What is a New York movie?

An exploration of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour.

In film criticism, the term ‘a definitive [insert genre] movie’ is frequently bandied about, placing its subject on a pedestal because it exemplifies the very best of it’s type; thereafter held up as a litmus test for all its successors to borrow from and be inspired by.

New York is a city so iconic, cinematic and beloved that it has become a genre itself. To set a film there is to immediately bring to mind such classics as Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Naked City, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so on and so forth.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent example of a film that has been lauded as “a modern New York classic” (The Playlist), whilst Little White Lies called Appropriate Behaviour “an original and charismatically honest New York comedy”. But what is a New York movie? Can a city so multifarious and dynamic ever be pinned down?

I took it upon myself to explore  what it means to make a film in the most illustrious concrete jungle.

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In City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that,

New York has a hold on our imagination because it is so compact, so violent, so energetic, so full of possibilities, a place where neighbourhoods change from one street to the next and strangers can become intimate friends or deadly enemies on the slightest of whims. (p. 243)

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone. By accepting the impossibility of creating a definitive vision of New York, it becomes a place where you are free to project your own vision.

In his maker’s statement, Alex Ross Perry explains that Listen Up Philip reflects “what [his] New York looks like, and it is one I seldom see depicted with any honesty in cinema….Listen Up Philip is a summation of all I’ve observed, lived through, laughed at, narrowly avoided and absently longed for during my time in New York”.

Similarly, in a behind-the-scenes interview with her producer Cecilia Frugieule, Desiree Akhavan states that she wants her film “to reflect [her] morals and [her] tastes”, thus Appropriate Behaviour’s rendering of New York is very specific to her.

A native New Yorker herself, Akhavan argues that too many movies about the Big Apple are “like a love letter – and I feel like the love letter I want to write points out all the flaws and is like, ‘I love you, despite all those flaws’”.

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Both films are set in and around Brooklyn, using locations in Dumbo, Park Slope, Red Hook and Bushwick. Of the locations he chose, Alex Ross Perry, in the director’s commentary says he wanted to capture “a New York that isn’t identifiable or modern”, whereas Akhavan has deliberately chosen, played up to and satirised a very recognisable and hipster Brooklyn.

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone.

As Shirin tries desperately to win her ex-girlfriend Maxine back, we watch her manoeuvre the absurdities of life in Brooklyn. Though her new roommates in Brooklyn are tattooed artists who met at Occupy Chelsea and she encounters a hair model named Tibet, this is a feat most notably achieved in the sequences where Shirin teaches 5 year olds (the likes of which are called Kujo and Blanche) how to make movies: “I could lock them in a room with a half-eaten apple and a tic tac and come back to The Mona Lisa”.

Speaking of this satirical tone, Akhavan says “Each neighbourhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes…I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighbourhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”

For both filmmakers then, Brooklyn is a way to film New York from an outsider’s perspective. As Perry remarks in his commentary, the only time his protagonist Philip ventures into Manhattan is to interact with his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and whilst there he marches frantically and avoids eye contact with everybody. “It is ugly. And loud. It’s always moving, and I never feel still long enough to hold a thought”. Contrary to popular depictions, New York actually seems to stifle Philip’s creativity and he feels the he needs to escape the city.

Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a vast, sometimes hostile city like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative hub, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. Conversely, though Akhavan deals in alienation, hers is more inward. Shirin feels alienated from her own culture and history because sexually she identifies with something so antithetical to it.

Perry and Akhavan are both concerned with filming a New York that depicts their own personal experience. Philip Friedman, as played with incisive wit and acidity by Jason Schwartzman, is a distinctly male, academic, middle-class and Jewish representation of New York, whereas Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is Persian, bisexual and female. These two characters embody the spectrum of lenses through which the New York experience can be filtered.

