The City Never Sleeps, but It’s Awfully Quiet
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Less than a year ago, 25-year-old filmmaker Aaron Katz made an auspicious debut with “Dance Party, USA,” an edgy Gus Van Sant-esque exploration of the tenuous emotional connections among teenagers. The heartfelt film was an underground hit, even landing on some 2006 top 10 lists. Now, armed with the buzz surrounding the no-budget “mumblecore” movement — which includes young American filmmakers such as Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, and has found a temporary home with the IFC Center’s ongoing “New Talkies” series — Mr. Katz returns with “Quiet City,” the story of how a boy and a girl meet and proceed to yammer, just as the name of the filmmaking collective suggests.
Jamie (Erin Fisher) has just arrived in New York City, but the friend who has agreed to put her up is nowhere to be found. As luck — or the movies — would have it, Jamie stumbles upon a stranger named Charlie (Cris Lankenau) at a desolate subway station. After assisting her with directions, he lets her crash at his place — that happens all the time in this city, right? He’s a white, 20-something, unemployed, zip-hooded-sweater-sporting slacker in desperate need of a haircut. Before long, Jamie finds pair of safety scissors, looms over Charlie’s head, and starts snipping away. The two spend the remainder of the film drinking wine out of tin cups, spreading mayonnaise on toast with a carving knife, fiddling with a Casio keyboard, taking afternoon naps, bouncing a rubber ball off the pavement, and — you guessed it — yammering.
Authenticity is Mr. Katz’s biggest selling point. Made by, about, and for 20-something, middle-class white kids, “Quiet City” is a spot-on rendering of how that demographic interacts with itself. Whether this is a worthwhile experience depends on one’s willingness to hang out with the protagonists. The free-spirited Jamie and the timid Charlie are pleasant enough company, but they aren’t universally identifiable characters, and they don’t come to face any confrontation or resolution in the film. In other words, it’s a one-act play. Although not exceptionally charismatic, Ms. Fisher and Mr. Lankenau are serviceably engaging.
Placed in a larger context, “Quiet City,” which follows Mr. Swanberg’s similarly austere “Hannah Takes the Stairs” in the IFC series, comes off as slight in virtually every way imaginable. Lacking a climactic revelation or even much of a discernable course, it doesn’t measure up to “Dance Party, USA.” The film also pales in comparison to more probing fare such as Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” It’s almost as if Mr. Katz and his crew have traded that generation’s cynicism and philosophical dalliances for a new generation of apathy and incoherence. Aside from boasting an Austrian locale, Mr. Linklater’s film at least made palpable comments on the wider contexts of culture and gender that enveloped its characters. While Mr. Katz observantly captures the spontaneity of middleclass kids bantering and knocking about Brooklyn, he doesn’t offer any analysis or profundity along the way.
Many in the mumblecore movement are admitted disciples of Dogme 95 — an avant-garde filmmaking movement conceived in the mid-1990s by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg — and their characteristic digital-video photography and hand-held cameras are obvious giveaways. But the issuance of Dogme 95 certificates has ceased for good reason: Films that follow its sober “vows of chastity” have become formulaic, and the movement’s ringleader, Mr. von Trier, has already moved on to other gimmicks like Automavision. “Quiet City” is reminiscent of a Dogme film without the discipline imposed by the strict guidelines. It has a fly-on-the-wall immediacy, but we are not privy to any intimate disclosures that would satisfy any voyeuristic impulses. There are fleeting moments of magic, such as the golden rim around the protagonists as they stand against the overexposed backlit sunshine. Other times, the film lingers over traffic lights as if they were something poetic.
Given that the film is self-distributed, Mr. Katz’s effort is certainly admirable. He and his mumble-cohorts deserve applause for working outside of the independent system that is subsidized by studio offshoots and populated by the likes of Sofia Coppola, Jake Kasdan, and Jason Reitman. “Quiet City” will try to capitalize on the success of a one-week run to expand beyond New York City, but lavish praise for the film would be somewhat unjustifiable and a disservice to directors such as David Gordon Green, Harmony Korine, and other visionaries of the new generation.
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