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.

The Diary of Teenage Girl and 6 Other Directorial Debuts From The Past Year You Need To See

Some directorial debuts serve as calling cards for multi-million dollar franchises. Others disappear into obscurity, better best forgotten. To make an impact with your first attempt is a rare feat, but to sustain that success is even rarer…

To celebrate The Diary of a Teenage Girl winning Best First Feature at the 30th Independent Spirit Awards, I’ve scoured IMDb for shining examples of a directorial debut in the past year.

Marielle Heller worked on adapting the project for 8 years before shooting the film in San Francisco.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

DTGAn audacious, provocative depiction of teenage sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has made quite a splash.

From newcomer Bel Powley’s astounding performance, to the support of seasoned producer Anne Carey, Marielle Heller’s dazzling debut is a testament to the talent of women both above and below the line. Despite its 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and critical acclaim across the board, this is the kind of success story we hear all too infrequently.

In an interview for Vogue, Heller highlighted the disparity of opportunities for male and female directors. “There’s this feeding frenzy when a man makes a good first feature. Like, let’s scoop him up! We have to give him some giant franchise. And there’s this sense with women that you have to prove yourself so many times over before that same feeling happens”.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – with its whimsical aesthetic and candid outlook – represents exactly the kind of unique voice that women can offer cinema…

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR

ABPremiering at Sundance in 2014, Appropriate Behaviour is the bold, brash and downright hilarious debut that has everyone wondering what writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan (as seen in Girls season 4) is going to do next.

Part biopic, part homage to Annie Hall, Appropriate Behaviour sees Iranian-American Shirin navigating bisexuality, break-ups and familial tradition with varying success. Akhavan’s keen eye for observational comedy and willingness to push every boundary offers up a film as poignant as it is pertinent.

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

 

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James White might be his first feature, but director Josh Mond cut his teeth producing projects such as Indie Spirit Award nominee Martha Marcy May Marlene.

It’s the kind of practice run – if you will – that no doubt spawned this spiky and spectacularly intimate drama. Christopher Abbott (of Girls fame), is the sole caregiver to his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon, transformed). He’s also a slacker. A liar. A reckless thug. And a lost soul.

Every scene crackles with volatile energy, an atmosphere harnessed by Mond’s rugged, handheld filmmaking. But the malevolence is also punctuated by moments of profound tenderness. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more touching mother-son relationship depicted onscreen this year.

 

THE WOLFPACK

Walking down First Avenue in the East Village, Crystal Moselle encountered the subjects for her first documentary feature. 5 years, and 500 hours of footage later, she had an extraordinary debut film.

By getting to know the Angulo brothers and the unbelievable circumstances of their upbringing, what could’ve been exploitative or sensationalist in lesser hands, emerges as an affectionate – if no less bizarre – portrait of manhood, brotherhood and adulthood.

As the six brothers adjust to life in the outside world, Moselle shows a gift for allowing their eccentricities and expressions to float to the surface. Her film, perhaps, begs more questions than it answers and its scope is indeed narrow. But its sincerity won’t fail to charm you.

Prior to The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle had worked on short documentaries and commercials.

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

EX-MACHINA

ex machinaAlex Garland knows how to handle the sinister undercurrents of the sci-fi genre. He’s the mind behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, after all. With Ex-Machina he continues to prove his expertise in telling intelligent stories with a spine-tingling edge, confirming that his eye for detail is as razor-sharp as his imagination.

Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb finds himself trapped down a murky rabbit hole of robotics and ethics. What begins as ‘The Making of a Robot’, soon escalates into a menacing power-play between egotistical engineer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and steely AI Ava (newly Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander), both of whom have agendas of their own.

Scooping an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, Ex-Machina is Fincher-esque in its meticulousness. Whether soaring through remote Alaskan vistas, or navigating Nathan’s claustrophobic laboratories, Garland is quite the engineer. Guiding his audience through a maze-like set and a complex story to pulse-quickening effect, Ex-Machina is one of the most exquisitely-designed and electrically performed debuts since Duncan Jones’ Moon.

mustang-toh-exclusive-posterMUSTANG

Like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mustang is a story of burgeoning female sexuality and empowerment wherein voyeurism is avoided by firmly locating the narrative’s perspective as female.

Groomed for arranged marriages and conventional futures, a group of sisters growing up in a Turkish village find their freedoms increasingly curtailed. Filmed with a hazy sensuality that has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, you could be forgiven for not expecting the furious sense of resistance that bubbles beneath it’s quaint surface. Not dissimilar to Diary, the film serves as a call-to-action to allow – and encourage – the free-spiritedness of teenage girls, in whatever form that may take.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s brilliant, and bracingly-perceptive debut deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

THE SURVIVALIST

Akin to Marielle Heller whom penned upwards of 80 drafts of The Diary of a Teenage Girl prior to shooting, The Survivalist’s director Stephen Fingleton has long been preparing for his feature debut.

In my interview with the Irish filmmaker, he conceded that he treated his shorts films (two of which can be viewed here) as precursors to the main event and a way to smooth out any kinks in the process.

It’s a process he’s honed to near-perfection, and which saw his nomination at this year’s BAFTAs for Outstanding British Debut. With The Survivalist, Fingleton serves up Ray Mears by way of The Hunger Games in this sparse and unsparingly gritty apocalyptic thriller, that see loyalties tested and a primitive ménage à trois go awry. It’s a lean and assured debut that will leave your hands clammy from tension.

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Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton earned a BAFTA nomination for his work

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.