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Age of Apathy

The mumbly new wave of films for young people.

By Dorothy Woodend 25 Jan 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee.

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Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau in 'Quiet City.'

Mumblecore . . .




I said MUMBLECORE! So, what is mumblecore you may well ask? A number of film critics have devoted time and effort to defining the term and its practitioners. The movement, such as it is, is defined by low budgets, young people's stories and an almost studied smallness of intent and resolution.

Whether the mumblers represent the birth of a new American filmmaking oeuvre or are merely a blip on the radar, director Aaron Katz, at the grand old age of 25, is one of the movement's founding fathers. Two of Katz's films (Dance Party USA and Quiet City) are screening at the Vancity Theatre Jan. 25-29th.

Shush children

Of the pair, Quiet City is a more mature affair, detailing the growing intimacy between two strangers who meet at a New York subway station. A young woman named Jamie has come to the city to visit a friend, but when her friend is nowhere to be found, she asks the only person around for directions to a local diner. This person is Charlie, and since he has apparently nothing else to do he decides to walk Jamie to the cafe and sit with her until she can reach her friend Samantha. When no such Samantha shows up, he invites Jamie back to his apartment.

Before you get the wrong idea, however, rest assured there is no sex involved, at all. This duo has all the shambling innocence of puppies. Rather than strip naked and get down to it, they seems content to smoke, mess about on Charlie's toy keyboard and make cute remarks. It is difficult to think of these characters as adults. They seem more like overgrown children, as shapeless and unformed as only the very young can, or ought, to be.

Time to disengage

The following day, Charlie and Jamie resume the search for Jamie's missing friend. They also attend an art opening, stage a foot race in the park, and talk, talk, talk about what they might be like when they grow up. If they grow up, that is. An odd passivity seems to permeate everything they do; even the edge of sex seems dulled by their constant patter.

Like Hansel and Gretel, they wander around the city, with little fear that anything bad can happen to them, leaning their drowsy heads together like sleepy children. There is almost an enclosed hermetic feeling to the society they inhabit, a sense that the larger world is far away. Adulthood with its bitterness, complexities and disappointments looms on the horizon, but it is forestalled for an instant, or maybe forever.

This lack of engagement with the world is both charming and maddening, and it made it difficult, for me at least, to truly like the characters. I spent a fair amount of time simply wanting to shake them out of this idyll, their extended infancy of playing with bouncy balls, trying on hats, and tinkling on a toy piano.

Animalistic yearnings

If you'd prefer a much more acid-tinged look at the Millennial generation take a gander at Nathan Barley Writer/director Chris Morris pulls no punches with his depiction of twentysomethings, and his evisceration of current culture is both horrifying and hilarious in equal measure.

But even the characters in Katz's film seem to realize that their cozy, cuddly intimacy comes at cost, namely passion. A conversation Jamie has with Robin, an old girlfriend from high school, elucidates this tradeoff in coy terms as Robin explains that she hasn't been physically interested ("animalistic" is the word used) in many of her old boyfriends. She wants to find someone who is kind of a jerk so that she can "cross that line."

Talk is easy but sex is tricky. Desire seems almost counterintuitive to these gentle, soft souls who drift through their days, unfettered by jobs or family, untouched by agony or joy. Their pleasures, as much as their suffering, are small. And when your time with them is over, their story dissipates as easily as smoke on the air.

Shooting the shit

Of the pair of films, I preferred Katz's first feature, Dance Party USA, simply because there is more rude life present, and make no mistake it is extremely rude. The film came about partly because of a conversation the director overheard while riding on transit.

In an interview Katz gave to Indiewire when his film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, he described the encounter thusly, "It was these two teenage guys shooting the shit and saying some of the most offensive stuff I've ever heard. My initial thought was something like, 'Woah, look at this pair of assholes.' In spite of myself, I felt compelled to pull out my notebook and write down what they were saying."

The film begins with exactly that same scenario, two teenagers talking trash about some girl at a party in the most loathsome terms imaginable. Your first impression will probably be akin to that of the filmmaker, yuck. But first impressions can be misleading, and underneath the blatant misogyny and nasty talk lurks some genuine feeling.

Generation Mumblecore

Like Quiet City, Dance Party is also primarily concerned with one couple, Jessica and Gus, who meet at a party when their respective friends pair off. This initial encounter sparks off in an unlikely direction when Gus, apropos of nothing apparently, confesses some personal darkness to Jessica. This unlooked for intimacy has a strange impact on both of them, but really, plot is somewhat irrelevant here. The film is primarily concerned with a series of moments, and a sense of atmosphere.

As Gus and Jessica drive to an empty sports field in the middle of a deserted Portland, the city's stillness bring to mind earlier portraits of empty Americana and the kids who live inside it. Terrence Malick's Badlands would seem an obvious reference, but Gus and Jessica lack their predecessors, Kit and Holly's, deadly energy. They also have some degree of conscience, however muted and dim. In this, the morality of Katz's film is quite conventional (unlike Malick's). Gus redeems himself and, in so doing, is rewarded with love. The films wraps up sweetly, with a chaste kiss and a return to some form of innocence.

If Aaron Katz is a chronicler of an age of apathy, he's done a beautiful job. Both films are lovely to look at, filled with exquisitely composed images, and slow gentle rhythms. They are artful, certainly, but after watching them a type of emptiness remains. Whether this due to the films themselves, or the generation they're capturing is unclear. It gives one pause to think that this coming generation will probably face one of the worst environmental catastrophes in human history, and yet they seem so unconcerned about the prospect, almost anesthetized.

It's both unfair and unwise to make generalizations about an enormous group of people, and drawing conclusions about kids these days from the way they're depicted in the films of mumblecore directors, Aaron Katz being only one example, is probably even more unwise. Still, it's hard for thirtysomething me not to feel alienated in some way from these kids. I just don't get them. Maybe that's how you know you're truly old, when everyone else seems so terribly young.

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