Despite the many boons (cost, flexibility, et al) of digital video vis-à-vis independent filmmaking, this new cinema medium possesses one glaring drawback. In epochs past, new directors had to use film, an inherently expensive format, when creating their first works as it was the only option they had when producing movies. Maiden voyages to the silver screen were limited by small budgets and, thus, rookie filmmakers had to resort to the short film. Relegated to one reel their faculties were rigorously honed until they were ready for the feature length.
Roman Polanski made the 20-minute Two Men and a Wardrobe before Rosemary’s Baby, Martin Scorsese began with six-minute The Big Shave before graduating to Mean Streets; indeed most prominent directors began with making short films. However, with the maddeningly cheap price point of digital video, new directors may dive forthright into feature-length filmmaking. Of course, this move is often premature, their skill sets having not yet been properly trained and what the viewers are left with is unripe talent spread too thin across 90-minutes of video. This is precisely the ailment from which first-time director Adam Vardy’s 90-minute digital feature, Mendy, suffers.
Mendy relates the tale of the eponymous protagonist, a young Jewish man attempting to resolve the tenants of his strict Hasidic Judaism with the hypermodern secular nexus of New York City. Mendy, undergoing a spiritual crisis spawned by sexual impropriety, leaves his Brooklyn shtetl (a small Jewish community) to live with his Judaism-lapsed childhood friend Yankel. Hoping through experience of the unsheltered city to find grounding with which he may reconcile the tenants of his orthodox upbringing with the pressures of present-day New York, Mendy is, instead, introduced by Yankel into a miasma of drugs, promiscuity, and moral decay. His faith is tested and, although he never relinquishes his belief in God, he does exhibit spiritual fragility by breaking from the edicts of his Hasidic sect and cutting his side curls, engaging in intercourse with a non-Jewish woman (a shiksa), and trafficking ecstasy for a Jewish dealer.
Also living with Yankel is the Brazilian dancer and barmaid, Bianca. Mendy initially evaluates Bianca as vile because of her shiksa status and her past as a stripper. However, Mendy’s instinctual repugnance to secularity is overcome by Bianca’s compassionate demeanor and eventual introduction of Mendy to her modern choreography and dance. Bianca and Yankel serve as the two disparate, yet not antipodal, sources of Mendy’s re-education as he attempts to navigate his faith outside his insular Jewish community.
The overarching milieu of the film is spectacular; Adam Vardy and his co-writer Heshey Schnitzler adroitly tow a fine line between preachy discourse and dramatic throw-away-your-Torahs plunge into secularity. The duo manages to write a screenplay which carefully depicts the fullness of spiritual turmoil without featuring a protagonist full of reactionary anger at his outmoded religion.
However, while strong on a supra-structural level, the film highlights the artistic shortcomings of a new director who thinly stretches limited resources (both financial and aesthetic) over feature length. Mendy’s dialogue is often staid, the small-talk of the cast painfully reminiscent of the wooden scripts of grade school foreign language textbooks. Ironically, the screenwriting is most organic in the theological interchanges between Mendy and his two roommates. Mendy’s script is representative of the film in general: virtuosic in bursts but unable to bear the weight of a full length running time.
The cinematography further displays Vardy’s directorial overreaching. The first sequence in the film is a low angle tracking shot of Mendy running through a train station. While seeking to engender the “indie” aspect of the long tracking shot (see Anderson, Baumbach, etc.) the scene instead suggests a film that is rough around the edges. Steadicams and dollies are either eschewed or poorly employed and thus the frame bounces noticeably, detrimentally branding the film as an amateur endeavor. The camera for much of the film is offensively handheld, a cinematographic choice which reads as not an auteur move, but rather, the product of directorial flaccidity or indolence. Such weak elements bar the audience from engaging the rich film world, distanced in the manner in which one is when viewing a home movie.
It bears mentioning that Mendy does not completely fail in the technical arena. Again, when Mendy embraces its low-budget and rookie aspect rather than grandstanding a display of roughshod overreaching, the film is its strongest. The credit sequence and successive sequences of Mendy in the airport smuggling drugs are composed of grainy still photos in a fashion remarkably similar to Chris Marker’s La Jetée. This method was clearly a work-around for the cost and difficulties of airport filmmaking and it functions beautifully. Mendy accepts the inabilities imposed upon it and the film succeeds. Furthermore, towards the end of the film, Mendy attends a mikvah (bathhouse) for ritualistic purification. He submerges himself repeatedly and the camera remains stationary. There is a comely symmetry to the shot and the cinematographic simplicity is a perfect fit.
Had Mendy been a much shorter film, a condensation entirely possible with its straightforward plot, and had the director realized his limitations, the spiritual strength of the piece would have been magical. However, Vardy and Scnitzler’s subtle and able mastery of theological struggle is unfortunately diluted by Mendy’s feature length and Vardy’s directorial puerility.
Mendy’s special features include a trailer, a rather uninspired “music video” live performance by The Sway Machinery, and a very appropriate interview with co-writer Heshey Schnitzler. The interview is a pleasure to watch, explicating Jewish tradition and philosophy in an extremely cogent fashion.