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Filmmakers You Should Know: Dan Sallitt, America's Indie Answer to Eric Rohmer

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 28, 2013 at 12:28PM

While widely acclaimed filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino routinely smuggle European influences into their work, the under-seen director Dan Sallitt does it in subtler fashion. A New York-based critic who has made four impressive features in a span of 26 years, Sallitt's subdued approach to compelling drama in contained scenarios reflects a cinephile's eye.
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"The Unspeakable Act."
"The Unspeakable Act."

While widely acclaimed filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino routinely smuggle European influences into their work, the under-seen director Dan Sallitt does it in subtler fashion. A New York-based critic who has made four impressive features in a span of 26 years, Sallitt's subdued approach to compelling drama in contained scenarios reflects a cinephile's eye.

Rather than paying outright homage, Sallitt channels some of his favorite directors into the texture of his narratives. The most obvious precedent for Sallitt's filmmaking is French New Wave figure Eric Rohmer, to whom he dedicates his latest and best movie, "The Unspeakable Act," opening at New York's Anthology Film Archives this week ahead of a DVD/VOD release through Cinema Guild this summer. Along with the theatrical premiere of "The Unspeakable Act," Anthology is also featuring a retrospective of Sallitt's earlier movies, providing an ideal opportunity to put this distinctive cinematic voice in the spotlight. 

The invocation of Rohmer is hardly a pretentious maneuver for Sallitt, whose 2004 hourlong feature "All the Ships at Sea" contains a similar shootout to Maurice Pialat. Like both auteurs, Sallitt foregrounds the nuances of communication, the implications of the pauses in between conversations and the limits of dialogue to illuminate what's truly on his characters' minds.

Those expecting a more conventional route to understanding motivation and backstory may find Sallitt's technique initially jarring, but his cultivation of atmosphere has a tendency to grow increasingly involving without an iota of overstatement. Sallitt's gravitation toward cultured men and women babbling about their personal belief systems and neuroses echoes the likes of Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson, but he trades whimsical stylistic indulgences for pregnant pauses and an eye for behavioral quirks so real that by the time his movies end you don't just feel like you know his characters; you can relate to them. 

THE FILMS

"Polly Perverse Strikes Again!" (1986)

Sallitt's directorial debut, which has surfaced at the Anthology retrospective for the first time since its tiny run in West Hollywood in 1986, has been included in this series, according to the filmmaker, "for study purposes only." Despite his own misgivings about it, Sallitt's grimy first feature (shot on lo-fi video) is a surprisingly watchable dark comedy about philandering drunkard Theresa (Dawn Wildsmith), who surfaces in Los Angeles and makes a desperate attempt to win back established photographer Nick (S.A. Griffin), despite his settled life with a supportive girlfriend. (While Sallitt claims to have been aiming for a mashup of "Bringing Up Baby" and Jean Eustache's "The Mother and the Whore," the movie now retroactively echoes "Young Adult.") Though stilted in parts, "Polly Perverse" displays the first hints at Sallitt's interest in solitary characters (particularly strong-willed women) driven by impossible passions, a tendency that in this case leads to deadpan results and a conclusive act of solidarity that makes the uneven journey worthwhile.

"Honeymoon" (1998)

Sallitt's capacity to draw a contrast between the convictions of lonely dreamers and the harsh truths that hold them back truly come out in this deeply involving tale of a romance gone sour. A less cocksure Harry and Sally, central figures Mimi (Edith Meeks) and Michael (Dylan McCormick) break up in the movie's first scene but remain close friends for another two years, when their romance suddenly reignites and they abruptly decide to marry. This leads to the prolonged getaway of the title, when the pair retreats to Michael's vacation home in Pennsylvania for their first sexual encounter. It's here that things go awry, both physically and otherwise, as Mimi and Michael begin to regret their decision before making a final attempt to hold things together. 

Instead of strengthening their bond, however, it appears they've exacerbated it with new pressures to perform. "Maybe relationships last longer if you're oblivious," Mimi sighs, but her expression in the movie's unsettling final shot conveys depths that the subtext of conversation can only hint at. Namely: Sometimes you shouldn't sleep with your best friend, much less marry the guy.

"All the Ship at Sea" (2004)

The cult trauma of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" reduced to pure dogmatic chatter, Sallitt's 64-minute treatise on religion contains tremendous philosophical weight considering its concise running time. An icy Strawn Bovee plays Catholic theology professor Evelyn, whose sister Virginia (Edith Meeks) returns home after years off the grid, babbling about a spiritual awakening from her time with a mysterious guru. Staged as a flashback, "All the Ships at Sea" cuts between Evelyn discussing her sister's resurfacing with a local priest (McCormick) and the tense conversations between the two siblings about their varying dogmas. A drifter of the same variety first spotted in "Polly Perverse" (and possibly a slightly older version of her), Virginia is a fascinating object of study: just shrewd enough to challenge her sister's own ideological convictions even while professing far more extreme perspectives on the ways of the world. 

Ultimately, Sallitt shows how family bonds can transcend the nitpicking of specific beliefs, as well as the tragic ramifications of not voicing one's feelings in the small windows of time when the opportunities arise.

Tallie Medel in "The Unspeakable Act."
Tallie Medel in "The Unspeakable Act."

"The Unspeakable Act" (2012)

Sallitt's dialogue-heavy approach necessitates strong performances, which carry particular weight in "The Unspeakable Act," a remarkable showcase for newcomer Tallie Medel. The actress plays Jackie, the angst-riddled, virginal 17-year-old middle child of an upscale single parent Brooklyn family who harbors an unhealthy attraction to her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). Rather than exploit this risque scenario, Sallitt takes it at face value, assuming his protagonist's perspective and using her fixation -- more than a taboo, it's just a bad idea -- to tell a uniquely compelling coming of age story. 

Referring to her desire to indulge in "the 'I' word," she constantly voices her reservations over feeling attracted to anyone save for her brother -- not only to the man himself, but also her oddly withdrawn mother, a savvy therapist, and us, in a muted voiceover commentary that shows just how restricted her worldview has become. The wild-eyed Medel suggests a young Christina Ricci, but Jackie exists in a class of her own: Her affluent background allows for a character both wise beyond her years and hopelessly trapped in them. "I'm prematurely old," she whines -- but unlike, say, Juno, she's not snarky about it.

In constant dialogue with Matthew, Jackie addresses her attraction to him -- as well as her burgeoning sexual prowess -- in an honest, straightforward manner that makes her simultaneously aware of its unhealthy nature and unable to wrangle free of it. When that duality finally reaches a breaking point in the closing scene, a chatty, introspective movie reaches its emotional counterpoint. While doing Rohmer proud, Sallitt does justice to his own thoughtful style with the best example of it to date.

This article is related to: Features, Filmmakers You Should Know, Dan Sallitt, The Unspeakable Act






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