Stand in the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and there’s no telling who will walk by. BAM Cinemafest seems to bring out the whole Brooklyn film community, from Olivia Thirlby to Lena Dunham and half the cast of Girls. Most festivals are crawling with talent, but at BAM things are a little bit different. You start to notice actors and directors in the audience for screenings of films they have had no hand in. The local cinema crowd is out and about, supporting each other and taking in the creativity of their colleagues. The theater buzzes with this relaxed cross-pollination.
The artistic camaraderie continues into the movies themselves. Alex Karpovsky and Adam Driver of Girls pop up in Gayby, as well as Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine and Louis Cancelmi of last year’s underseen-yet-affecting Green. Cast crossover continues through The Comedy, The Unspeakable Act and V/H/S, all of which feature the raw talent of Kate Lyn Sheil. Most of these roles are barely more than cameos, as if all of Brooklyn spends its time shooting around text messages of “wanna be in my movie?”
This makes it all the more interesting that so many of these films revolve around a particular set of anxieties. Like Hannah Horvath, the protagonists of these home-grown Kings County stories are caught somewhere between adolescence and the pressures of “real life.” With Tiny Furniture entering the Criterion Collection and now Girls bringing Williamsburg self-doubt into the American living room, Dunham’s forays into the 20-something identity crisis have mainstreamed this unique cocktail of privileged listlessness and self-doubt. Yet after watching the weightier and more assured work of Brooklyn filmmakers at BAM, one cannot help but feel that there’s something missing from the growing Dunham oeuvre.
There’s a short in Cinemafest’s All City program that serves as a helpful lens through which to search for that extra kick, the simply plotted Faro (pictured above). Over the course of its five minutes, Stella Schnabel (like Dunham, another child of well-known artists) gets on the train to Coney Island and buys a fish. Yet the attention to detail exposes elements of a deep, if unexplored, character. Schnabel’s subtly expressive face adds even layers to her application of makeup at the mirror, and a moment of awkward uncertainty with the pet store clerk brings a note of the larger borough into this micro-narrative. It may not be as violent in its telling as Schnabel’s memorable collaboration with Ry Russo-Young, 2009’s You Wont Miss Me, but it has a similar openness.
Brooklyn is a borough of 2.5 million people, in a city of more than 8 million. Everyone is essentially colliding constantly, juxtaposing the life of each individual with all the rest. This context lives in Faro, breathes in You Wont Miss Me, and absolutely writhes throughout Rick Alverson’s harrowing and persistent The Comedy. The film is an almost Dantean exploration of one man’s refusal to compromise with anyone, even on the slightest of social graces. Swanson (comedian Tim Heidecker) is a privileged jerk who seems to view the world as his ironic playground. He harasses everyone he meets, forcing strangers into awkward situations against their will. The result is occasionally hilarious, in the mold of Borat’s exposure of hypocrisy and ignorance. Yet more often than not the only one laughing is Swanson himself. He harasses cab drivers, taunts his co-workers, and treats women with an almost fratboy vulgarity. The “comedy” is mostly in the head of this resolutely adolescent protagonist, who simply doesn’t see the point of respecting anything at all.
The Comedy is at times painful to watch, likely the source of its lukewarm reception at Sundance. Yet this edge is crucial, and hopefully New York City audiences are more receptive to it.. Swanson has the same indifferent attitude towards employment as the characters played by Schnabel and Dunham, and the same self-imposed rejection of family. They are all petulant teenagers in bodies well past puberty. Yet Alverson’s film uses Swanson’s abuse of cabbies, bartenders and family members to build a self-aware film around its horrendous protagonist. The context of Brooklyn and its inhabitants, battered by the antics of this anti-hero, allows The Comedy to remain a mature film despite its immature subject. Alverson does not for a second allow Swanson’s self-destruction to derail his film’s self-awareness.
That honesty doesn’t always need to be so painful, either. The Unspeakable Act (pictured above) and Rockaway (pictured below) each offer two very similar heroines, yet neither moves quite as far toward mortality and thematic violence. The former is a rich portrait of Jackie, a high school senior problematically in love with her older brother. Her struggle with desire is treated with both tenderness and uncomfortable honesty. We are neither repelled nor completely sympathetic, as writer/director Dan Sallitt keeps her in dialogue with the borough around her. Despite the distance she feels from her mother, a node quiet chilliness shared by all of these films, her relationship with her brother is open and articulate in spite of his lack of emotional and sexual reciprocity. Her psychologist, her friends, and her school all contribute to a self-awareness that keeps us engaged.
Rockaway, despite being set in Queens, has a similar thematic dialogue. This Brooklyn adolescence is a theme that need not restrict itself to the physical boundaries of a single borough. Melanie Schiele’s seventeen-minute day-in-the-life piece explores the drifting life of a young woman by the ocean. Living alone in her deceased grandmother's house, Teresa is presented as a lost soul and probably a drug addict. Without giving away too much of her arc, it suffices to say that her wandering between men and influences gives us enough context to understand both her character and what makes her break. A simple exercise in the poetry of realism, Rockaway is bolstered by its very lack of stylistic presumption.
These films, as a group, put a very new spin on the Brooklyn identity crisis that the whole nation can now watch unfold on Girls. It doesn’t stop at the handful I’ve mentioned, either. The soft-spoken tragedy of Welcome to Pine Hill and the raucous humor of Gayby each add another unique perspective to a borough replete with quarter-life crises. Every one of these films keeps the emotional immaturity of their protagonists in check by opening up the dialogue and resisting the urge to dive into self-doubt. Dunham’s body of work, while quite effective as character portraits and well-scripted comedies, seem a little bit too much in stylistic cahoots with their heroines. The short-sighted ache of her characters is emulated by her filmmaking, rather than refracted or explored. Now that Girls has concluded its first season, and we all have to wait until next January for more, this is a wonderful opportunity to get excited for the deeper, more intriguing cinema coming out of Brooklyn. And if you get the chance, hit some of BAM Cinemafest’s screenings while you still can.
BAM Cinemafest runs through July 1st. The Comedy plays tonight, in association with Rooftop Films. Rockaway and Faro screen as part of the All City Shorts program on June 30th.