Whilst Appropriate Behaviour’s exploration of Persian bisexuality is strikingly original, there are moments that ring familiar. Akhavan herself describes the film as “a Lesbian Annie Hall from the perspective of Annie… if she’d been a closeted Persian Bisexual” and admits that she “grew up watching Woody Allen…There’s a sequence when they’re at the bookstore where we stole, or paid homage to a shot in Annie Hall. We were very aware of the references we were making and I wanted to make a real conscious reference to that film”.

Perhaps the seminal filmmaker associated with New York, Woody Allen became a zeitgeist for the pressures and peculiarities of modern living and urban romance. As seen in the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters, Allen’s films are ultimately concerned with his characters’ failure to find happiness in the metropolis.

It’s a theme both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour reference without ever succumbing to stereotype or convention, and their respective directors cite Woody Allen as having a direct, and indirect influence on the tone and texture of their respective films. It’s present in the intertextuality, self-reflexivity and intellect of their narratives, as well as their stylistic choices.

Perry admits to being inspired by – and in some cases – directly lifting certain iconic camera movements and shots from Allen’s movies. As The Playlist notes, “Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on”.

However, Perry’s New York is also more intimate and intrusive than Allen’s, predominantly using close-ups where Allen preferred long and medium range shots. As iterated in a review by The New Yorker, Perry’s is

“A big and exuberantly gaudy directorial performance that’s delivered in a modest and intimate format, and greatly aided by the remarkable images of Sean Price Williams, whose darting, agile camera work, often apparently with telephoto lenses, achieves a blend of intimacy and distance, of perception and opacity reminiscent of the camerawork in the films of John Cassavetes”.

The frenetic and spontaneous camerawork used in Listen Up Philip perfectly captures the energy of the city; at times chaotic and disorienting, but never boring, a sensibility accentuated by the use of jazz. The jazz-inflected score is something that has recently been seen in another New York set movie; Birdman, which coincidentally also explores notions of art, ego, success and sustaining relevance in an ever-changing landscape.

Shot on super 16mm film, the aesthetic of Listen Up Philip is warm, saturated and autumnal, an artistic choice that seems at odds with Philip’s caustic persona on-screen, but which creates a heightened paean for a bygone era, vividly reminiscent of the 80s classic When Harry Met Sally or indeed the muted greys and browns of Annie Hall.

Appropriate Behaviour has a much grittier feel. DoP Chris Teague, whose CV also includes the New York set Obvious Child – discussed Desiree’s influences in Filmmaker Magazine, citing the oeuvre of Noah Baumbach. “Appropriate Behaviour’s a little bit rough around the edges, [and was filmed] almost entirely handheld… it feels very loose”. This quality corresponds with the messy, ‘making it up as you go along’ aesthetic of Listen Up Philip and perhaps reflects an attitude to life so commonly observed in recent representations of New York and its millennial inhabitants.

Ultimately, New York epitomises the myth of the American Dream, and the illusion that opportunity and ambition will inevitably collide to fertilise success. Contemporary portrayals speak to an experience more cynical and fraught with anxiety than the glamour and romance oft associated with the city. One just had to look at Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Girls to see that feeling adrift is the main concern for New Yorkers in our era.

Both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour – though very different in tone and humour – navigate the tribulations of being heartbroken, aimless and frustrated, with themes of isolation, belonging, exclusion and possibility at their core. They offer us perspectives of New York that feed into these familiar themes, but in altogether original and necessary voices.

To watch Listen Up Philip, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

To watch Appropriate Behaviour, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

Review: While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach has floated on the periphery of the mainstream for roughly two decades, and has done so with elegance, restraint and wry wit. 

After his debut Kicking and Screaming, he arguably ‘broke’ onto the scene with ‘The Squid and The Whale’. Thereafter he has collaborated with Wes Anderson in a writerly capacity on two films, and has gone on to direct Nicole Kidman in Margot and the Wedding, Ben Stiller in Greenberg and his latest creative collaborator, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.

His latest offering While We’re Young is being described as his most accessible, genuinely funny and heartfelt film, and certainly seems to be the most critically well-received. It continues in the vein of Frances Ha, with a higher dose of conviviality than the bleak portraits Squid and Margot paint.

