Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007)

The whole mumblecore "movement" (if you want to call it that) has already gone through the entire buzz cycle of quietly being talked about, getting noticed by the hippest writers and blogs, making it big with articles in mainstream publications, and then hitting a harsh backlash from some of the same people who first championed it, all in record time. At this point at least one of the movement's most high-profile participants (Andrew Bujalski) has moved on to Hollywood work, and the furor has died down enough that people like Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers seem to be able to make movies that get judged on their own merits.

All the buzz and backlash has been annoying, but I've really enjoyed the mumblecore films that I've seen - yes, partially because they are made by and about people around my age with similar social backgrounds, but also because they are honest, unpretentious and insightful looks into a generation of people with lots of education and no idea what to do with it, who are so self-reflective that they're barely able to speak to other people or act on any of their desires. And as specific as these situations may be to a certain age and socioeconomic group, I think a lot about them is universal, and the mumblecore films I've seen will stand on their own, even as the moment they are depicting passes.

And Quiet City may just be the most likely to stand the test of time. It's an unassuming, simple story about romance that contains not a single kiss or declaration of love. Its main couple seem to have very little of substance to say to each other for most of the film, but their gestures and expressions and halting bursts of conversation carry so much weight that by the time there's even the smallest romantic overture, the emotional effect is almost overpowering. I described this movie to a friend of mine as the awkward Brooklyn hipster version of Before Sunrise, and as reductive as that sounds, it's fairly accurate. Like Before Sunrise, this is a movie about a pair of aimless 20-somethings who meet randomly in a big city and spend about 24 hours together, forming a surprisingly strong bond. But while Richard Linklater's main characters spend the entire movie talking to each other in a heady rush of intellectualism, Katz's never seem to know what to say, their connection clearly strong but at the same time somehow always in doubt.

In keeping with the mumblecore aesthetic, Quiet City is shot mostly in shaky, handheld digital video, in shabby locations that were probably the actors' actual living spaces. But it also has a powerful kind of visual beauty that's not really present in other mumblecore films; Katz inserts lovely, haunting views of the streets of New York City as between-scenes establishing shots, and there's a scene in which the two main characters stage an impromptu race in a park that's suffused with almost blinding sunlight, casually highlighting the everyday beauty of the city.

Leads Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau give wonderfully understated performances (they're also credited as co-writers along with Katz), and convey the romantic and sexual tension between their characters without ever forcing it or idealizing it. The final succession of images is both immensely satisfying and heartbreaking, and renders all the buzz and backlash completely irrelevant.

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