Look Whoâ€™s Talking: The New DIY
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Aaron Katz, U.S., self-released
Late one night on a deserted subway platform, a lost Jamie (Erin Fisher), dwarfed by the Tati-like expanse of Brooklynâ€™s multi-level 7th Avenue F train station, stops the sole nearby traveler, hoodied Charlie (Chris Lankenau) and asks for directions to a local diner. This commonplace exchange is moved, via a series of quick, timed-for-comedy edits (each beat moves them further into the realm of improbable interactions), into the entry point for the day-long meet-cute that occupies Quiet Cityâ€™s seventy-odd minutes. Charlie and Jamie morph from strangers off a train into fledgling acquaintances nervously conversing at the nearby diner in question all in the span of a few minutes of screen time, and this unplanned relationship blossoms into something that might almost be courtship throughout the following twenty hour hours. Erinâ€™s in town from Atlanta (her accent and uncomplicated exuberance mark her as worlds apart from typical NYC hauteur) to visit a friend who never materializes, and Charlieâ€™s got little to do except nurse wounds from a recent breakup, so the two end up spending that evening, next day, and, as suggested by the filmâ€™s ambiguous close, more together. In that span, Charlie gets a haircut (from Jamie), the two drink wine from inappropriate mugs, write a song together, race through a park, execute an awkward break-in, attend an art opening. Itâ€™s all not that much, but within the constraints of a â€śmumblecoreâ€ť film, isnâ€™t it enough?
In their best moments, the handful of films that have of late been uncomfortably glommed together under the â€śmumblecoreâ€ť or â€śNew Talkiesâ€ť label satisfy any extant ethnographic curiosity about that very particular world of overprivileged, underemployed (generally) twentysomethings eking out existences in shabby apartments while juggling overblown personal drams with internships at vaguely defined nonprofit organizations. Expect lots of talk, even more pauses, and above all, the palpable sense of the inarticulate. Detractors of films made by the likes of Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City), Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) Joe Swanberg (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs), and the Duplass brothers (The Puffy Chair) question whether documentation of this verbally challenged American subset warrants cinematic attention at all, and itâ€™s this divide, probably even more than arguments over the aesthetic merits of these films (merely slipshod, or calculatedly so?) that delineates the camps of this mini-movementâ€™s supportersâ€”who tend to be vociferous and possessing of blogsâ€”and its critics. The mythology of this group has been well documented: a bunch of the aforementioned films all found homes at the burgeoning South-by-Southwest film festival in 2005, their makers met in Austin, enjoyed each otherâ€™s company, drank a bit, jokingly put forth the name mumblecore, a community was born. The spread of this lore has been abetted by an interconnected cadre of committed bloggers, festival programmers, and the filmmakers themselves, whoâ€™ve proven themselves a generally canny bunch of self-promoters. This feedback loop of approbation has recently spilled over into influence on theatrical distribution and exhibition (IFC is releasing Hannah Takes the Stairs nationwide, and running a two-week program of the New Talkies at its flagship New York theater) and the mainstream media (big, laudatory pieces from serious writers have appeared in both the New York Times and Village Voice).
If we are to accept this taxonomic identity as worthwhile (and the filmmakers its been applied to have raised mildly strenuous objections to this lumping-together of late, an understandable, if slightly disingenuous pose), then Aaron Katzâ€™s Quiet City, his second feature, rises near to the top of the pack by placing emphasis on the visual over the simply conversationalâ€”his improvised chats are structured around moments of impeccably planned beauty. In a movement where the emphasis is often on the unplanned and unforced (or at least seemingly so), his attractive lingering pillow shots of the city skyline and natural forms bespeak of calculation; Mutual Appreciation gambles that transcendence will arise naturally from a poorly shot but exuberant Justin Rice musical performance and loses. Where Swanbergâ€™s Hannah Takes the Stairs is anti-aesthetic almost to an unbearable degree (and does disservice to the directorâ€™s intriguing LOL, which conjured early Egoyan on a threadbare shoestring), Katz is at great pains to play with his shots and find new ways of viewing. An extreme low angle on Charlie and Jamie standing in a field that captures only their shoes as they talk seems an annoying diversion until the two race off into the distance and into full ownership of the frame. Here, and in its best moments, Quiet City stabs at that sun-kissed Malick vibeâ€”perhaps an overdetermined point of departure for a young filmmaker struggling to find his way to a singular visual sensibility, but even if the move is telegraphed to a degree, itâ€™s a welcome change from dreary apartments with blank walls that look sorely in need of a production designerâ€™s touch. Quiet City hovers in these spaces as well, but manages to strike a visually pleasing balance.
