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Trumping Trump

The following essay by Ray Carney on Aaron Katz’s Quiet City accompanies a 2-disc DVD release from Benten Films out this week of Quiet City and Katz’s first film, Dance Party, USA.

Mainstream film is so much an art of the maximum – the biggest, the flashiest, the fastest, the most exaggerated – that it is easy to forget that the great films all go in the opposite direction. They are, almost without exception, triumphs of minimalism. They rely on subtlety, understatement, indirection, and simplification. In Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch sets long sections of each work in almost empty rooms. In Femme Douce and L’Argent, Robert Bresson silences his characters to such an extent that room tone and traffic noises become more important than what the characters say to each other. In Joan of Arc and Gertrud, Carl Dreyer immobilizes his actors and actually prevents them from “acting” by insisting that they talk in conversational tones even at moments of high drama. But the effect of these acts of reduction is the opposite of a feeling of emptiness or depletion. As is so often the case in art, less is more. When physical distractions, editorial razzle dazzle, and actorly scenery chewing are removed, the smallest sounds, gestures, and tones of voice become of colossal importance. When everything that is non–essential is pared away, anything that remains is deepened and enriched.

The patron saint of Aaron Katz’s Quiet City is another practitioner of cinematic minimalism, Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. As Ozu did, Katz organizes his film around shots of trains, stations, and platforms, and inserts repeated “pause points” between his short scenes – moments in which the narrative simply is switched off, and the viewer is left contemplating shots of city skylines, trees, buildings, and light posts.

Katz’s insertion of these static shots may seem like a trivial stylistic device, but it has enormous consequences. The periodic rest stops change everything. They drain away narrative impetus and energy. The dragster accelerations of American narrative are sent crashing into visual brick walls. Viewer psychology is reversed. The viewer stops wondering what will happen, where a scene will go, where the film will end, and starts watching what is actually taking place. The appetitiveness, suspensefulness, and rhetorical pressure of mainstream narrative embodies the capitalist imaginative project of inducing endless speculation about the future while fostering a headlong rush into it; Katz’s pause–points induce a Zen-like present-mindedness. Katz holds us in the here and now. When we (and the characters) free ourselves from our druggie addiction to the stimulations of eventfulness and onwardness, our hell-bent–for–leather obsession with consequences, results, and dramatic (and human) “payoffs,” we (and they) become free to enjoy the goofy pleasures of noodling on a keyboard, drinking wine out of absurdly gigantic mugs, shivering on the roof and saying nothing that really matters, trying on silly hats, unstacking and stacking books, and running a zany race that gets nowhere.

One of the major ways mainstream film allows viewers and characters to leave the present behind is by using various forms of imaginative and rhetorical heightening to pressure moments into meaning more than they do on the surface. Quiet City, like so many of its slacker compatriots, is willfully superficial. It avoids, to the last shot, the standard studio techniques of imaginative deepening, enrichment, and enhancement. A freighted romantic glance, an evocative mood-music orchestration, a key-lighted close-up would free us (and the two main characters, Jamie and Charlie) from the claims of reality, would let us (and them) float above the here and now. While Hollywood is devoted to using visual and acoustic forms of heightening to raise the stakes everywhere it can, Katz keeps the narrative pressure and visual temperature, the dramatic tendentiousness, the personal energy, as low as possible in order to hold viewers and characters in the details of the present.

The apparent haphazardness or randomness of Jamie and Charlie’s dialogue is essential to that project. Conversations between the characters are not organized to make “points” or to “get somewhere.” It’s worth noting that although Katz gave his lead actors — Erin Fisher (Jamie), Cris Lankenau (Charlie), Sarah Hellman (Robin), and Tucker Stone (Kyle) — detailed instructions about the kinds of conversations he wanted them to have in each scene, most of the actual words they speak in the film were improvised. (As a practical matter, this was the only way Katz could realistically have proceeded — given the modesty of his schedule, his methods, and his players. It would have taken a genius-level screenwriter and weeks of rehearsals to have written and rehearsed interactions that played this easily and naturally, this apparently haphazardly and randomly.) The verbal effect is to create a monumentally laid-back relation to life. What happens, happens. What doesn’t, doesn’t. No one is pushing the river. No one is making anything happen.

