M*****core is dead; I’m calling it. With the release of the Duplass Bros.’ Baghead, the unfortunate tag—convenient for journalists, torture for its alleged makers—will hopefully die away. Its practitioners would disown it because it was coined as a joke by Andrew (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) Bujalski’s sound mixer, then introduced into wide circulation before anyone realized that the kind of joke/nickname you coin amongst friends late at night at a bar might just come back to haunt you. Yet from the outside, it seemed like a more-or-less apt term for a group of movies about young folks without the nerve to honestly communicate their romantic and social neuroses, let alone ones containing an honest-to-goodness traditional dramatic arc and/or the mise-en-scene to go along with it.
Baghead—with its over-ambitious dramatic structure and meta-moves—should put a stop to all that. In the meantime, since we missed the release date, now might be a good time to address Benten Films’ double-disc release of Aaron Katz’s first two features, Dance Party, USA and Quiet City. I prefer the former to the latter; add them up, however, and you get so far outside “m*****core” ’s alleged ambitions (or alleged lack thereof) that you feel cleaner already.
There’s two kinds of movies about parties. There’s the kind that runs with it full-tilt: cf. Dazed And Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait, whose narrative/character universes rotate around the opportunities for bonding, intercourse, and memories as only a party can. Then there’s the anti-party movie, where the hangover and ugly fallout gets equal, if not more, screen-time: it’s rarer, but Barbara Alpert’s Falling comes to mind, where a reunion’s disastrous ending is only the film’s beginning. Dance Party, USA splits the difference: it’s one part giddy celebration, two parts foreplay and aftermath, and it’s all good. The focus, such as it is, is arguably on Gus (Cole Pensinger)—though on the commentary tracks, Katz et al. claim that Jessica (Anna Kavan), his romantic counterpart, actually has the film’s POV. Regardless, Dance Party, USA gives me high school flashbacks in the best/worst possible way—it seems scarily authentic, and it’s also kind of horrifying. As introduced, Gus—discussing his sexual conquests with absolute authority and dubious veracity—is your obvious, preening teenage dick: obsessed with “pussy,” oblivious to what happens the next morning.
Anyone who claims that “m*****core” is the triumph of the inarticulate and inaudible simply must tune in to Gus’ hilariously amoral monologues on what he’s done and what/who he hopes to do. It could be the opening scene from a Larry Clark movie, but Katz isn’t battling his inner voyeur. Clark forces his viewers to automatically take the stance of a tongue-clucking, “kids these days” elder by cartoonishly amping up the sheer vice of his characters, then delivering apocalyptic punishments; Katz doesn’t just make Gus shockingly indifferent, he also films him in distanced long shots that make him just another goofy teen, no worse on the surface than any other. The trouble with making any movie about teens is that you risk raising the moralistic hackles of anyone who feels that their teen experience was the norm, and anything beyond that is just obscene; anyone being honest with themselves, though, probably has to admit that Gus is the real deal.
Dance Party, USA is sort of about Gus’s moral redemption, though it’s hard to think of it that way while you’re watching it. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that halfway through, Gus has a moment of clarity that leads him directly back to one of the people he’s wounded—and that he comes out with both less sense of redemption, and less sense of offense, than he could have initially imagined. What Dance Party USA has the compassion to see—what Clark doesn’t, and what most movies are even afraid to broach—is that, unless you’re the most depraved rapist on the planet, your eventual self-punishment will probably be worse than anything that could be inflicted on you. It’s hard to say more without spoiling it; safe to say that the movie’s feel for the modern teen landscape is utterly authentic (some of the party shots are from an actual teen party). And sure, there’s plenty of mumbling, hemming, and hawing; the point is, like the long-ass sentences of David Foster Wallace (which serve a different function every time, something his detractors don’t seem to realize), they’re form mirroring content: is there anything more awkward than a sexually guilty teenager? Dance Party, USA moves from a shocking, hilariously recognizable profane rant to the bloom of teen love, and it never misses a beat along the way.
Quiet City is more problematic, though it begins with equal incisiveness: to counter any preconceptions you might have going in, the opening shot has a hellaciously loud drum kit going off in a bunch of shambling directions, thereby scaring the hell out of anyone seeing it in a theater. (I shot up in my seat.) Once again a party is structurally key, this time with happier results. It’s a more ambivalent film, whose potential lovers—Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Chris Lankenau), strangers thrown together Before Sunrise style—are, yes, mumbly and inarticulate. Online critic/cult hero Theo Panayides identifies these “frequent apologies and fierce respect for each other’s space” as key hallmarks of a generation (or generational subset), and I won’t argue. What I will say is that, as portrayed, Jamie and Chris are people I’d run a mile in tight shoes to avoiding spending so much as 20 minutes around. Shambling, modest and decidedly irritating, their courtship rings true and reminds me why I stay off certain Brooklyn train stops if I can help it; their courtship at one point culminates in what can only be described as a hipster dance party, filmed in elegiac slo-mo no less. Call me cranky, lifeless, or a killjoy: I went to high school in Austin. I’m tired of this shit.
Where Dance Party, USA is stylistically unobtrusive—long shots privilege dialogue and delicate interactions without neglecting the odd moment of beauty—Quiet City is almost suffocatingly gorgeous. One of its key shots, a flared-out morning view in the grass, owes its roots (per the commentary track) to L’Eclisse, and a less subtle Malick wouldn’t hurt for reference as well; in between the actual humans come abstract shots of traveling lights that blur into Mondrian formations. The images are gorgeous; it’s the people that truly annoy me. Things unsurprisingly get a lot better when Jamie and Charlie go to a party and meet some people (many of whom are very amusing); it’s good to explore the world outside of yourself. Here, both for the characters and for this up-to-that-point deeply annoyed viewer, the party saves everyone from being trapped in a bad place.
If Quiet City is annoying and fascinating in equal measure, it nonetheless offers another counter-argument to the supposedly monolithic nature of m*****core: it’s the most gorgeous film out of the movement. Andrew Bujalski taps into 16mm, which doesn’t make his movies pretty (except for someone like me who started going to festivals just as everything started its ugly transition from 16mm to ugly-ass video, something we’ve thankfully come out the other side of), but gives them a distinct vibe that’s at least his own; Katz shoots to stun, which is different, and he gets what he wants. Along with Bujalski and The Duplass Bros., he’s my pick of the litter. Even if they deny that they all go together.
Image/Sound/Extras: Both films come with 2 commentary tracks, one for Katz and collaborators, the other for the actors. Katz’s tracks are endearingly geeky, especially when he discusses tech details in a manner that makes him sound like David Fincher Jr. There’s a lot of gossiping about who met who where and when, and the occasional discussion of intent in the film. (If you’re interested, definitely listen to the discussion over the aforementioned would-be redemption scene in Dance Party, which makes for some fascinating revelations about what was left out.) They’re rambling, but pleasant. The actor commentary tracks, per usual, are giggly and not that helpful, but they’re nice enough. Dance Party also has a bunch of fascinating cut scenes with pretty essential commentary; editor Zach Clark gives a very interesting, nuts-and-bolts look about how to bring form to a film of such seemingly formless material. That disc also contains a frankly unedifying early short by Katz, The Lunch Hour, a one-joke silent with no real joke.
Quiet City’s disc also contains Joe Swanberg’s Quiet City, which has a complicated back-story but basically is a nice travesty of m*****core’s alleged hallmarks, mocking a movie that wasn’t even ready to be seen yet. There’s two essays as well, by Ray Carney and Ray Pride; they’re both interesting, even if Carney’s comparison of Katz to Ozu seems premature. All tech aspects are, of course, immaculate.