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Frownland (The Criterion Collection)
After enjoying Ronald Bronstein's powerful performance in Daddy Longlegs I felt almost duty-bound to check out his directorial debut Frownland (2007). While the latter movie shares much in common with the former, Frownland is to be approached with extreme caution. It's a plot-less trip into hellish despair. If that, and an intimate portrait of low-rent New York City, sounds like a great way to spend 106 minutes, then The Criterion Collection has your ticket.
Frownland has roots in the indie film-making scene of New York, from the '80s on up. Bronstein crafts a movie that appears so off-the-cuff, one imagines that any old person might just accidentally have made it. We get the chance to peer in on the life (if you can call it that) of Keith, as assayed by Dore Mann. Keith has something like a job going door-to-door selling coupon books. It feels like a scam to anyone unfortunate enough to answer his call, as they quickly detect he's being shuttled around in a van with a small crew of other ne'er-do-wells. Keith shares a studio apartment so small he sleeps in the kitchen, using the oven door as a drop-down table right next to his bed.
That's pretty much it as far as a storyline goes. Keith's life sucks, he can barely hold on to his job, he and his roommate hate each other, and they can't keep the lights on. At this point you're excused if you want to jump ship. Even the movie knows how untenable things are; the score sounds like the pulsing underlayment of an Italian horror movie. Though this movie is most assuredly a drama (there are no elements of true horror) the two two closest referents I have for the level of abject emotional squalor on display are The Driller Killer and Combat Shock.
Keith is unable to connect to anyone in any fashion. He can't communicate whatsoever and he doesn't seem to understand that other people have emotions or separate lives. The first ten minutes of run-time are occupied, literally, by Keith trying to speak to his female friend Laura (the heroic Mary Wall). His mouth opens and almost closes over-and-over like a dying fish, but no words come out. When he does manage elocution, it's to mercilessly harangue acquaintances into acknowledging that he exists, but it comes out as "unmanageable jumblings ... mangled syntax" as his roommate puts it. "I didn't mean to bother you" is Keith's frequent refrain, and you doubt his sincerity entirely.
Eventually his story arc breaks down into a nightmare run through late-night city streets and chaotic parties, slopping around on rivulets of snot and vomit. Fin.
Frownland is an aggressively unpleasant essay on the hell of isolation and emotional immaturity. It has zero in terms of plot, but ladles on gritty, garbage-strewn atmosphere and grime that will resonate deeply with anyone who has spent any time with those who cling to the fringes of life in New York. I'll leave you with a few quotes from my pages of notes: "astonishingly difficult to endure", "this movie is exhausting", and "this movie is hell". Fearlessly acted by Dore Mann, while written and directed by Ronald Bronstein with merciless brutality in mind, Frownland is cautiously Recommended for fans of fringe cinema, but be warned, watching it is a powerfully horrible experience.
Criterion brings you Frownland in a 1.66:1 ratio, new 2k digital transfer. Frownland was shot on 16mm film, blown up to 35mm for its theatrical screenings, from which this scan was taken. It looks like you'd imagine such a guerrilla movie might, one seemingly filmed entirely with natural lighting, when there is lighting to be had at all. The image as such is soft and grainy as hell. Could it be any other way?
The original 16mm monaural magnetic tape track has been remastered for this release. Dialog, such as it is, comes through adequately, and the creepy horror-movie style synthesizer soundtrack is suitably mixed in as well.
A 45-page, plain yellow paper Insert Booklet contains an essay by New Yorker writer Richard Brody and a lengthy, revealing interview with the principals from the movie. It's inclusion is much obliged for helping one understand what they've just watched. The movie comes with an Introduction by Bronstein, English SDH subtitles, Deleted Scenes (two scenes, totaling about 20 minutes) and a 35-minute, insightful Conversation between Bronstein and filmmaker Josh Safdie.
Frownland, fearlessly acted by Dore Mann, while written and directed by Ronald Bronstein with merciless brutality in mind, is a plot-less, anti-life exercise in isolation and despair depicting the hapless travails of a New York loser. It is cautiously Recommended for fans of fringe cinema, but be warned, watching it is a powerfully horrible experience.