Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz established his talent with a pair of low-key efforts about youths adrift in a sea of suburban anonymity: the charmingly simple love story Quiet City and the more troubled Dance Party USA, which is perhaps what a Michael Haneke movie would look like if it were performed by a high school drama class. Cold Weather, Katz’s third feature film, ingeniously extends his world without compromising it. The same drifting, dislocated youths are in evidence here, only this time they seem to have drifted their way into a Raymond Chandler novel.

However, in the place of a hardboiled hero we must make do with a doughy slacker. Doug lives on his sister Gail’s couch after dropping out of college, giving up the study of forensic science to spend his days shuffling bags of ice around in an ice factory. Unable or unwilling to commit to the drudgery of a career, he discovers the drudgery of a livelihood instead. He’s the perfect example of an aimless twenty-something unable to decide what to do with himself—the film makes a running gag out of him goading on his friends and sister to ditch work, much as he often does.

Early scenes focus on Doug and his slim social circle goofing off and hanging around. Indeed, the film may be unique in dedicating a montage sequence to a board game party (rather appropriately, it ends with the characters trying to decipher the instructions). But the story soon takes a sharp left turn into thriller territory, as Doug’s ex-girlfriend blows off a date with a mutual friend and seemingly disappears. Egged on by his friend Carlos to tackle the mystery—“You know about these kind of things,” Carlos explains—Doug indulges his love of Sherlock Holmes and puts his unfinished detective courses to use. From there, the usual hardboiled details begin to crop up, including pornographers, secret codes, and the requisite briefcase full of money.

Katz is clearly having fun riffing on detective stories here, but the film can’t be so easily pigeonholed as some genre parody or mishmash of mumblecore mannerisms with thriller tropes. Self-conscious films like this typically display their artificiality, not their naturalism. Yet Katz ignores stylized gestures, rather hewing to his well-established mode of quiet urban contemplation and small, personal moments. Even the relationships between the characters have an easygoing realism that doesn’t appear normally in hardboiled dramas. A stylish drama devoid of style and drama, the film becomes something far stranger and more rewarding: a collection of offhand character observations, delivered with warmth and intelligence.

One sees this especially in the relationship between Gail and Doug, a beautiful slice of sibling interaction. There are no long-buried hatreds and jealousies, no recriminations and shouting and hugging and sobbing and all that sticky nonsense. Instead, there are simply fond jokes, flashes of shared memory, and the staple of any sibling bond, embarrassment. The best—and perhaps most representative—moment in the film comes when Doug buys a porn magazine, explaining to Gail that it might contain clues. Her response? A simple, withering, “Oh.” There’s an entire conversation in that one word, with all the bantering and teasing of their years together boiled down to a single, deadpan syllable.

The fact that the primary male-female relationship in the film is not sexual, but rather familial, colours the proceedings in striking ways. We’re never really drawn into a sordid underbelly of crime and depravity, even when shady pornographers start popping up. Instead, Katz discovers a childhood game buried inside the sometimes-dreary lives of these young adults. The film feels like a group of kids playing dress-up in their backyard. Like a child imitating the grownups, Doug buys a pipe, just so he can sit around smoking and thinking as Sherlock Holmes would. Even Gail dresses up in a disguise at one point, although, apropos for this ramshackle adventure, it’s one cribbed from a lost and found.

All of this probably sounds terribly slight, even if one can’t underrate the film’s affectless charm. But Katz understands something crucial about genre that is often missed by other referential filmmakers mining familiar territory for fool’s gold. As a director who has cultivated his own filmmaking family over just a few projects, Katz is attuned to the pleasure in simply watching a group of friends create their own story together. The interactions of the characters always take precedent over the rehashed genre plot. So it should come as no surprise that the mystery of Cold Weather falls away in the last moments, leaving us once again with nothing other than the sibling bond we began with. Rather than resolution, Katz settles for a little flicker of insight into Doug and Gail’s relationship. As with a mix tape shared between friends, the quality of the song is secondary to the moments and memories conjured up by the familiar tune.

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