That doesn’t mean that nothing happens, but rather that it appears to originate without personal or imaginative pressure being applied by the characters or by the filmmaker. The relationship of Charlie and Jamie does get somewhere, but Katz’s goal is to present the progress of a relationship that is not rhetorically inflated or narratively pressured, a relationship that is not presented as a series of heightened, dramatic “points” in the stupid movie way. The “slacker” sensibility is at the heart of the project. Hollywood uses the character’s (that is the actor’s) ego as a generator of narrative impetus and movement. Actors (and the characters they play) “make scenes” that “make the movie go.” Tom Cruise and Robert DeNiro strut and fret, and Jack Nicholson and Nicholas Cage shout and showboat their way through their movies, flattering viewers with macho visions of how powerful and powerfully expressive someone can be. Quiet City quiets, stills, and almost stops the acting. The actor becomes a reactor. The film shifts the shaping process away from the character and onto the movie’s structure as the creator of meaning. This is harder to do than it may sound, and Ozu’s work again can stand as an illustration of how complex the effect can be. Jamie and Charlie’s coming together emerges from the subtle comparisons and contrasts Katz creates, rather than from Jamie and Charlie’s personal pressurings of reality (or of each other). It is another way in which Katz jettisons the capitalist understanding of life. The American cinematic world of pushy people, assertive plans and goals, and powerful, personal “agency” is replaced by the quietism and passivity of what takes place in Tokyo Story, Autumn Afternoon, or Late Spring — films whose characters (or actors) would never presume to “take over” their stories, films where the sequence of scenes and the comparisons and contrasts Ozu makes between the characters create connections, relationships, and meanings that the films’ characters not only do not force into existence, but which they are generally not even aware are being created around them.

One of the Ozu-like organizational devices Katz employs to bring Charlie and Jamie together is to move them into ever more complex settings. Jamie and Charlie are ever-so-gradually pulled together by being circulated through, and sharing imaginative experiences within, alien environments. They begin as two souls stranded alone on the desert island of a deserted train station, an empty restaurant, and in Charlie’s apartment, but Katz moves them into ever larger and more complex settings in the course of the film. They first go into a deserted apartment that has all the trappings of a medieval castle — not only do they have to scale walls and cross a drawbridge to get into it, but once inside, they encounter comically antique costumes and must attempt to decode the meaning of a mysterious shrine in the center of its main room. Then Katz has them eat coleslaw with the slightly spacey Adam (comically played by indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg). Then they must negotiate the crowds at Robin’s gallery opening. They are then plunged into a sprawling birthday party. Charlie may seem to have little to recommend him in the film’s initial scenes, but in the process of being implicitly compared to and contrasted with the other young men in each of these scenes — most memorably, in being contrasted with the comically clueless Kyle — Charlie almost becomes a Gen–Z Cary Grant. The comparison process makes his quietness, shyness, and unassertiveness seem like strengths.

In a similar vein, Katz subtly organizes the sequence of conversations in the film to raise romantic possibilities connected with Jamie and Charlie’s relationship (at the same time – and it is critical to the “unpressured” and “non–point–making” effect of the film – without them losing their appearance of being random and haphazard): Jamie’s cell phone conversation — with a friend or some adult in her life — the morning after she has stayed over in Charlie’s apartment; Jamie and Charlie’s conversation in the apartment they break into about their respective difficulties maintaining (or ending) romantic relationships; Adam’s conversation with Charlie and Jamie about how long it took him to decide to marry his girlfriend; and Kyle’s typically tactless and clueless speculations about what is going on between Jamie and Charlie. The structural climax of Katz’s raising of romantic issues and bringing Jamie and Charlie together occurs in a brilliantly interwoven three–step sequence of scenes during the party at Robin’s apartment near the end of the film. The first scene in the sequence is the moment where Jamie and Charlie dance together to one of the few instances of non-diegetic music in the film, a moment that concludes with Jamie ever-so-briefly glancing at Charlie with a look we have not seen before. The second step in the sequence occurs in a monologue — the dramatic high-point of the film — in which Robin talks to Jamie about her need for intimacy and the difficulty of what Robin calls “crossing the line” — moving from being a friend to a lover in a relationship. The third step in the sequence occurs a minute or two later in a scene in which Jamie and Charlie physically touch for the first time (in the veiled form of the two characters trading high-fives and then having Charlie adjust part of Jamie’s dress for her). A few minutes later, when they exchange a common cigarette in front of the fruit stand, the magic has been worked, without a word of love being spoken between the two of them. (Given the modesty of the production, Andrew Reed’s yellow-tinged lighting in several of these scenes may have been a mere accident, but the golden cast of the light wonderfully links the moments together and lends just the right glow to everything, without pressuring the emotional content.)

