In my high school creative writing class, I annoyed my teacher at times with my tendency to avoid formal structure and compose what I thought were snapshot vignettes or short works which often consisted of two characters-- usually a man and a woman for a good balance-- whom I chased around a notebook with my pen and struggled to keep up with wherever they went.
Most of the time, I didn’t even bother giving them a name and only went with vague descriptions of their physical appearance just painting the two in broad strokes so the reader could feel free to imagine anyone they chose. In some ways, it was a rebellion against our mandated creative writing prompts that did little to inspire; simply put, I didn’t want to write a story about pirates and lost treasure, I wanted to write about humans interacting whether they were fighting or falling in love.
I eventually moved on to construct more concrete works with an actual beginning, middle and end (though not, as they say, necessarily in that order) as I continued on in college, but I still cherish tales about people who are searching for something and find another human being for better or worse. It’s this basic premise that seems to be at the heart of the low-budget, Do-It-Yourself “mumblecore” independent film movement that’s been getting increasingly popular with films by directors such as Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and others.
Nathan Rabin of The Onion cited the Danish filmmakers who broke the rules with their ten new commandments in the 90’s and the gloomy offshoot of alternative rock favored by Generation Y and labeled it a “Dogme-meets-emo subgenre,” in his review of one of the best mumblecore films so far, Quiet City. Like my maddening stories from high school, it begins with a woman who meets a stranger (again a man, for good balance) and soon we proceed to follow around the two characters for the entire running time, similar to Linklater’s Before Sunrise, except, I’ve neglected to mention that it’s at least twenty minutes in before we learn at least one of their names. That’s right, it’s the type of film that would have sent my poor creative writing teacher up the wall and one where nobody finds any lost treasure but just seeks out similarities and differences for discussion that occurs in roughly twenty-four hours of their lives.
When Atlanta native Jamie (Erin Fisher) arrives in New York to meet her flaky friend Samantha, she finds a mostly empty subway terminal and depends on the kindness of a fellow twenty-something stranger named Charlie (Cris Lankenau) to point her in the right direction of the café she’s supposed to find. As the two walk and talk, they fall into an easy conversation that is prolonged when Samantha who still hasn’t answered any of Jamie’s calls fails to show up. “If you want to hang out with me, my couch is open,” Charlie suggests and nervous laughter along with a frantic rechecking of phone messages follows before Jamie follows her female intuition and proceeds to crash with Charlie until she can track down her illusive friend.
The relaxed dialogue, penned by the director Aaron Katz and his lead actors, continues as they play a mini-keyboard, she cuts his hair and they drink his father’s gift of pinot noir out of coffee cups. Jamie falls asleep only to awaken worrying she’s overstayed her welcome and after asking if Charlie is sick of her, he reassures her that he has nothing else to do and “it’s a pleasant distraction" as they aimlessly walk and talk around New York city both admitting our generation’s tendency to “slink around” lazily as some would say as well as personify the fact that most of our successful friendships and relationships seem to be those that just blossom out of proximity and as little effort as possible. Turning their attention to the discussion of romantic relationships, they tackle a question that has been an increasingly popular topic of my friends and myself as we lament the fact that it’s hard to meet others and begin to wonder whether or not as we age our capacity to sustain a relationship increases or if people are just staying with others out of comfort and lack of ambition, sometimes making serious commitments to others for whom they may have settled.
Although it’s hardly all self-involved conversation—the title of Quiet City seems at once both paradoxical in its setting of the city that never sleeps but also quite appropriate in its hauntingly beautiful and artistic cinematography by Andrew Reed that Stephen Holden of The New York Times explained punctuates the film “with images of New York at twilight that cast a mood of reflective melancholy reminiscent of the loneliness at the heart of Edward Hopper paintings.” With some nods to Malick as we see shots of quiet and subtle beauty that fixate on empty streets and an ode to Godard as a group of characters dance to a most likely fast rock song but instead of the music, we hear the film’s score, Quiet City is proof that those who pompously say that there is no independent film are incorrect.
It’s gentle, honest, and earned festival awards across the country for its cinematography and direction as well as a prestigious nomination for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. Perhaps indicative of Charlie’s wish that “we need to devise a plot to where we can basically do absolutely nothing and our bills get paid,” the talented director Aaron Katz has devised a way to make a film that on the surface seems basic and vague but at its heart is one that seems to represent its generation in a more authentic way than a large majority of movies coming out of the studio system.
While there are those who hate mumblecore on principle and at its worst, they have a terrific point, when one sees something like Quiet City, we’re grateful that as Katz was quoted on IMDb, “this is the first time, mostly because of technology that someone like me can go out and make a film with no money and no connections." And just think-- they didn’t even have to incorporate pirates or lost treasure in the process.