartment, informing him that Rachel never turned up at a club where she was supposed to meet him and is now missing. Carlos implores Doug to accompany him in investigating because he knows about “mysteries.” That may be true, but it’s Carlos who functions as the catalyst, while the more apathetic Doug gets dragged into getting involved.

I’ve gone into the film’s setup at some length, but I’ll not divulge the details of the mystery even though, on some level, the intricacies involving Rachel’s disappearance serve other purposes. As Doug attempts to solve the mystery, he and Gail grow closer together. Katz doesn’t poke fun at genre conventions; he takes them seriously despite having another agenda. There’s a hilarious cameo by Brendan McFadden (one of Katz’s collaborators) as Gail’s date, Swen. Katz’s other major collaborator, Ben Stambler, plays the hotel clerk, who gives knowing glances when Doug and Carlos rent a room together at Rachel’s motel. Another humorous exchange occurs later when Doug helps Gail navigate a porn site. She remarks, “You seem pretty familiar with how this kind of site works.” Doug’s response is a cold stare.

A Sherlock Holmes fan, Doug buys a cheap pipe to help him “think,” but we suspect the prop allows him to play the role better – even though he’s more like Frank or Joe Hardy than Holmes. The camera tracks through aisles of a grocery store and then the stacks of books in a library, creating a playful connection. Baseball figures prominently in the mystery, even though Doug obviously can’t hit a ball when he visits a batting cage, and Gail butchers the pronunciation of the name of ex-Yankee Clete Boyer. Late in the film, Doug follows a suspect into a building, where Reed’s slow zoom down a corridor is reminiscent of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity. Earlier, the exterior of the motel has a lime-colored cast, while one of the occupied rooms is lit with a yellow filter. There’s also a memorable shot of Doug climbing stairs of a train overpass as the sun flares directly into the lens, illuminating both Doug and the structure with an intense reddish orange glow. One of the major strengths of Cold Weather is its extraordinary attention to visual details (which, I’d argue, is hardly the “easy part” of making a film).

As Katz points out, there are other films about brother and sister relationships, namely You Can Count on Me (2000) and The Savages (2007), but the relationships in those films are far more contentious. Cold Weather on the other hand, explores the subtle yet powerful impact that siblings, such as Gail and Doug, can have one another. Katz told Nayman: “I’m interested in the idea of siblinghood as a kind of co-dependency, at once very intimate and oddly removed – like when she tells him she had a boyfriend for six months and he has no idea.” Katz is exploring that odd sense of comfort that siblings often share from having grown up together, even though he adeptly buries the motivation of his characters. We never learn anything about Doug’s past relationship with Rachel or why they broke up. Doug seems unfazed by Rachel’s return, yet his dropping out of school and lack of direction might stem from the end of their relationship. Doug and Gail appear at ease with each other, but that’s not necessarily true of their own love relationships, which they each have greater difficulty navigating.

With Cold Weather, Aaron Katz has managed to achieve something very difficult, namely he’s made three terrific low-budget films in the past four years. Some months ago, I wrote a blog about the overemphasis on social networking as marketing tools for indie films. Katz weighed in on this subject in an interview in Filmmaker. He told Scott Macaulay: “The best thing, I think, is to make a film you feel proud of and then find an audience. But I’m for anything that can get people to see a movie. It’s when [these tools] become the dominant things, it sometimes feels they are not in service of the movies.” In this sense, Katz has his priorities straight.

Cold Weather is being distributed by IFC. The film premiered at South by Southwest and has been playing the festival circuit, but I’ve been waiting for it to surface theatrically. Cold Weather is now expected to open in February.

Posted 12 December, 2010

Dance Party, USA

I’ve already written about Aaron Katz’s terrific second feature, Quiet City (2007) previously, but I finally had a chance to catch up with his debut effort, Dance Party, USA (2006). Both films have been released recently on DVD in a two-disc set from indie distributor, Benten Films, confirming my belief that the most intriguing films out there aren’t necessarily playing at the local multiplex.