As another equally important organizational device, Katz beautifully modulates and shifts his film’s tone from moment to moment, glissading from clumsy tenderness (e.g. in Jamie and Charlie’s meeting), to comedy (e.g. in the scenes featuring Adam and then Kyle), to romantic meditativeness (e.g. in the scene where Robin talks to Jamie about her need for intimacy). Katz also knows enough to interrupt the romantic trajectory near the end of the film with tonal counter-marches and digressions: the birthday party celebration and its zany presents (where director Katz has a cameo as the “million dollar birthday boy”), the complaints of a roommate about the noise, and Kyle’s comical nattering (first to Charlie about making a fortune in carpet remnants and, subsequently, to Robin as the guest who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home).

Kyle might be called the anti-Katz in that Quiet City shows that Katz understands exactly what Kyle can’t. Quiet City shows that life comes down to issues of tone, tact, and touch, and that gentleness and delicacy, understatement and restraint are everything. Just a hair one way or another — inserting a more obviously romantic musical track during the dance party sequence; holding the look Jamie gives Charlie at the end of it just a beat or two longer to make it more needy or more evocative; having Jamie deliver the speech that Robin delivers in the film about loneliness and her need for love; making Charlie romantically more assertive, or more of a charmer and a smoothie; having either Jamie or Charlie actually talk about their desire for each other; or any of a thousand other missteps another filmmaker might have made with the same characters and the same story — would have destroyed everything that makes Quiet City so quietly elegant and beautiful. With any of the preceding changes, it would have become a Hollywood movie. It would have become Kyle’s understanding of the story.

There are places that Quiet City does not go. The gossamer structure of Jamie and Charlie’s relationship would shiver into tatters if the movie continued beyond its ending — if the young couple were shown making love, feeling empty and lonely afterward, or having hurt feelings and getting into an argument the next morning; or probably even if they had to talk more in the final five minutes. The suppression of dialogue in the final sequence is a revealing fact about what Katz is and is not able to do, is and is not able to show. As a second limitation, there is something adolescent, or at least not fully mature, in Katz’s vision of life. The film limits its depictions of pain to characters’ feelings of loneliness, embarrassment, and awkwardness; it does not present anything approaching anguish, desperation, despair, or deep internal conflict. In other words, Quiet City is set in the realm of comedy, in the classic sense of the term; tragedy, a much greater but much more demanding and complex vision of life, is beyond Katz’s scope. Katz also doesn’t deeply analyze his characters’ personalities. He doesn’t probe and explore the twisted way emotions and psychological states express themselves. In his film, to have good intentions, to try hard, to mean well, is to be a good person. It’s not an extremely deep view of human character and expression, and the similarity between Katz’s work and Ozu’s breaks down in this respect. A more complex film would have asked questions about and grappled more seriously with Charlie’s slacker passivity and Jamie’s ontological weightlessness. As a final limitation, there are flickers, slides, shades, and layerings of consciousness and emotion that Katz simply cannot go into because his actors are too limited. But I don’t want to be unfair. To note these issues is to ask Katz to have made a different movie than the one he has chosen to make – and what he has done is enough. In fact, it is more than enough. Quiet City is one of the small, brilliant gems of recent American filmmaking.

Ray Carney is professor of film and American studies at Boston University. He is the author of more than ten books on film and other art, and manages the largest non–commercial web site in the world devoted to independent film at: http://www.cassavetes.com.

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