If you've had your fill of the formulaic Hollywood films that populate theaters in January and February, listen up. Benten Films, the distribution company run by film writers, has released a double-DVD set of Aaron Katz films for you: Quiet City and Dance Party, USA. Quiet City, which premiered at SXSW last year and helped trigger the whole "mumblecore" dialogue, is the standout film of the two, but Dance Party, USA also has some lovely moments.
Quiet City is an exquisitely filmed fairytale of New York, centering around a pair of twentysomethings. Jamie (Erin Fisher) arrives in NYC from Atlanta to spend the weekend with a flaky friend who never shows up to meet her. She asks directions from a stranger on the street, Charlie (Cris Lankenau), and they end up having dinner together, discovering they get along very well. They spend a day having fun around the city. You can't watch a man and woman who become fast friends like this without wondering whether they'll hook up, which provides a small amount of suspense. But you get so caught up watching these people and their friends that the romantic potential hardly seems to matter most of the time.
My summary makes this sound like a rehash of Beyond Sunrise, and Quiet City obviously owes a debt to that movie, but the characters and setting are quite different. The movie just plain looks beautiful, and even on your TV screen you can appreciate the glowing colors, the backgrounds of New York that look like paintings. The characters go to an art show with unimpressive exhibits -- the real art surrounds them, for the entire movie.
Quiet City takes patience. Don't expect a plot-driven movie with obvious musical cues and stock characters. This is not a movie where you care about predictability because it doesn't matter. We're watching two ordinary people on what seems like an ordinary day on the surface, but everything they do has an unreal air about it, some strange and almost poetic twist. Who else runs a race in the park for fun, drops in on a friend (Joe Swanberg) who feeds them coleslaw, and wakes someone up using a toy construction crane?
Dance Party, USA was harder for me to get into -- it took about 10 minutes for me to understand what was going on, and which character was which. The 2006 film is set in Portland, and centers around a teen party on July 4. Two of the party guests are Gus (Cole Pennsinger) and Jessica (Anna Kavan). They have mutual friends in common, but we don't see them interact with each other until a memorable scene outside the house where the party's in full swing, where they have a quiet, private space to try to understand one another. Several of these scenes in which a couple of characters are trying to connect are the best parts of this movie.
I like the way Katz uses sound and especially silence in both these movies, as a way of getting your attention and directing your perspective. Silence on a busy street can indicate that the characters have tuned out the world around them, and silence as we watch a character listen to a record on her headphones may show that there are things about this character we simply cannot know.
The DVD set includes audio commentaries for both movies, as well as a couple of short films. Joe Swanberg's Quiet City is more a prank than a short -- when filmmaker Swanberg got the script for Quiet City, he shot a few key scenes on the fly (literally -- it was during a plane trip) and sent the footage to Katz with the note that he'd already submitted his version of Quiet City to Sundance. The set also contains an early film from Katz called The Lunch Hour, alternate/deleted scenes from Dance Party, USA, and an interview with the composer of Quiet City, Keegan Dewitt.
The packaging of the Quiet City/Dance Party, USA set follows the director's preference for the simple and lovely. The plastic case is in a sleeve with an eye-catching cover taken from Quiet City. The DVDs are both packaged in a single case. The liner notes in the case also include two essays, one by Ray Carney about Quiet City, and one by Ray Pride about Dance Party, USA. The attention to detail in the packaging and on the DVDs themselves is notable -- this is a set you would want to own, rather than rent.
My recommendation is that you not make the same mistake I made: Don't watch the two movies back to back, or even on consecutive days. I think one reason I had trouble finding the rhythm of Dance Party, USA was because I had finished Quiet City the day before. Give these movies a little time and space, and you should find them rewarding.