Thursday, May 13, 2010
Sensitive Poetry or Amateur Strokes of Luck? The Films of Aaron Katz
Critical polarization has struck me again in the face of the films of Aaron Katz. I tend to approve and disapprove of his work at the same rate that it vacillates between irritating self-consciousness and poignant stretches of pure visuals. Of course, with the immediate stamps of "microbudget", "handheld", and "personal", his is an infantile oeuvre cultivated singlehandedly by the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, which has been so endlessly giving to the crop of films deemed part of the mumblecore movement. (Katz's latest, Cold Weather, which I have yet to see, recently premiered there.) As much as Katz's two debut films, Dance Party, USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) - which only elapse a cumulative 143 minutes - revel in and even glamorize the repetitive quirks of the genre, they seem to periodically reach for something more pointedly cinematic and ambitious. There are times when the films try to prove that the man behind the camera is not a cash-strapped college graduate but rather an experienced filmmaker looking back critically at the unusual periods of his life between adolescence and serious adulthood, when all the potential was there without any understanding of how to achieve it. And then there are other times when they scream of amateurism, with Katz getting carried away figuring out how to properly stage a scene so that it strikes the accurate levels of cuteness, awkwardness, and naturalism. Granted, Katz's subject is the stuff of real life, and that's not always a breeze to convey. Fortunately, he handles it better than most - say, Andrew Bujalski for instance.
Dance Party, USA is his first feature, and everything about it is bite-sized: the running time (65 minutes, which puts into question its very existence as a feature), the spare plot, the range of emotions. But this is not to say that its achievements are microscopic. Centering around a group of high school students wallowing in the age of partying and perversion, it speaks of an era whose external displays of emotion may be flimsy or veiled, but whose motivations behind such emotions are vast and elusive. This is the terrain through which Katz unassumingly navigates. The point of inspection is chiefly Gus (Cole Pensinger), a soon-to-be eighteen-year-old with a hyper-masculine swagger and a social and verbal incapacity to rival Alex in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (the film is also set in Portland, Oregon, another similarity between the two works). He has proudly amassed an outsized reputation as an arrogant debauchee who is willing to do the craziest things at parties and forget about it the next morning. It is the Fourth of July, and high school bashes appear to be on cruise control, with kids gathering in houses with cheap beer and sexualized rap music to dance around nothing but their own inchoate small talk, the objective of which is always physical reward. If this description, comprising a bulk of the film's opening half hour, sounds improbable, spend a year in a modern high school and witness how meaningless the social interactions in some circles have become. Katz's depiction of this growing high-school subculture is actually impressively spot-on, capturing with painful honesty the salient misogyny and anti-intellectualism that plagues much of today's young students.
Underneath a night sky bursting with fireworks, which Katz takes advantage of in one long, observant take, Gus sits and sparks up (pun intended) a conversation with Jessica (Anna Kavan), the mysteriously unassertive best-friend of his ex-girlfriend Christie (Sarah Bing). Jessica, who has already been introduced in both the protracted opening shot of the movie in a messy morning-after-the-party trudge and a series of stillborn communications thereafter, has already made up her mind about Gus before he opens his mouth. She is not interested in getting in bed with him and will not listen to any pathetic denials of his stature. Much to her surprise, Gus is genuinely open about his behavior, and stunningly does not profess any premeditated desire to get in her pants. Instead, after a few moments of stunted interaction rife with verbal dead-ends, he inexplicably decides to come clean to her about a past wrongdoing utterly unrelated to her. He admits to an instance at a party that technically qualifies as rape, but which was followed immediately by remorse and comforting. Moments later, Jessica is asking him to ditch the party with her. This gives way to an achingly tender sequence set to touching piano music where the two of them drive through town and eventually stop and sit silently in the middle of what looks like a parking lot lit only by dim streetlights. Neither of them have a clue what to say to each other, so they resort to a simple mutual exchange of "are you cold?", but their mere physical proximity is enough to qualify it as nervous attraction.
Though maddeningly opaque and nearly invisible, Gus' clumsy admission is actually an undaunted leap of faith and a faint sign of maturation presumably brought on by actual romantic interest rather than raging hormones. Dance Party, USA abandons narrative impetus after this premature climax, and instead drifts for its remainder as Gus and Jessica contemplate their encounter amidst mundane distractions: hanging out with friends, smoking cigarettes, discussing nothing tactlessly, and for Gus, attempting to right his wrongs by confronting the girl of his past indiscretion, who understandably doesn't remember him. It unfolds in a free-floating, directionless manner, as Katz's restless camera hovers over the blank faces of his unassured protagonists, eventually seeking poise and quietude in the occasional pillow shots of the surrounding streets. Much of this plods on incessantly - a few too many "ums" and "likes", a hysterically sustained air of discomfort and awkwardness such as in the scene when Gus watches TV with the oblivious girl, that suggests an overstatement of adolescent clumsiness. In such instances, Katz seems more concerned with getting a laugh at the expense of the characters than he does with accurately reflecting the ebb and flow of high school culture.
