To the sub-genre fleetingly known as mumblecore, DVD releases seem especially important. Though Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Dance Party, USA saw nominal theatrical releases outside of the festival circuit, most interested viewers will have to catch up with them, as I did, in a home-viewing environment. The films even come packaged together for an instant catch-up in Katz’s low-fi, talky, Cassavetes-ish style.
Katz’s earlier effort of the two, Dance Party, stands apart from its genre relatives (Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair, etc.) by training its focus on teenagers rather than 20-somethings. Though the kids of Dance Party are actually more debauched than their next-decade counterparts, their wandering is a little more innocent, more natural. The varying degree of actorly ease, though, sometimes works against that naturalism. Dance Party also presents offhand evidence that girls do indeed mature faster than boys, as the females (especially lead girl Anna Kavan) seem less aware of the camera, and less self-conscious about Katz’s improvisation-heavy process, than the game but greener guys.
Katz notes in bonus materials for both films that he discourages his actors from trying too hard to be funny or charming. This is evident in Dance Party‘s deleted scenes, which are mostly longer, somewhat more comedic (if also more rambling) versions of what we see in the movie. The boys, in particular, get more time to riff and goof around—still awkward, but funny. The sum of these alternate takes roughly equal the final film’s 65 minutes, and the vague problem with Dance Party, USA is that the slim running time feels arbitrary—it could just as easily be half, twice, or one-sixth as long. A little shape comes when one of the most boastful guys (Cole Pennsinger) makes a startling confession, but even this little revelation is flexible; it could be material for a TV episode or a short subject.
Quiet City isn’t much longer, but its 78 minutes feel more like a feature. The film finds Katz observing a more traditional mumblecore habitat: post-college Brooklyn. It bears pointing out that besides the oft-cited artier influences (Cassavetes, French New Wave, etc.), mumblecore owes a certain debt to the talky 20 –and 30-something comedies of the ‘90s: Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), Nicole Holofcenter’s Walking and Talking (1996), and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1994).
In fact, Quiet City is more or less a direct revisioning of the Linklater film: Jamie (Erin Fisher), visiting New York, can’t find the friend she’s supposed to stay with, and meets Charlie (Cris Lankenau), who shows her around Brooklyn. By design, the newer film’s characters are less articulate (and less quippy) than their nineties counterparts; Katz stresses on his Quiet City commentary that he wanted natural, normal performances, so the chatter is far less philosophical than the meaning-of-life musings that Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy came up with. Authenticity is a concern, to the point of flirting with pretension. Luckily, Katz and the actors make this tendency toward the mundane touching, even romantic in its less overt way. Delpy and Hawke left certain things unsaid; Fisher and Lankenau, in their cautious flirting, say only certain things out loud.
In keeping with his emphasis on conversational pauses and microscopic moments, Katz shows off a hushed, near-solitary side of New York. Both of his films fixate on orange skies, trains and buses, city lights at dusk—the kind of tranquil, bittersweet beauty Sofia Coppola evoked in Lost in Translation. It’s a little self-indulgent, but his images are warm and vivid, especially given the ultra-low-budget videography (at one point during his commentary, Katz notes that they did not obtain filming permits as they would have exceeded the entire budget of Quiet City).
Indeed, it’s the DIY spirit of both films that keep them from sliding into an affected abyss. There are pitfalls, to be sure; even an aesthetic with firm commitments to naturalism and against traditional plots can develop its own cliches. Almost every mumblecore movie I’ve seen, for example, seems to require the characters to attend a loose, shambling party that introduces extra, usually dull characters. Katz indulges, though with more skill than most: Dance is structured (such as it is) around that sort of listless revelry, and Quiet City‘s is shorter and sharper than most, featuring an actual four-person dance party (which never materializes in the film of the same name), striking in its sweetness.
From Quiet City
It may be that laid-back gatherings are too entwined with these films’ creative DNA. On the Quiet City director/producer commentary, in explaining how the project came together, Katz and his cohorts describe a loose network of hookups and casual acquaintances that somehow (we infer) resulted in a mini-movement. In contrast with the customary gushing of Hollywood commentaries, Katz spends more time talking about the nuts and bolts process than praising everyone onscreen to the heavens. Lankenau and Fisher get a commentary of their own, where they sound a little gawkier (and, as with Dance Party, funnier) than their film counterparts as they address the awkwardness that came with Katz’s unblinking desire to keep it real (and their own endearing naivete about filmmaking: “we spent like five hours [on that scene] and he didn’t even use it!” one of them exclaims). The informality may be key to the film’s success.
Even more jocular is Quiet City‘s strangest bonus feature: a production of “Joe Swanberg’s Quiet City,” a four-minute distillation of Katz’s script shot by Swanberg (director of other recent mumblecore projects LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs) after he received the script via email at an airport, proving that the genre, despite its studied aversion to wit, does have a sense of humor about itself. This, coupled with the growth from Dance Party to Quiet City, suggests that Katz and company may be embarking on fruitful—gulp—actual careers.