Seeing the big picture, at a loss for words

Andy Katz will screen ‘Dance Party, USA’ and ‘Quiet City,’ at the Oak Street Cinema.

Michael Garberich

In Brooklyn, at an art exhibit after-party in Aaron Katz’s film “Quiet City,” one guy on a couch, Charlie, says to another guy, some unnamed guy sitting next to him with nice hair:

“I actually just quit – uh, my job – a few weeks ago, and I’ve just kinda been Ö slinkin’ around.”

“I’ve heard of that,” the guy with the hair on the couch says to Charlie. “I think I’ve done that. Actually, I’m doing that, too, to be honest.”

“Dance Party, USA”

WHEN: 5:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, , director Aaron Katz presents
STARRING: Anna Kavan, Cole Pennsinger

“Quiet City”

WHEN: 7:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., Friday, Sunday and Tuesday, director Aaron Katz and actress Sarah Hellman present Friday and Sunday; Sarah Hellman present Tuesday
STARRING: Erin Fischer, Chris Lankenau

All screenings at: Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. S.E., Minneapolis

The two look down at their hands and smile, or smirk, to themselves. They nod. It’s a good life skill for them to have, to smile and nod. And it’s what they have, not having jobs.

Critics have lumped Katz and his films, “Quiet City” (2007) and “Dance Party, USA” (2006), into a group of like filmmakers and films that have been collectively referenced under several monikers, most frequently, “mumblecore.”

Apologies for the term have cited several characteristics in the ongoing construction and fortification of the shelf they’re set on: naturalistic acting by nonprofessional actors, low to really-low to ultralow budgets, attention to the socially (and romantically) minute and mundane, and late teen and early twenty-something subjects of relative affluence. But the most heralded, the critics’ loudest justification for putting up the corral around this young cadre, is the meandering dialogue that never actually seems to find its footing, let alone meander, but which somehow still moves along. It’s a quiet formal echo to the story, to the apparently stifled after-school crowd, a group of tame bears let out of their cages that nevertheless continue pacing the perimeter (as we line up outside the gate to buy the ticket to watch them).

“My hope is that more and more people from all walks of life will start to realize that with very little money they can make a film and not have to answer to anyone,” Katz writes in an e-mail, his own, simple apology.

Katz’s films are shot on digital video, so perhaps “movie” is more appropriate; it certainly sounds more modest than “film,” and modesty is what moves these movies, from their production values ($3000 for “Dance Party” and $2000 for “Quiet City”) to their main characters and their stories.

If we extract “Dance Party, USA’s” plot, we have in essence two high school students, a guy and a girl, who meet at a party and then form a relationship, gradually, reluctantly.

It begins with the young girl, Jessica (Anna Kavan), rising sometime late morning from the floor in some suburban house after a party, but it is primarily registered through the guy’s perspective, Gus (Cole Pennsinger). If we wanted to get literary, we could say Gus’ tale is something of a coming of age, another “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Late in the movie, on his way to a fair that’s come through town, Gus tries to explain to his friend:

“Before we go to this park here, you could go on any of the rides, right? Like, I know you’re going on the ‘Mummy’s Revenge,’ right. But, you know, what if you didn’t go on the ‘Mummy’s Revenge?’ The point is, it’s not set in stone until you actually do it.” But his friend doesn’t get it, or doesn’t care, and Gus gives up.

“Quiet City” feels more nuanced than “Dance Party, USA,” more sophisticated, and for a number of reasons. Katz’s characters are older, early twenties, recent college grads. And of course, with this being his second feature, so is Katz. But if age were the only requisite for sophistication, if it were a requisite, neither critics nor we should find these movies as curious as we do. We could say Katz and his young characters are just that, young, so they lack a certain type of sophistication, a sophistication characterized by articulation. But we do find them curious, because it’s not a requisite.

And so at the beginning of “Quiet City,” when Jamie (Erin Fischer) meets Charlie (Chris Lankenau) in a subway terminal in New York City, lost and unable to contact her friend on her cell phone, our ears perk up and strain to hear their every demure syllable. But why? Why are we so fascinated by these characters? By these filmmakers?

As talent goes, it either goes with you and if you’re careful and lucky you make something of it, you realize it, or it goes on without you and maybe you talk about it, write about it, try to understand it. It went with Katz (and all the “mumblecore” directors), and with it he creates deceptively simple scenes. He creates scenes in which an overly inquisitive, brash and possibly antagonistic guy can tease out from a recent college grad the information that she waits tables at an Applebee’s, and then make her, or at least us, feel uncomfortable about it (as he does when he slips in a character toward the end of “Quiet City”). More impressively, he can do this again and again, similar scenes repeated throughout one movie, and on into and throughout another. Similar and yet progressing, building, mounting tension one after the other, while characters seemingly “meander.”

Katz and his fellow mumblers are not creating these scenes out of thin air, of course. They’re working (note, working) in common situations, common in both senses, that they are familiar to us and that they share them with one another. No wonder they’re creating work in common.

As Katz said in a New York Times article in August, “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.”

“I don’t personally own a HVX (a series of Panasonic digital video camera), but it’s so cheap that lots of people, not rich people or companies, but actual people do own them,” Katz wrote in an e-mail.

It’s a general situation that repeats itself and from which these films emerge, a “social condition,” to be highfalutin.

Sofia Coppola has done it in each of her films, but with a lot more money and curiously, with increasingly greater scope. She began in the affluent suburbs (“The Virgin Suicides”), went into contemporary international celebrity (“Lost in Translation”) and finally sat in the aristocratic court of royalty (“Marie Antoinette”).

But the two classes – of filmmakers and their subjects – stutter in step; they share the same ineffable malaise.

As the British band Gang of Four put it, included in “Marie Antoinette” by Coppola: “The problem with leisure/what to do for pleasure Ö “

Then again, Sofia Coppola is a Coppola. The money’s there, why shouldn’t she use 18th century royalty to filter her observations?

But for other young directors like Katz, for other young men and women like the subjects of his films, maybe the veneer has a rougher sheen.

“We need to devise a plot to where we can basically do absolutely nothing and get our bills paid,” Charlie says to the guy on the couch in “Quiet City.”

Then the two smirk at their feet. They nod to nothing in particular.

That’s what they have, and with it they do what they can, as do we all.

To those fascinated, perplexed critics who make their livings with words, well, nevermind, it’s hard to say what that means.