The first decade of the 21st Century is shaping up as a heady time for American independent cinema with the emergence of a large cadre of talented writer/directors. Their ranks include James Bolton (The Graffiti Artist), Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair), Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), Miranda July (Me And You And Everyone We Know), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), and Joe Swanberg (LOL). The common thread in the works of these writer/directors is a decided lack of the ingredients of standard Hollywood fare: no big stars, shootouts and explosions, improbable romances, or absurd comedy. Instead, their work features ordinary people doing ordinary things, set in real locations, and presented in plausible ways, that is still remarkably satisfying. The extraordinary thing is that these young voices pull off so much with so little. Aaron Katz's place amongst this talented group was suggested by Dance Party, USA in 2006, and confirmed by the marvelous Quiet City the following year. Now both of these films are available in this 2-disc set.
Shot on DV in Portland, Oregon using real locations, non-professional actors, and for almost no budget, Katz's first solo feature-length film is a diamond in the rough. Dance Party, USA, which follows two days in the lives of disaffected teens Gus (Cole Pennsinger) and Jessica (Anna Kavan), plays like an Andrew Bujalski film stripped of its comedy, and souped-up with teen cynicism and sexual obsession ala the films of Larry Clark. Gus is on the prowl at a lame Fourth of July house party when he meets Jessica. Though he knows her only vaguely, she knows a lot about him. Outing him on his reputation as a misogynistic lothario, she tells him not to waste his breath because she's not going to sleep with him. There's something in Jessica's confident no-nonsense maturity, pulled off incredibly well by the novice Kavan, that seems to strike a cord with the slightly-inebriated, slightly-melancholy Gus. Within moments he's confessing to a date rape committed a year earlier at another party. The rest of the film follows the wake of that revelation with unexpected developments.
Despite its minimal story and small cast, Dance Party, USA feels slightly rushed by its overzealous editing. Katz and editor Zach Clark trimmed the beginning and ending of many scenes compressing the film into an overly-tight 66 minutes. While this editing may keep the story narrowly focused and forward leaning, it deprives the viewer of important information (e.g., an establishing scene is cut leaving the viewer without much clue as to the characters' ages until well into the film's second half), and, more importantly, of the pauses needed to process the information provided and prepare for the next scene. The editing evidences a lack of confidence in the film's power to hold audience attention. Despite this significant flaw, this film is worth seeing for the impressive performance by Anna Kavan who owns every scene she's in, and for the insights it provides into Katz's developing talent fully realized by his far better follow up effort, Quiet City.
Seeing Dance Party, USA back to back with Quiet City is revelatory of the rapid maturation of Katz as a writer and director. Quiet City, shot on HDV, is the product of a confident voice not afraid to strip a story down to its minimalist core and then to set the story tempo to a craw allowing the audience extended opportunities to reflect, process, and recompile. Quiet City begins with such an awkwardly slight premise that it would surely receive a toxic infusion of coincidence and contrivance in lesser hands. Jamie (Erin Fisher), a young woman from Atlanta steps off a subway in Brooklyn and asks directions of Charlie (Cris Lankenau) to a nearby dinner where she's suppose to meet a friend. Charlie, a slightly-introverted twenty-something Park Slope hipster is initially nonplussed by Jamie, but after collecting his wits he escorts her to the dinner. Naturally Jamie's friend does not arrive and cannot be reached, and circumstances leave Charlie offering Jamie a place to stay until she can reach her friend. Though this is a shaky place to begin a story, the footing quickly firms.
Refreshingly, Jamie and Charlie's relationship doesn't fall into the immediate and easy head-over-heels rush of countless romantic dramas, the best of which is most certainly Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. Wary affectation seesaws with conspicuously self-conscious flirtation as Jamie hangs with Charlie at his apartment. The evening ends with Jamie falling asleep before either she or Charlie has said or done anything which they might have cause to regret come morning. The story goes through a series of expansions and contractions the next day as Jamie and Charlie try to track down Jamie's friend, go to the park, retrieve a hat from a friend of Charlie's (played for laughs by indie director Joe Swanberg), return to Charlie's apartment for lunch and a nap, and go to a gallery opening and an after-party, with everything wrapping up in a beautifully crafted ending which is ambiguous and open-ended yet completely satisfying.
Katz knows where he wants the scenes to go, but he relies on varying degrees of improvisation to get there. Finally with this film, Katz has the confidence to allow each scene to find its own pacing. The tempo of the story is spun down even slower through the frequent use of beautifully composed empty vistas to provide pauses between scenes. These visuals by cinematographer Andrew Reed are reminiscent of the compositions of cinematographer Sarah Levy in So Yong Kim's In Between Days not so much in their subject matter, but in their power to invoke reflection in the viewer. Finally, the score by Keegan Dewitt must also be mentioned. Though Dewitt also scored Dance Party, USA, it is here in the empty pauses of this film that the subtle genius of his compositions are fully realized. Dewitt's slow score dwelling on the low end of the keyboard does not set the tone, it punctuates it.
Produced by Benten Films and released by Ryko Distribution, this 2-disc set includes ample extras and sports nice packaging which includes a slip cover and booklet.
Quiet City is presented in its original shooting ratio of 1.78:1. The image is anamorphically enhanced, and the deeply saturated colors of the DHV are well rendered. Dance Party, USA is presented in a non-enhanced letterbox format with flat coloring preserving the look of the image as shown theatrically. According to the accompanying booklet, the letterboxing was necessary "to preserve the integrity of its original shooting ratio: full-frame 1.33:1, masked to 1.85.1." Aaron Hillis, Vice President of Benten Films, informed me that a test of the DV to determine whether to anamorphically enhance it demonstrated that the image quality would have suffered measurably from what in effect would have been blowing up the image vertically and horizontally.
The DVDs are presented in a satisfactory 2.0 stereo mix fitting to the films' low-budget indie style. There is no discernible drop out or distortions in the audio track. I'm told by Hillis that the audio is dramatically improved over the theatrical presentation, and I have no reason to doubt this.
This 2-disc release is loaded with quality extras that start with the 10-page accompanying booklet that includes an essay by Chicago film critic Ray Pride on Dance Party, USA, and another on Quiet City by film scholar Ray Carney. In the interests of disclosure, I'll note that I'm a fan of professor Carney's writings on John Cassavetes and independent cinema, and I was impressed to find that this generally, but not wholeheartedly, favorable review of his was included in the booklet.
The extras on the Dance Party, USA disc include a commentary with the director and producers; a commentary with the director and actors Anna Kaven, Cole Pennsinger, Ryan White, Brendan McFadden; alternative and extended scenes, with optional commentary by Katz and editor Zach Clark; and an early short film by Katz, The Lunch Hour with optional commentary by Katz and actor/composer Keegan Dewitt.
The extras on the Quiet City disc include a commentary with the director, cinematographer and producers; a cast commentary with the leads Erin Fisher and Chris Lankenau; a short film parody by indie director Joe Swanberg, entitled Joe Swanberg's Quiet City; an interview with music composer Keegan Dewitt; footage from the NYC premiere of Quiet City; and a trailer for the film.
Through the course of this two-disc set, Aaron Katz can be seen to mature as a writer/director right before the eyes. The talent suggested by Dance Party, USA is confirmed by Quiet City. Katz is most assuredly one of the best emerging voices in American independent cinema. This splendidly produced and reasonably priced 2-disc set is highly recommended.