WWY centres around a generational collide between two couples; the 40-something Manhattanites Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), and the 20-something Brooklynites Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). It’s like a modernisation or inversion of the geographical conflict between East and West Egg and to quote Fitzgerald there is ” a bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them”.

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Jamie and Darby are the glittering, fashionable inhabitants of East Egg, a.k.a. Brooklyn and rather than being grotesquely wealthy, they’re enviably unhindered by material posessions. Josh and Cornelia, meanwhile, jaded by their middle-class trappings and the complacence that comes with it are looking out across a bay, towards a green light, aspiring to have what they have. Reinvigorated by the presence of their underlings; they begin to (gasp) hang out with these bright, young things who have an infectious verve and energy for life.

What ensues as the two couples become more entwined is a sharply observed meditation on the alienation the middle aged can feel in trying to stay relevant.

No longer young enough to pull off certain looks or phrases, yet not quite of the original generation that has been visiting ‘vintage’ cafes and hangouts since their opening, Josh and Cornelia merely don’t belong. Feeling increasingly distanced from their baby-booming friends, they seek solace in up-tempo hip-hop classes and New Age holistic retreats (culminating in a slightly misjudged vomiting orgy). They have fallen through the generational cracks.

9bf27ec1-e6f0-4b29-8e44-3ad45d2f857f-620x372In one particularly illuminating sequence we see Josh and Cornelia’s lives dominated by the digital; relying on remote controls and laptop screens to quench their thirst for knowledge and entertainment. Contrastingly, Jamie and Darby play boardgames, listen to vinyl, throw street parties and basically do everything that their elders have cast aside. “It’s like their apartment is full of stuff we threw out,” observes Cornelia.

Noah Baumbach has his finger on the pulse and effectively traverses the line between what’s considered ironically and genuinely cool. Everything the 40-somethings attempt feels antiquated and try-hard (note – never ever think a trilby hat is a good look), where the 20-something pull it off with quirky effortlessness. Youth’s obsession with nostalgia and erstwhile eras is infintely relatable, and it’s a topic Baumbach navigates with great dexterity.

But as Josh quickly discovers, the underlings become usurpers, not content to learn from their predecessors they have designs to oust them, or such is the source of Josh’s anxiety. His position of status as a visionary documentarian is crumbling beneath him. He’s been working on a stale documentary on US power structures and political economy for a decade, and when Jamie’s success starts to ignite with comparable ease, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

27WHILE-articleLargeThe first half remains bubbly and laugh-out-loud hilarious, charged with quickfire dialogue and gratifying physical comedy. (Naomi Watts has indeed still got it). But as the drama of the plot kicks in, an anxiousness and overwroughtness seeps into the narrative. Baumbach has contrived the ending a tad too much, and there’s something incredibly uneasy and predictable about its resolution. Albeit funny. But in a kind of resigned, lopsided smile kind of way.

Another aspect of the film that began to grate was that of the female counterparts of the two couples paling into the background. They are companion pieces to the headlining male ego. Film producers and ice-cream makers they may be, but Watts and Seyfried are given little more to work with than an updated version of the disatisfied housewife, expressing discontent with their husband’s decisions.

The real couple of the film is Josh and Jamie; filmmaker and fan, artist and muse, creative collaborators and eventually sparring rivals. Ben Stiller does solid work as a paranoid, anxious cynic, something not at all dissimilar from Woody Allen in most of his films. Equally Adam Driver turns in an affable, and at times ominous performance, building upon the kookiness of his famed Girls character, with a sly vindication.

Baumbach’s film hangs on fairly obvious juxtapositions; young vs. old, dormant vs. nascent, hip vs. hip replacement, and it’s strength lies in its ability to reserve judgement –  it’s left ambiguous as to whether old and young can authentically integrate and happily coexist.

