Editor’s note: Quiet City is screening as part of New York’s IFC Center series, “The New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y.”, 31 August-4 September 2007.
A simple-seeming soundtrack colors the first moments of Quiet City. Scant drums and judicious high-hat accompany stationary shots of an idle crane, scraggly antennae, and a jet plane—all set against a red sky, high clouds shaped like slits, barely drifting. The camera zooms in, awkwardly, a view from the train to smoke, thick and dark. Cut to a dark subway tunnel, lights flashing, train propulsive: a brief contrast between stillness and movement. You’ll be getting off in Brooklyn, the 14th Street station.
Jamie (Erin Fisher) is looking for a place, here in Park Slope. She checks the map on the train she’s riding, exits to the platform, the camera repeatedly low and close, observing her face but not exactly probing. You’re not going to know much about her, aside from basic facts. She’s from Atlanta, she’s supposed to meet a friend in a diner, the friend’s cell phone isn’t charged, so they miss each other, her friend’s unreliable. By chance, she spots Charlie (Cris Lankenau)—they’re the only figures in a long shot of the empty-seeming station—and asks him for directions. These become more complicated the more he speaks, left and left again, two blocks up. “I’m trying to think,” he says.
You might say that all of Quiet City follows Jamie and Charlie’s efforts to locate, to arrive, to “think,” even to connect. But as possibilities linger, the film is never banal. They climb the subway stairs into the light, deeply silhouetted as they leave behind a cast of warm orange, emerging into a story that is more and maybe less than what you expect. They keep trying to part, as each might have someplace else to be. But they’re drawn to one another as well. And so Quiet City accommodates and resists movie-plotty conventions, putting its boy and girl together but not quite, watching them wonder at their chance meeting. “I’m just in a bad situation right now,” says Jamie, unable to find her friend. As she and Charlie wait at the diner where the friend is supposed to show up, they trade stories of irresponsible friends and their own occasional forgetfulness. They’re getting to know one another but not propulsively. They’re present, alternately distracted and intent, not headed somewhere else.
This may be the most remarkable thing about Aaron Katz’s movie, its patience (underlined by the Keegan DeWitt’s delicate score). Jamie and Charlie spend long hours together, broken up into bits of revelation and banality. He brings her home to his apartment, where they play something like music on his keyboards (Charlie’s impressed enough: “Sounds like a real song”). She cuts his hair, barely (“Who cuts your hair?” she starts; “Why? Does it look stupid?”). When they step outside so he can roll a cigarette and smoke maybe a third of it, they’re framed in close-ups, in windy nighttime light and sharp shadows, little portraits of contrasts, self-consciousness and comfort.
Their next day—following Jamie’s falling asleep in Charlie’s bed, leaving him to the sofa—begins with a visit to his friend Adam. Pleasantly ensconced in an apartment tastefully decorated by his unseen fiancée, Adam’s played by Joe Swanberg, who directed Hannah Takes the Stairs, a movie that has, along with Quiet City, been deemed “mumblecore.” Loosely conceived, the “movement” tends toward improvised dialogue, spoken by white, 20something characters engaged in “everyday” activities. The lack of action focuses attention on efforts to communicate, through technologies that fail (the uncharged cell phone) and words that fall short. Under such circumstances, in close-ups, looks can mean everything.
When Charlie goes along with Jamie to a gallery show featuring work by her friend Robin (Sarah Hellman), the not-quite-a-couple splits off during an after-party, each spending time with someone else. Left on his own, Charlie has to answer intro questions (“What do you do?”), and has to find ways not to explain that he’s unemployed: “I’m just kind of slinking around,” he confesses, inspiring his interlocutor to do the same. Acknowledging that slinking doesn’t pay rent, Charlie asserts, “We need to devise a plot where basically we can do absolutely nothing and get our bills paid.”
Even as this sounds like an inside joke about mumblecore (which might look like doing nothing), it’s contrasted with Robin’s confessions with Jamie. As she worries about being single, Robin’s speech is stumbly and earnest and innocuous, but it’s all about how relationships, even conversations, can’t accommodate expectations. “You see these, like, movies and, like, these sex scenes are so animalistic,” she sighs. “So I guess what I decided recently was that what I really needed was someone that was totally hot that was kind of a jerk, maybe, so I could just like get over it?” Jamie nods. Robin goes on,
I would never do anything with anyone who like I didn’t feel a connection to, but I kind of just want to not have to like worry, about like, this long history, like I didn’t want all these memories of like this psychological stuff going on. I just wanted it to be sort of more visceral, I think that’s what I need.
It’s exactly not what’s going on in Quiet City, and as you listen to her describe what usually happens in movies, you’re grateful. The connection that’s being forged between Jamie and Charlie doesn’t have to simulate romance or provide visceral pleasures, and it doesn’t have to last. When they reconnect, the party noise fades away. Charlie describes his party encounters (“You can’t really get into anything that important in this environment, can you?”) and Jamie smiles, serene: “Depending,” she says, “Depending if you know what people want to talk about.”
Maybe they do know, with each other at least. And maybe this part of their story can end, as it started, on a train. It can end without talking, Jamie’s head leaned gently into Charlie’s shoulder as they ride into the quiet night. At once tender and resonant, the film closes on promise rather than resolution. After all the diffidence, the contemplating and fretting, this seems completely right.