As a would-be filmmaker, sometimes the most inspiring pictures are the lowest low-budget ones. These films, made on a shoestring, shot on digital video in a rough and ready style are often innovative in all the ways films with massive budgets aren’t. Without millions of dollars at their disposal these ‘guerrilla’ films often tailor there stories toward real locations, focus their attention on regular folk struggling with day-to-day existence or frequently detail the chance encounter of a boy and a girl. They place emphasis on character, performance, and pace, three elements that should be the crux of all films regardless of budget.
This isn’t to say all low budget films are great. I’ve seen many that aren’t. Films trying to reach beyond their budget or schlock genre fare offering nothing new are the most common crimes. There are however many worthy low budget films that have reached us primarily because of two technological innovations. The first being the availability of cheap digital video cameras (most recently digital SLR camera’s with extraordinary video capabilities) and the second being the internet and it’s marketing power. Desktop filmmakers can operate a one-stop-shop editing their features on laptops and then using the net to market or distribute the finished product.
Whole digital cinema movements have started, including one in my country that has probably influenced me as a filmmaker more than anything else. The Aro Valley film movement, named by Dr. Russell Campbell and chronicled in the wonderful documentary Campbell Walker is a Friend of Mine will be detailed further on this blog in an upcoming post. The films made by proponents of this school of cinema including Campbell Walker, Alex Greenhough and Elric Kane, and Dick Whyte, are influenced by ‘realist’ filmmakers like Jean Eustache and Maurice Pialat, and often focus on the tenuous relationships of 20-something kiwis. Greenhough and Kane’s Murmurs and Kissy Kissy were utter revelations to me when I first encountered them and are shining lights in a national cinema starved for originality in recent times.
Today however, I want to talk about the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movies that have been conquering the festival circuits in the US. The film in particular is Quiet City, a minor masterpiece made for a paltry sum and shot on HD video. Though Quiet City might not be made with the intellectual rigour of some of the Aro Valley films, it progresses at a poetic pace and represents to me the zenith of the boy-meets-girl-in-chance-encounter tale that was less successfully explored in mumblecore’s break out success In Search of a Midnight Kiss.
Quiet City follows a very familiar premise, one that had me very wary to begin with. Jamie (Erin Fischer) has arrived in New York only to discover the friend who she has come to visit is nowhere to be seen in a deserted subway station. As luck would have it she meets Charlie (Cris Lankenau), a goofy unshaven musician who more than fills Quiet City’s mumble quota. Charlie offers Jamie a place to stay and over the next few days they gently forge a connection. On paper this seems terribly boring and trite but director Aaron Katz lets the film unfold at a glorious pace and follows a series of events that are wholly realistic.
While some of the supporting roles are irritating the central performances of Fischer and Lankenau are rather charming and the slow deepening of their bond manages to remain indistinct but still carry an emotional weight. It’s a film built on subtlety, something I was convinced was non-existent in recent American cinema. Nothing is overbearing. The music, the performances, the dialogue, the visuals and most wonderfully the resolution are all understated. Just shy of ninety minutes Quiet City is lean too, Katz never letting his images linger longer than they need to or his dialogue drift into redundancy. The overall feeling is that there are a million stories in the Quiet City, and this is just one of them.
As I suggested in my post on Three Blind Mice, this is the type of cinema that should be championed. But I’ve slightly rethought this conclusion. I now think it’s exactly the type of cinema filmmakers need to remember how to make. Without the buffer of a huge budget, overzealous use of CGI, the draw card of a well-known star, or the marketing machine that can sell the very worst forms of the art, these low budget filmmakers are fuelling a renaissance of films that exercise simplicity and reflect the reality of everyday life. Furthermore, these films transcend their meagre running times by leaving the viewer with something to think about well after the credits have rolled.
If you can find a copy of Quiet City give it a go. Below is a trailer for Aaron Katz’s follow up film which looks promising, I only hope I’m not forced to eat my words re: ‘…genre fare that offering nothing new…’