The two films – Quiet City and Dance Party, USA – are remarkably different in tone. Although Quiet City is a potentially uplifting love story, Dance Party, USA is an incredibly dark and disturbing portrait of teenage relationships. Dance Party, USA begins with the aftermath of a beer bash, as Jessica walks through a house the next morning, which is followed by large credits set against patriotic red, white, and blue backgrounds. Following moving car shots of Portland, two teenagers converse while riding on light rail transit. Gus (Cole Pennsinger) tells his friend Bill (Ryan White) a crude misogynous story about one of his sexual escapades, but also reveals that the girl, named Kate, is only fourteen. This freaks out Bill, who dismisses the story as bullshit. The conversation switches to the upcoming Fourth of July party. When Bill asks Gus about his ex-girlfriend Christie and it becomes apparent that he’s interested in her, Gus encourages Bill to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, as they walk in an industrial section of town, Christie (Sarah Bing) discusses Gus with her friend Jessica (Anna Cavan), who hasn’t had much luck lately on the romantic front. Christie confides her ambivalent and conflicted feelings about the relationship with Gus. As rap music plays, the camera moves through the party, before settling on a phallic beer bottle resting on Gus’s crotch, as he converses with Bill, who’s waiting for Christie to show up. It takes a matter of minutes for Gus to get a bored female party-goer into bed. Her post-coital dissatisfaction is obvious not only from her body language, but from the brick pillar that divides the frame in two, as she lies in bed, while Gus gets dressed.

A guy hits on Jessica at the party with a promise of killer weed, but she’s not interested, especially once she figures out that he’s the older brother of someone she knew in fourth grade. Katz has a great ear for naturalistic dialogue:

GUS: Where you been?
GUY: I’ve been all over. I was driving all over the place.
GUS: Cool.
GUY: You ever been in Nebraska?
GUS: No.
GUY: Well, you know how like when you think of Nebraska, you can’t really think of anything that’s there?
GUS: Yeah.
GUY: Well, there’s actually a lot of stuff there.
GUS: That’s pretty cool. So what are you doing here?
GUY: I don’t know. I guess . . . I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I ran out of money, and I’m back. I had this job in Texas, but . . . fuck . . . I didn’t want to stay there.

What’s also interesting in this scene is Gus’s sustained reaction to this drunken guy. He’s become so inured to such conversations that the fissures in his concentration are only revealed in the darting movements of his eyes.

A huge fireworks display is depicted without the accompanying explosions, creating a disjunction between sound and image. There’s another shot later on of Jessica playing a record with head phones on, which creates a similar effect. It’s the equivalent of the gaps that exist in the conversations between these young kids – almost as if most of the meaning of what’s transpiring is occurring entirely in the silent spaces between their words rather than in the words themselves. In a sense, even more so than Quiet City, Dance Party, USA is nearly all subtext, as if these kids’ whole world – adolescence itself – is somehow rendered as a completely impenetrable experience, even to those who are experiencing it.

Gus meets Jessica outside the party, as she sits there bored and brooding while waiting for Christie, who has taken up with Bill. Following the stiff formal introduction of these two “friends of a friend” – who know each other only indirectly, but nevertheless intimately – Gus tries to explain his bad reputation. Jessica, however, beats him to the punch by prematurely divulging that she’s not going to sleep with him and declaring that she thinks he’s an asshole. Gus tries to start over again, and in doing so, ends up making a shocking personal revelation regarding the fourteen-year-old girl.

It’s the same story he’s told Bill earlier, but this time Gus actually confesses the truth about what really happened that night – it’s not a pretty picture. “I do bad things a lot of times,” he tells her, “but I’m not a bad person.” Throughout his long and painful monologue, Jessica, bathed in warm golden back light, doesn’t really say anything. Afterwards she ignites a couple of sparklers, which we watch in close-up until they fizzle out. Finally, she asks, “Do you want to go somewhere?” The two drive through downtown Portland at night. The shots of city – the lights emit a reddish cast as if we’ve suddenly entered the underworld, followed by more fluorescent blues – manage to provide the intrusions of reality into this otherwise encapsulated teenage world. The sequence culminates in a scene where Jessica simply asks Gus whether he’s cold, before she silently drops him off at his house.

Gus manages to track down the victim of his story, Kate. Gus has earlier told Jessica how the passage of time had nearly wiped the incident out of his memory, but he’s clearly trying to gauge what impact it has had on the younger teen. When Gus turns up at her door, Kate doesn’t appear to recognize him. She asks, “Have we met before?” He responds, “Kind of. I mean, we met at a party. Like a year ago.” A bit unsure what to do, she invites him inside to watch TV and drink coke. Gus queries her about having a boyfriend as well as the length of the relationship. He asks casually, “What happened with that?” Kate, however, is not very forthcoming. After a long pause, Gus asks, “So has anything like really bad ever happened to you?” She answers, “Like what?” Kate merely shrugs and asks him the same question, suggesting that she has already repressed the whole incident (at what future psychological cost?), and, consequently, Gus doesn’t bring it up.