Katzâ€™s first film, Dance Party USA, was more ramshackle, but also strove for elevation through the visualâ€”its closing fairground-set sequences literally opened up a suffocatingly claustrophobic work and provided a measure of satisfying, romantic closure. (Bujalski, the unlikely and likely unwilling elder statesman of the movement never offers a similar outlet from his cloistered worlds.) Dance Partyâ€™s Gus was a neatly performed, but never entirely believable (even as a posturing sexual blowhard) avatar, and hesitancy around the handling of actors dogs Quiet Cityas well, even as it tries to center its locus of attention around the metropolitan landscape. Their performances constructed from bits and pieces of massive improvisation sessions (a function and fault of available technology), its two leads will either resound as truthful, if unstudied, or largely irritating. For me, Fisher approaches some of the offhanded loveliness of Funny Ha Haâ€™s Kate Dollenmeyer, but sheâ€™s never asked to carry Quiet City in quite the same fashion. Lankenau fares worse, seeming a stunted, shriveled version of the already cocooned (e)masculinities of Bujalski or Swanbergâ€™s films. One wonders if the scenario is generally free of real dilemma because of its central performersâ€™ limitations, or because Katz is merely interested in striking a clean, wistful note.
That a bunch of slovenly, misshapen movies (not necessarily a pejorative) has come to be so closely grouped together, so quickly and forcefully, speaks to the intense need of the current independent film community to feel part of and champion something in the American independent landscape. With filmmaker support groups dying out and increasingly scarce funding rubbing up against the exploding availability of high quality, reasonably priced video cameras and projection systems, and calcified distribution channels giving way to newer models, itâ€™s an exciting, and uncertain, time to be making or releasing filmsâ€”and writing about them. The young critics, young distributors, and young filmmakers of America havenâ€™t had their moment yet, that instance where they stood up and reclaimed the notion of â€śindependentâ€ť from a half-decade gone wrong and the general sense in theâ€”to be honestâ€”limited sphere protecting and fostering these movies seems to be simple: This might be it. A utopian instant of passion, artmaking, cheap beer, and a little bit of commerce overlapping; read the faces in the circa 1980s Telluride Film Film Festival softball team photo wedged in Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes and youâ€™ll find a similar story. Are these folks our new Spike Lees, Jim Jarmuschs, or Hal Hartleys? Or are we all just getting carried away?
Loudmouthed John Cassavetes booster Ray Carney has been an early champion of this stuff, claiming a similar artistic lineage between one of Americaâ€™s greatest filmmakers and a bunch of youthful overachievers (at 26 years of age, Swanberg has already completed three films, shot another and put out a twelve-episode web series; Katz, also 26, is halfway to lapping his visual inspirationâ€™s four-film oeuvre). Hereâ€™s a clear instance in which the excitement over a bunch of filmmakers working together and producing work (and lots of it) that vibrates off of similar themes has won out over reason and historical context. No mumblecore movie that Iâ€™ve seen yet has truly reached out for anything beyond armâ€™s length, aside perhaps LOL and Funny Ha Ha which come within striking distance of the cascading meanings that we expect of great cinema. (Quiet Cityâ€™s lovely meditations on the cityscape nudge it in this direction; The Puffy Chair feels bigger, but in a more traditional recent Amerindie manner) Cassavetes decimated the industry model heâ€™d worked within for over a decade with his very first film, and continually collapsed categories over the course of his small body of work. Mumblecore may be reading his blueprint, but that same humming energy is missing. My greatest fear for all of these filmmakers is that theyâ€™ll never reach similarlyâ€”for genre, for period setting, for a tripodâ€”thus limiting the possibilities of their art. Thereâ€™s a nagging sense with many of these films that in their creatorsâ€™ rush to produce feature-length works, and thus ensure the possibility of nationwide visibility, a disservice has been done to the material. (Would Quiet City have been even stronger at 45 minutes?) By gambling that exercises that might be stunningly ambitious in the context of a senior film seminar will float in the theatrical marketplace, this groupâ€™s won fairly big so far, but their future is far from clear.