Taking place across the country in Brooklyn, and thus mirroring mumblecore's nation-spanning nature, is Katz's second feature, Quiet City. Here his aspirations prove not altogether distinct from those in Dance Party, USA, focusing in on another precarious intimacy, only this time in the context of hapless post-collegiate slackers. Jamie (Erin Fisher) has arrived in Brooklyn by subway to meet her friend Samantha at a cafe. Problem is, she's not familiar with the city and has no idea where to find her destination. She asks a young man (Cris Lankenau) in a parking garage where to find it, and after trying several different variations of the same explanation, he ends up just walking with her. Katz starts making sly cuts that affirm the subtle spark between them, when every time it seems as if they are going to go their separate ways, we see them together a frame later in the space they were supposedly departing from. She winds up not finding her friend in the cafe, and after waiting for a while to no avail, the young man offers to let her hang out at his place, an unadorned apartment, for as long as she needs. They talk, drink some wine together without any hint of connoisseurship, and tinker with a toy keyboard (how could this be a mumblecore film without at least one instance of cloying amateur musicianship?) The beginnings of a delicate connection are afoot, but each of them maintain a degree of caution; their interactions remain purely friendly, as if hampered by a constant awareness of the other's romantic situation (Jamie has an ambiguous attachment to a jealous boy back home and the guy, whose name we eventually learn is Charlie, is still getting over a break-up).
Despite this hesitance, the seeds of attraction are thoroughly and saliently planted. The iron walls that blocked verbal communication in Dance Party, USA have been broken down, so Charlie and Jamie interact with effortless comfort, even humor and charm. They are also substantially normal, under-the-radar people without flaws as obvious as those of the characters in Katz's debut. One night spent at Charlie's turns into the entire subsequent day for Jamie, which involves more aimless hanging around (indeed, Charlie is out of a job with literally nothing to do). They infiltrate Samantha's apartment, once again finding no one, stop by the apartment of Charlie's newly engaged friend Adam (fellow director Joe Swanberg) to reclaim a long-lost hat in the funniest scene of the film, and eventually find themselves at an art gallery showing curated by Jamie's friend Robin (Sarah Hellman), leading to a late-night party filled with more jobless slacker types. Quiet City unfolds in an all-too-familiar realm of financial hardship, estranged friendships, uncertain romances, and dispassionate gatherings that gain their pessimism from the fact that everyone there is worrying about their unpaid rent rather than enjoying the company of others. Katz evokes this mood with grace, still remaining conscious of the transient pleasures that exist, such as the charmingly inelegant boogie shared by Charlie, Jamie, Robin, and Charlie's witless old pal Kyle (Tucker Stone), or the first small gesture of outward physical contact between Charlie and Jamie, a tradeoff of high-fives.
Both of these films have a sense of effortlessness and economy in their progression, a refreshing lack of formula guiding their apathetic movement. I'd even venture to say that, in keeping with their clear absence of narrative promises, they value the spontaneity of the present over the vast anxiety of the future. This is a notion justified by Katz's enduring propensity to pause the narrative after long scenes of dialogue to ponder the tranquil stillness of the surroundings, shots that achieve their consummate power as punctuation marks in Quiet City due largely to a significant cinematographic leap between the two films, with director of photography Andrew Reed realizing the visual potential of autumnal skies and urban silhouettes. Yet with this equilibrium comes an astonishing lack of directorial intrusion, which can be both a blessing, in the film's best moments, and a curse, threatening to reduce the characters to caricatures. This negative aspect can be witnessed in both films, in Gus' frustratingly one-note friend Bill (Ryan White) and Kyle in Quiet City, a figure used only for comic relief. With that said, the rewards of Katz's work are not always to be found in character psychology, but rather in subtle shifts in tone. In this regard, Quiet City is his more tonally spectacular work, with an utterly refined interplay of tenderness, uncertainty, and nonchalance conquered with supreme visual and aural instinct. At the same time, it's the more straightforward of the two films; Dance Party, USA contains richer emotional undercurrents that bubble up beneath the surface, and do so in a lot fewer coherent words.
Yet all this time I wonder if I'm giving Katz too much credit, reading too far into films that are really just half-baked screenplay ideas stretched to just barely feature lengths with the liberties of non-actor friends and unimposing production schedules. After all, it's a whole lot easier to assemble a collection of rather lifelike moments if an overbearing producer is not breathing down your neck wondering when serious progress has been made. In fact, as a filmmaker myself, I know that it's not that hard. But I am still willing to accept these conditions if Katz's films continue to feel so serene and poignant. Dance Party, USA marks one of those rare instances when I actually felt a film was too short, and Quiet City stands as an even rarer instance of a film being just the right length. Because of this, Katz seems very sure of his own scope, aware of how his films are making an impact and when they are. And if the final offhand kiss between Gus and Jessica in a photo booth after a slow simmer of unrelated, anxiety-filled scenes isn't making an impact, I don't know what is.