As Gus and Bill sit on the couch drinking beers, Bill invites Gus to join him and Christie at the amusement park later on. He also refers to Jessica as a bitch. Gus complains about women always wanting him to stimulate them physically, when, as he puts it, “I’m like, suck my dick. I just want you to suck my dick.” He also finds the word “slut” to be a turn on, and refers to photography and painting and studying insects as “fag shit.” Gus, however, suddenly asks, Why not?” He then confesses that he really likes Jessica, not for her body, but for herself. Bill, however, offers Gus advice, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to feel bad about anything.” He continues, “Don’t do it to yourself.” Gus responds, “Thanks.” As hardcore music continues to play in the background, Gus asks Bill for a hug, but it clearly makes Bill feel uncomfortable.

Gus and Jessica later meet up at the amusement park, and decide to get their picture taken together in a photo booth. After they make goofy faces and run out of money, the two turn and kiss twice before they leave the booth, and the film abruptly ends.

Dance Party, USA captures the emotional turbulence of what it feels like to be a teenager. In particular, it’s about the pressures of being male with its exaggerated emphasis on getting drunk, sexual conquest, and subservience to peer-group pressures. Although Dance Party, USA, in contrast to Quiet City, stays much closer to the written script, Katz has a knack for obtaining incredibly naturalistic performances that actually have real depth. He also has an economical way of staging scenes by employing long takes and minimal cutting that caters to the performers. Aaron Katz is clearly at the forefront of filmmakers associated with mumblecore.

I’m not convinced that Dance Party, USA deserves to be seen as “a kind of correction to Larry Clark’s KIDS,” as Karina Longworth has written, or that the film is “a story of bad behavior leading to redemption.” If so, I don’t understand the scene toward the end between Gus and Bill, or even the previous one with Kate. I think Gus definitely has been affected by his interaction with Jessica. At least he can admit his feelings for her beyond lust for her physical body, but confession alone is rarely enough to change a person’s behavior. To his credit, Katz is careful to leave this as an open-ended question, which is part of the authenticity and honesty of the film. Dance Party, USA remains a sobering portrait of a rather confused male teenager, who — at least until now — has used his good looks as a weapon against young women.

Posted 17 February, 2008

Quiet City

Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland represent a vivid study in contrasts. Frownland, with its cramped apartments and cast of social misfits, presents a hellish vision of urban life in Brooklyn. Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, on the other hand, somehow manages to turn Brooklyn into a semi-pastoral landscape by interspersing shots of nature – from changing autumn leaves and tree branches against blue sky and puffy clouds to spectacular sunsets. Even the subway ride and traffic lights of the city at night are rendered as colorful abstractions. While the film will remind viewers of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, along with work by Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and David Gordon Green, Katz successfully navigates the terrain of cinematic influences and references by creating a film that embodies a sensibility very much his own.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Before Sunrise, largely because Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy still seem too much like professional actors despite Linklater’s use of naturalism. As characters, they try so hard to impress each other that it invariably results in missed connections. Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), the two young protagonists of Quiet City, on the contrary, don’t really try at all. They’re not obsessed with getting into each other’s pants for one thing, but seem more interested in just hanging out and getting to know one another.

The story is remarkably simple. Jamie arrives in Brooklyn to meet a friend, Samantha, who, due to cell-phone problems, ends up leaving her stranded. Jamie runs into Charlie in the subway station, asks for directions to a diner, and the two end up spending the next twenty-four hours together. Although scripted, there’s not really much of a plot in the conventional sense. Instead we experience a series of episodic narrative incidents. The two break into Samantha’s apartment, have a foot race in the park, and visit a friend, Adam (Joe Swanberg), to retrieve Charlie’s hat, but actually forget to take it. They later go to an art opening and a party afterwards.

Neither Jamie nor Charlie appear to have much drive or ambition. We learn at the art opening that Jamie works at an Applebee’s restaurant in Atlanta, while Charlie has quit his job and wishes he could find a way to get paid for doing absolutely nothing. Jamie is extremely attractive. She has a certain directness in manner, but often disguises it by raising the inflection of her voice at the end of a sentence, so that what begins as an assertion somehow gets converted into a question. Jamie also has the nervous habit of playing with her hair. Charlie, on the other hand, speaks much less, and manages to be vague about just about everything – the taste of wine or if he’s fast runner – but he exudes a certain puppy-like charm. At the diner, it comes out that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend used to like to go there. In response to Jamie’s questions, Charlie indicates that she’s now in Alaska, but later mentions that she previously lived in Florida. Charlie offers to let Jamie stay at his place, adding that “my couch is open.” Jamie’s first response is to laugh at the blatant implications, but she accepts his gracious offer. Nevertheless, Jamie is pretty flirtatious, even if Charlie appears not to notice.

