Of late, there’s been a lot of ink spilled over that new group of filmmakers currently being honored at New York’s IFC Center as “Generation DIY” (and inadvertently forever dubbed “mumblecore,” in an interview in these very pages at indieWIRE), so it might now be somewhat pressing to put aside questions of collectivity and look at the films themselves and see how they stand on their own. Being released directly after a week-long run of Joe Swanberg‘s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” Aaron Katz‘s second feature (after last year’s “Dance Party USA“) “Quiet City” evokes a memorable aesthetic to surround its minor-key maybe-romance, focusing almost as much attention on lovely, video-sculpted natural formations and cityscapes as its two main characters.
No arbitrary stylistic decision, these punctuating shots of evidently dislocated scenery provide necessary respite from “Quiet City”‘s central couple: the reserved if discombobulated Jamie (Erin Fisher) and the unsurprisingly disheveled Charlie (Cris Lankenau), who meet by chance one late night in a subway station (the 7th Avenue stop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose endless tunnel walkways have never seemed more elegantly composed). Traveling from Atlanta, and stranded when she can’t locate or contact her local friend, Jamie strikes up a chat with the benign-looking Charlie, presumably in order to stave off loneliness and fear of the big, empty city.
Though the remainder of the film charts Charlie and Jamie’s unhurried process of getting to know one another as they spend a night, wander the city, and meet up with random young city dwellers, this isn’t “Before Sunrise,” to make an obvious, if useful, comparison. Whereas Richard Linklater revels in his characters’ hyper-articulacy and intellectual aspirations, Katz and his co-screenwriter/lead actors are barely interested in finding out what makes these people tick on a mundane, chit-chatty level, let alone allowing them to expound on their philosophies or emotional needs. Though Linklater’s films have been accused of pretension, and their rapid-fire exchanges deemed at times overly written, you always come away from them with the sense that you’ve learned something, and therefore these people have been worth spending time with. “Quiet City” doesn’t mean to edify, but simply hold a mirror up to its viewers, most of whom undoubtedly will be of the same generation as the actors and filmmakers. The reflection may intend to flatter, but often it certainly does not: the most extended single monologue in the film, a musing on sex and relationships by Jamie’s petite friend Robin (Sarah Hellman), is so lacking in insight and distractingly littered with the word “like” that it’s impossible to derive much pleasure from it.
Indeed, many people, of any generation, may converse with stunted, halting mannerisms to shield from others the fact that they have nothing much to say–but we can also choose not to attend certain parties thrown by certain people. This is the central problem of a film like “Quiet City”–but while it may not be food for thought, it at least acknowledges its own sliver of address and surrounds its feathery wisp of a narrative and less-than-vivid personalities with atmosphere. For every overly precious moment as manufactured as anything in a studio film (Jamie cutting Cris’s hair on their first night; Joe Swanberg’s superfluous side character serving bowls of coleslaw), there’s a corresponding instance of loveliness: Katz’s aural design, with its reduced traffic noise and disconcerting urban hush, for instance; or the texture of the sunlight blazoning through a city park. One sometimes wishes Katz would weave these compellingly wrought spaces into a film devoid of people altogether.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]