Years ago I wrote a review of a little indie movie called Quiet City. The movie, written and directed by Aaron Katz, followed two twentysomething slackers over the course of a single day in Brooklyn as they did … well, nothing, actually. They walked around a little bit, and they talked a little bit, and they made a little music. And they mumbled and shrugged a lot.
I know it sounds excruciating, just another exercise in post-adolescent narcissism. But somehow Katz managed to take a story composed entirely of incident-free navel-gazing and turn it into something meaningful. And that’s because he has an eye for the beautiful shot. Katz can shoot an overpass on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for three minutes and break your heart right in half. Certain directors have that gift, the ability to see and show the world in a way that makes you appreciate its inherent beauty. Terrence Malick, for example, could have videotaped my Bar Mitzvah and I would gladly watch it over and over again, Haftorah portion and all. Which is why I closed my review of Quiet City with the line “It’s a Terrence Malick movie for the new Lost Generation”: I could think of no higher compliment.
I bring this up because I just caught Katz’s latest film, Cold Weather, at SXSW. Like Quiet City, it’s a story of twentysomething slackers wandering around a city (this time Portland, Oregon). But this time they find themselves dragged into a Sherlock Holmes-like mystery involving a missing woman, a potentially dangerous photographer, and a suitcase full of money. All of a sudden, these young men and women of apathy are forced to become men and women of action, or at least not-total-inaction. Watching the movie, I kept thinking to myself: It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie for the new Lost Generation. (I also kept thinking to myself: I need to come up with some new phrases.)
By all rights, Cold Weather should be a catastrophe. After all, some directors just weren’t made to tell action stories, and Katz would seem to be one of them. But the movie works because Katz doesn’t so much take slackers and stick them into a detective movie as slip a mystery story into a world of almost total ruminatory impassivity and watch what happens, like some kind of impartial cinematic anthropologist. In other words, it turns out his original idea – people doing nothing against a backdrop of minimalist beauty are worth watching – is strong enough to take on the weight of hoary detective story conventions and make them its own, rather than get crushed underneath them. (This isn’t unprecedented. Who would have ever thought that Malick could make a great war movie? Yet there’s The Thin Red Line.)
Whether Cold Weather works as well as Quiet City, however, is harder to say. As maddening as it can sometimes be to watch youngish people with little ambition doing nothing for an hour and a half, there’s something equally maddening about meditative directors engaging in genre exercises because they’re afraid of being pigeonholed as “artsy.” (After all, you can’t be good at everything, and it’s a fool who criticizes Andrei Tarkovsky for not being Howard Hawks.) There’s a moment in Cold Weather – a very clear moment – when the movie switches from ambling mumblecore to film noir, and that moment almost derails the entire film. (You can almost hear Katz saying to himself, “I can’t make another movie about indecisive people doing nothing. I won’t make another movie about indecisive people doing nothing.”)
But Katz succeeds because he stays true to his belief that filming the honest reactions of sensitive human beings is as worthwhile a venture as dazzling your audience with explosions and melodramatic confrontations. He believes in the power of intimate moments and creative modesty. For example, the movie’s climax involves a long stakeout during which the film’s brother and sister detective team discuss (barely, and without deeper meaning) the awkwardness of Internet dating while waiting for a criminal to show himself. This is followed by a scene where they attempt to steal a briefcase in public, an act of daring Katz doesn’t even show us. He’s too busy filming the male protagonist, who isn’t the one inside doing the thieving but the one outside driving the getaway car, and who, like any driver who doesn’t want to break the law, must take four rights in order to get back in the direction he wants to go, expediency and the safety of your sister be damned. It’s a subtle and true moment in the middle of a cinematic contrivance, and the whole time he’s driving around the block, while his sister is inside risking her life, you’re thinking to yourself, “I can’t believe he’s doing this” and at the same time, “That’s exactly what I would do.”
Time will tell if Katz is a great filmmaker, but for now I can only say that he’s got what any great director needs to make a go of it: the force of his aesthetic convictions. Beauty can be found anywhere as long as you have the eyes to see it. No doubt Katz has eyes.