I’ve been reading Movie Mutations, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, which was born out of the realization that cinephiles the world over are simultaneously and of their own accord being drawn to the same films and filmmakers; and I’ve been thinking about how there are similar traits noticeable in the films themselves; artistic sensibilities born of and in response to cultural impressions, political climates, generational ennui and what have you; and I’ve focused these thoughts on one particular microcosm of cinematic development, that being the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, where a certain type of filmmaking seems to flower above all others, and the filmmakers, inadvertently or otherwise, form a sort of self-propogating clique.
I’m thinking of the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair, Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, Joe Swanberg’s Kissing On The Mouth and LOL and now Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA. These are all films made independently of each other, but they all have a sort of shared formal aspiration, a blurring of form and content (or, rather, a crystallization of Susan Sontag’s belief that form and content should be inseparable, indistinguishable) and an alluring, incisive sense of naturalism.
With the exception of Bujalski’s picture, all of these films were shot on prosumer digital video, which may represent a financial impediment more than anything else; but whereas just a few years ago filmmakers who couldn’t afford otherwise were trying their best to make their video look like film (yours truly can be indicted on this count), what we have here is a new generation of filmmakers who treat video like video, who make it beautiful in the way that video can be beautiful. Which is to say that it doesn’t matter what medium these films were made on; they move past the point of being judged on their technical specs, which means this whole paragraph is practically irrelevant.
So now that that’s out of the way, let me say that what I think binds these films together, moreso than their improvisational qualities (regardless of whether or not they were scripted) and handheld aesthetic and overall naturalism, it is their disregard for overt incident. They exist almost entirely between the beats of a ‘traditional’ narrative, finding their own three act structures entirely within these exploded moments. I don’t think I was ever more aware of this than at points in Dance Party USA; the first when I realized that the titular soiree was already in progress, and the second when the final shot revealed itself as such; suddenly the film was over, and my impressions of where it was going were forced into sharp contrast with where it had actually gone.
I missed Dance Party USA when it played at SXSW this past March, but caught up with it on DVD a few moths later and loved it. One of the most exciting things about it was how it not only fit in with the mode of filmmaking outlined above but so clearly distinguished itself on its own terms (I don’t know how many of these directors subscribe to the auteur theory, but as much as clear as their similarities are, I think they’re all equally and instantly recognizable as their directors’ own films). Case in point: there’s a common instinct to allude to the influence of Cassavetes in any film that features a handheld camera and any extent of improvised, naturalistic dialogue. Katz certainly earns that comparison – up to a point. But then, during a certain scene midway into the film (you’ll know it when you see it), something happens. The camera stops moving, the characters keep talking and, over the course of the twenty best minutes of cinema I’ve seen this year, Dance Party USA becomes positively, painfully Bergmanesque.
Six paragraphs in and I’ve scarcely started to review the film. Maybe I should pause here to note that the film opens tomorrow at the Pioneer Theater in Manhattan. Those of you unable to make it can purchase a DVD-R copy of the film from the official website. It’s a must-see.