Yet there’s also an emotional vacuum at the centre of While We’re Young, because it’s hard to care about either generation. Jamie throbs with a cold-blooded ambition, Josh moans too much and everyone is a bit pretentious quite frankly. But perhaps that’s the point – they’re both as bad as each other.

OnlineQuad_WhileWereYoungThere’s enough keenly observed comedy and sublime witticisms to sustain one’s attention, so that some of the barbed, indelicate moments don’t entirely thwart Baumbach’s admirable efforts at lightheartedness. And if this becomes an anthem for making the most of youth, as opposed to One Direction’s similarly titled ‘Live While We’re Young’, then that’s something I’m all for.

Verdict: A refreshingly different Baumbach film. Some parts a tad didactic and over-done, other parts resonant, jaunty and incredibly funny. At the very least, it will have you ditching Instagram for the day and reaching for the vinyl. Also look out for a wonderful cameo from Charles Grodin. 

Women Write Comedy: Underwire Film Festival, November 13th 2014

underwire_logo_resizedOn Friday, I battled harsh winds, torrential rain and ceaseless puddles that resembled something biblical to find comfort in the cosy surroundings and encouraging words of The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, where the Underwire Film Festival were hosting an all-day conference on ‘Women Writing Comedy’.

Served coffee and blankets on arrival, the event’s tagline “finding confidence in the collective” felt immediately applicable, as the intimate space of the theatre buzzed with the chatter and chirping of meeting new people who share the common theme of wanting to write. Like literary speed-dating if you will.

While they remain a rare creature, female scriptwriters are being commissioned to write sitcoms, screenplays and continuing series on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, as a collective and a society we should never mistake that for the job being done. Women are inching towards media and pay equality, but it’s incremental and not at all representative of our creative capabilities.

This event provided an all-female space, where energy, aspiration, ideas and laughter were the common currency. Effectively we had a room of our own to share our doubts, our questions and our successes and hopefully come away more resolute in our desire to become writers.

As women we need to blow our own trumpets more, and put an end to self-deprecation or asking permission to speak, or be heard.

Here are the top tips from the day:

  1. Vocalise your goals. Saying what you want out loud gives you the clarity and focus required to achieve them.
  2. Set yourself a specific target every year. E.g. finish editing that short film, put together a showreel, get an agent. Regardless of whether you take steps to achieve completion of this task each day, it’s unconscious presence in your mind often helps you streamline the opportunities you grasp.
  3. Apply to competitions. Whether or not you win is irrelevant. The looming deadline often helps you galvanise ideas that have been drifting around your imagination for months, and formulate something tangible. Success in a competition then becomes a bonus. Regardless of the result, you’ve written something and built yourself a platform upon which to improve. BOOM.
  4. Having several ideas/projects on the go at once is the key. It can become easy to get disheartened if you pour all your being into one passion project that for some reason doesn’t get made. If you disburse your emotional investment and keep several things on the go at once, not only will you look like a multi-tasker to potential employers, commissioners, agents e.t.c, but that rejection will be easier to swallow. It’s like having a favourite child, but never telling their siblings that’s the case.
  5. Never bin your Baked Alaska. If a project gets rejected, don’t think it’s because you’re a worthless, talentless writer. (Though that remains a possibility). It could simply be that the producer has recently taken on-board a similar project, that your narrative isn’t in fashion right now, or you’re not sending it out to the right people. There are plenty of reasons besides being in the wrong vocation that results in rejection. Put the script away, work on something else and when the time is right, success could be putty in your hands.

sarah_brocklehurst-0791_10x8Sarah Brocklehurst, a BAFTA-nominated theatre and film producer, was also on hand to discuss the writer-producer relationship. Her production company, SBP, champions new writing, and takes a particular interest in collaborating with female artists to create stories driven by women. Indeed, she emphasised the collaborative, symbiotic nature of her production process that involves working closely with writers and directors to ensure their visions are compatible and the original ideas remains intact on the screen.