When they get to his apartment, Jamie offers to give the shaggy-haired Charlie a haircut. Afterwards, he complains about feeling itchy and takes a shower. We fully expect Jamie to join him, but after he finishes, Charlie finds her fast asleep on his bed. He might lie down next to her, but instead ends up sleeping on the couch. The reasons for Jamie’s reticence become evident the next morning when she gets a phone call, presumably from her boyfriend in Atlanta. Jamie tells him what’s happened and openly admits that she’s just slept at some guy’s apartment. He hangs up. Jamie calls right back, and makes it clear that “I’m not doing anything wrong,” though it’s apparent from the tone of their brief conversation that they have issues.

While sitting together on the floor of Samantha’s apartment, Charlie confesses to being cowardly. He tells her that he has a tendency to withdraw from relationships rather than break them off – he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Jamie admits that she’s mostly dated people liked him, but that in her latest relationship she’s turning into him. As they continue to discuss relationships, Charlie says something about hoping to grow up, so as not to freak out and feel trapped, “and just kind of actually go with it.” The camera pans from a side view of Jamie to a reaction shot of Charlie, as she responds, “Well this is my first time feeling like that.” He nods his head in agreement. The camera cuts back to Jamie, who stares directly at him.

After Jamie beats Charlie in a foot race at the park, Jamie invites Charlie to her high school friend’s art opening later that evening. While in the neighborhood, Charlie suggests stopping at Adam’s place to get his hat. There’s a very funny scene where Adam at first refuses to buzz them in. Once upstairs, Adam complains that he hasn’t heard from Charlie in awhile. It turns out that Adam has gotten engaged after being together with a woman for seven years. The fact that Adam’s getting married suggests a level of adult maturity that Jamie and Charlie speculated about earlier. The two return to Charlie’s apartment, where Jamie takes a shower – a second opportunity for something to happen. After she finishes, Charlie is now the one who’s fallen asleep.

At the art opening, Charlie runs into a hyperactive friend named Kyle (Tucker Stone), who also suggests that he hasn’t seen Charlie for several weeks, reinforcing what we’ve learned about him from Adam. Kyle, in fact, manages to ridicule both Jamie and Charlie. He playfully embarrasses Charlie in front of Jamie by asking whether Charlie’s still gearing up to move down to Florida to be with a girlfriend. Kyle tells Jamie, “He’s hung up on some girl back in Florida.” “No I’m not,” Charlie insists, looking at Jamie, but Kyle counters, “You talk about her all the time.” It’s clear that Charlie wants him to shut up – has he been outed, or is Kyle simply mistaken? Whatever the case, Charlie seems to react with genuine embarrassment.

Jamie’s artist friend, Robin (Sarah Hellman), invites the three of them back to her place for an after-party, where we watch the four of them dance to rock music, but we hear non-diegetic piano music instead, which creates a strange effect. As Jamie and Robin lie together in a loft bed, Robin talks candidly about her love life, complaining that she’s been having trouble relating to men sexually. She first seems to indicate that she would prefer passionate sex with someone she didn’t know all that well, but then later tells a story about asking a guy if she could just lie on top on him. Her story suggests the theme of Quiet City, namely, that people have a desperate need, not for casual sex, but for real intimacy. Following the party, we see Jamie and Charlie riding alone in an empty subway car. The camera frames them from behind, as Jamie’s head leans into the fold of Charlie’s neck and the two fall asleep. The film ends with a shot of an airplane taking off against an orange-red sky. Although it’s left ambiguous, Quiet City suggests that these shared moments of intimacy are, in all likelihood, a temporary solace.

Quiet City primarily works because of the palpable chemistry between the two main performers. At one point, Jamie and Charlie improvise a duet on a small electronic keyboard. Their reactions to what they’re playing and the music itself conveys a buoyant energy that carries through the entire film. Katz infuses Quiet City with a warm, golden glow of natural and artificial light that continually illuminates the faces of Jamie and Charlie. He mixes artfully composed wide shots that convey a distinct sense of place with a hand-held camera that often zooms in tight to follow the movement of its characters. It’s the most formal and poetic of the mumblecore films I’ve seen to date, which owes much to the outstanding cinematography of Andrew Reed. Already imbued with a certain nostalgia, Quiet City creates the uncanny sense of the past unfolding in the present, as if its two characters are already looking back through the filter of memory at what we see transpire.

Along with Chris Smith’s The Pool and three other films, Quiet City was recently nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature made for under a half-million dollars. Aaron Katz’a two films – Quiet City and Dance Party USA (which I still haven’t seen) – will be released together on DVD from Benten Films on January 29.

Posted 5 January, 2008