Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks all cities should be seen and not heard.
"This is the first time, mostly because of technology, that someone like
me can go out and make a film with no money and no connections."
Aaron Katz is part of a movement of young outsider filmmakers known as "mumblecore." A more relaxed version of Lars von Trier's Dogme 95 (I don't believe there's a mumblecore manifesto), mumblecore films generally feature 20-something characters and are marked by extremely low budgets (digital video is the production format of choice), an emphasis on character rather than plot, and lots of dialogue that is—or at least sounds—improvised. It's this often ineloquent yet naturalistic dialogue that gives "mumblecore" its name.
In Quiet City, Jamie (Erin Fisher), in from Atlanta to visit a friend, finds herself stranded in Brooklyn when her friend doesn't show. In the subway station, she meets Charlie (Cris Lankenau), an amiable slacker. The two spend the next 24 hours or so chatting, wandering around, going to a gallery opening, and just generally getting to know each other.
Dance Party, USA revolves around a teen age house party in Portland, Oregon, where wanna-be high school stud Gus (Cole Pennsinger) makes a tentative connection with disaffected peer Jessica (Anna Kavan).
Both Quiet City and Dance Party, USA are films of small moments. Since there is little in the way of plot, there is no "big reveal" or powerfully memorable scene. What's striking about Quiet City, for instance, isn't what the characters do, but what they don't do—they don't fall into bed, engage in grandiose, confessional-style conversations, chase each other screaming words of love, or any of the standard romance-movie conventions. This is fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, with two ordinary people spending a little time together.
Unfortunately, Jamie and Charlie are a bit too ordinary, to the point of really not being very interesting. The dialogue, at times, seems forced, as though the actors are filling space. And given the low-key naturalism and defiant refusal to introduce anything that might be mistaken for a plot mechanism, the set-up here is more than a bit contrived: In real life, would this girl from Atlanta be so quick to go home with a guy she'd met just five minutes prior? (In another movie, she'd turn up in pieces in a dumpster.) And would her friend really be that cavalier about meeting her and make no effort to contact her? And why wouldn't Jamie try to get in touch with her other friend in Brooklyn, the artist whose opening she and Charlie attend?
On the plus side, Quiet City is beautifully shot by Andrew Reed, particularly the exteriors, giving Brooklyn a pragmatic romanticism that makes it as much a character as our unassuming couple. Fisher and Lankenau are appealing as the leads, and their chemistry helps make their burgeoning relationship believable.
More impressive is Dance Party, USA, which deviates a bit from mumblecore game plan in that it deals with teens rather than people in their 20s. Since much of Dance Party takes place at a party, Katz has a little more room to play, giving us a number of short vignettes of different characters interacting. In addition, the writer/director "breaks down" and gives us something of a plot hook, a "terrible secret" that Gus shares with Jessica. Later, when Gus sets out to resolve this thing that has been troubling him, we get a wonderfully honest depiction of a teen-age boy's logic at work.
Katz was 24 when he made Dance Party, and perhaps the distance from his own teen years allowed him to view these kids with a kind of wry objectivity that was lacking in Quiet City. The "party" in Dance Party is one of those deadly dull affairs that kids go to because there's nothing else to do, and besides, everyone they know is there. The awkwardness in their conversations sounds right, never overdone.
As the not-as-callow-as-he-seems Gus, Pennsinger is terrific, slowly and naturally revealing layers to his character that we would have never guessed existed. Kavan gives Jessica a touching world-weariness not out of place for a suburban teen who's seen everything her limited world has to offer.
There's a strange timelessness to Dance Party, USA. These kids don't use cell phones or make pop-culture references. They wear old jeans and t-shirts, and their homes don't have plasma TVs or cordless phones. Jessica's car is a '63 Chevy (actually, Katz's car). I realize that much of this is due to happenstance rather than a conscious decision to blur the lines between decades, but it contributes an authenticity—these could be any kids, any time in the last 30 or so years.
Benten Films gives us a very good two-disc package. Both films get fine transfers. Quiet City is Anamorphic in its original aspect ratio; Dance Party, USA was shot full frame and here is masked to 1.85:1 and is not Anamorphic. Audio is a perfectly acceptable stereo track for both films.
Each film has two commentary tracks. On Quiet City, Katz, Producers Ben Stambler and Brendan McFadden, and Cinematographer Andrew Reed provide one and actors Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau provide the other. Katz, McFadden, and Producer Marc Ripper do a track for Dance Party, USA, and Katz and McFadden sit with actors Anna Kavan, Cole Pennsinger, and Ryan White for a second track. Unfortunately, none of these commentaries is particularly great. I usually enjoy commentaries on low-budget, indie films, particularly stories of the hoops the filmmakers jumped through to make their projects a reality. Katz and company don't seem to have a lot of those stories. Most of the people involved with these films are long-time friends, so we hear quite a bit about that, and some general information on locations and such, but nothing that really makes these tracks stand out.
Disc One also gives us a "prank" film, "Joe Swanberg's Quiet City," in which Swanberg, who also appears in Quiet City, "punks" Katz by making his own version of the film (which he claimed he sent to Sundance). There is a feature on Keegan DeWitt, who wrote excellent scores for both films, a Q&A from the New York premiere, and a trailer. Besides the commentaries, Disc Two contains "The Lunch Hour," an early short by Katz (starring DeWitt) and some alternative and extended scenes. A booklet contains an essay on Quiet City by Ray Carney—John Cassavetes historian and champion of mumblecore—and one on Dance Party, USA by film writer Ray Pride.
If you're looking for something a little quiet and a little soft, I'd advise you to check out these films, particularly the more heartfelt Dance Party, USA. Digital video and the Internet are changing the landscape of independent filmmaking, and if films like these represent the future, then I'm there.
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Scales of Justice, Dance Party, Usa
Perp Profile, Dance Party, Usa
Studio: Benten Films
Distinguishing Marks, Dance Party, Usa
• Commentary with Aaron Katz and Producers Brendan McFadden and Marc Ripper
Scales of Justice, Quiet City
Perp Profile, Quiet City
Studio: Benten Films
Distinguishing Marks, Quiet City
• Commentary with Aaron Katz, Producers Ben Stambler and Brendan McFadden, and Cinematographer Andrew Reed
• IMDb: Quiet City
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