Her advice to young filmmakers: “Don’t wait around for others to give you the opportunities you seek. If you want to produce, go out and produce. If you want to direct, then get hold of a camera. Trust your ambition, learn from your mistakes, persevere and work very hard”.

Review: Two Night Stand

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DIR: Max Nichols. Starring: Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton, Jessica Szohr, Leven Rambin and Scott Mescudi.

Navigating the etiquette of a one-night stand can be a tricky business. Do you stay for awkward chitchat over toast and coffee out of politeness or the hope of round 2? Or make a dash for it at the first sign of daylight?

Such is the subject of Max Nichols’ debut film ‘Two Night Stand’, wherein two love-spurned New Yorkers meet for a no-strings hook-up, only for an untimely and unprecedented snowstorm to force them together. Cue awkward conversation.

Megan, (Analeigh Tipton, of Crazy, Stupid, Love and Warm Bodies fame) is a newly single, pre-med graduate in limbo. Unemployed, lacking ambition, and on the cusp of being “sexiled” by her loved up roommate (Jessica Szohr), she resorts to world of online dating to get her head back in the game. No sooner than she’s turned down two potentials, she meets Alec (Miles The Spectacular Now Teller) and arranges to meet at his Brooklyn apartment. Only once checking his closet is free of skeletons, of course. (I’ll forgive the lightning speed of this online meet-cute for the sake of narrative progression, but if Megan were in the real world, I would expect a lot more duds before a hopeful comes along).

Cut to the morning after and Megan attempts to tip-toe away from her casual encounter like a thief in the night. But the gods, or her “magic Grandma” have other plans in mind, causing a resentful Megan and Alec to spend more time than desirable in one another’s company. But as the snow builds, the ice between them melts away.

The film takes a while to get going, sifting through various stages of small-talk, gentle banter and snow-based escapades before getting to the heart of the plot. Once Megan and Alec decide to give each other a performance review to better help their next conquests, the chemistry between leads and the pace of the films, soars.

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For a super low-budget indie, with two leads and roughly one location, Two Night Stand does an admirable job of keeping viewers interest piqued and cajoling you round to rooting for this couple to make it work. Nichols makes smart use of the cramped space and screenwriter Mark Hammer throws enough obstacles down to keep the proverbial ball rolling.

Tipton’s performance varies between mediocre and adorable. She’s like a slightly less vivacious Zooey Deschanel and endows Megan with the same wide-eyed, quietly-spoken naiveté as seen in Crazy, Stupid, Love. However, she’s at her sweetest when describing to Alec what he can do to ensure she has a ‘spectacular’ time and you can understand the attraction.

Teller has proven he can do the charming, witty, unlikely love interest in the infinitely more outstanding The Spectacular Now, as well as the lesser-known 21 and Over and The Awkward Moment. As expected, he gives an intelligent performance, at once charismatic, and vulnerable. This won’t do anything special to cement his rising star status, but it certainly won’t harm it either.

The level of honestly and sensitivity regarding casual sex is also believable, if not completely refreshing.

(Women fake orgasms?! No?!) But among its other self-effacing virtues, are two relatively unglamorous leads with whom the everyman (or woman) can relate. Megan is currently fielding job offers, a.k.a. living in her pyjamas (a situation that sounds all too familiar), whilst Alec is biding his time by working in bank, because since when did we have to like our jobs? Equally appealing is the fact that both their parents are still married and they’re not scapegoating their love problems on messy divorces, broken homes or bat-shit crazy former lovers. These are just two young adults trying to figure life out and let their guards down.

The ending falls prey to slightly more hackneyed portrayals of relationships, as a plot twist sees Alec having to win Megan over. But even in its most saccharine, ‘been-there-done-that’ moments, Teller and Tipton make for an engaging pair, in a likeable story. It sure beats “sitting alone in the dark, texting”.

Verdict: A somewhat contrived, but confident and cute debut. Like the concept of casual sex itself, it’s nothing special, but will keep you occupied until something better comes along.