I chide these guys (where are the girls? or the minorities, for that matter?) a bit not because I find mumblecore some kind of aesthetic blightâ€”Iâ€™m actually somewhat in awe of how theyâ€™ve played their hand thus farâ€”but because Iâ€™ve only caught glimpses in these films of the wanton playfulness and voracious need to experiment that characterized the Nouvelle Vague or early 80s American indie. Maybe this desire isnâ€™t there, and maybe it doesnâ€™t need to be, but forgive me if I wouldnâ€™t mind an American filmmaker standing up and announcing him or herself as the heir to Jacques Rivette or Alain Resnais. This is the point where personal aesthetic preferences interfere most directly with reasoned analysis, a huge complication in dealing with films that are made on such an intimate scale, and done from my current position working within this same community and acquainted with several of the filmmakers. But I have to wonder: Maybe this all isnâ€™t multivalent enough yet to call it a true â€śmovement.â€ť Or maybe a movement is afoot and we just havenâ€™t gotten a true grasp on it yet. Are these just conventional rom-coms on two dollars with pauses inserted for effect or attempts at tackling that ever ephemeral â€śspirit of a generationâ€ť? I find it surprising that in all the writing thus far on mumblecore there hasnâ€™t been an attempt to postulate what the next step might be for this gang. The films themselves, so fully concerned with in-the-now reportage (aside from a few seconds early in LOL, thereâ€™s nary a flashback or other temporal rupture in sight) of life stages twisted with uncertainty donâ€™t offer much purchase in this regard. But it was just last August, in our indieWIRE sponsored roundelay on Bujalskiâ€™s Mutual Appreciation, Michael Koresky wrote of it: â€śMutual Appreciation truly does feel different from anything else out there.â€ť What a difference a year makes.
When satirical postings about the movement being purchased by Google are satirized further by other blogs in the New Talkies-boosting ring and â€śmumblecoreâ€ť becomes an honest-to-goodness imdb.com keyword (applied to twelve films as of this writing), weâ€™ve approached the moment of truth. Whether this blip on the ever-scanning indie radar translates itself into broader impact on our cinematic culture is now truly up to Katz, Bujalski, Swanberg, et al.; I think we critics, with our many, many words expended on this dubious insurgence have certainly done all we can. Thus far, there hasnâ€™t been a mumblecore blockbuster, much less a better than moderate mumblecore success (though given production costs in the mere thousands, the commercial bar has been far lowered), so we may have to wait a bit for true historical reckoning. For this writer, thereâ€™s hope in the modest pleasures of Quiet City that this all isnâ€™t an aesthetic dead-end waiting to be taken out with the trash. Its final shot certainly pushes to avoid the icy grip of closure. Will Jamie sleep with Charlie? If Swanberg were at the helm, most assuredly and graphically soâ€”credit goes to him for injecting plain sexuality back into an increasingly corseted scene. In Bujalskiâ€™s hands, thereâ€™d be plenty of nattering analysis, no one would make out, yet everyone would feel the need to make up, perhaps over a viewing of the mole perched astride his ass. Katz, more gestural than either, simply asks of Jamie that she lay her head lightly on Charlieâ€™s shoulder. Will there be any more to this simple act than that? We donâ€™t knowâ€”maybe weâ€™ll have to wait for the sequel. Itâ€™s a question that could be asked productively, not condescendingly, to all the films of this â€śmovement.â€ť Answers will vary.