"So that happened." Or perhaps, "We now return you to our otherwise uneventful lives." Had anything so definitive as titles appeared on the screen at the conclusion of Aaron Katz's third feature, Cold Weather, either of those statements might have served the purpose quite well. As it happens, one of the strengths of Mr. Katz's films, as well of those of his contemporaries, is a lack of definitive resolution. There are not so much stories as a day's or week's events. Lives don't dramatically intersect, but drift together and perhaps eventually apart. Rather like life.
The first portion of Cold Weather begins in the unassuming manner of Katz's first two, brief features, Dance Party USA and Quiet City. It's a family dinner, though it's unclear at first whether the two 20-something participants are children of the parents in attendance or a couple. Actually, they're brother and sister, Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Apparently, no one without an interesting first name or one spelled in an idiosyncratic manner was considered for the lead roles. Doug has recently returned from Chicago to Portland, where he and Gail have taken an apartment together. He hasn't quite returned to the nest, but it's a comfortable satellite. Eschewing his uncompleted studies in forensic science, Doug takes a third shift job at an ice factory.
The lack of worldly ambition, mixed feelings about life post-college and impermanent living situations are a few of the hallmarks of films by Mr. Katz (actually, Dance Party USA was set among a group of Portland teenagers), and those of Joel Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers and Andrew Bujalski, among others. This in the poorly named but frequently satisfying genre of Mumblecore.
Cold Weather succeeds without trying too hard through its early scenes. Doug works his job at the ice factory, laments having to take the bus, befriends a part-time DJ named Carlos. Only rarely, as when discussing his love for the Sherlock Holmes stories, does Doug's generally impassive face, still rounded with baby fat, work its way into some animation. Another early scene has the brother and sister on the rooftop of their building, throwing grapes to the ground as they discuss Gail's love life (or lack therof). There's not much on which to hang your hat if you're a fan of the big story, but there's a kind of languid truth at work. Add to this the composition of the two dark-haired actors, the typical grey of the sky and deep palette of their clothing and surroundings and you have a pleasing kind of 21st-century Pacific Northwest impressionism.
A would-be montage also demonstrates that lack of predictable momentum that is more typical of the low attention span theater of so many mainstream films. Doug invites friends over to their modest apartment for a night of poker. The only guests we see arrive are Carlos and Rachel, she Doug's ex-girlfriend, supposedly in town on a business trip. As the music kicks in, it's actually board games we see being played, as beers are consumed and a bowl of potato chips passed around. Before the scene is allowed to drag into some sort of indie beer commerical, Katz cuts to a long shot of Doug and Gail standing on a bridge before one of the majestic waterfalls of the Columbia River gorge east of Portland. That's it: some music, a mood, a strong image.
Keegan DeWitt's nimble, oft percussive score provides the soundtrack to the discursive montage. His music proves far more adept at changing tone than director Katz and his actors. For, you see, a nice little film is ambling along and then a story breaks out. Or at least it tries. The ex-girlfriend, Rachel, fails to show up to one of Carlos' DJ gigs. When Doug and Carlos investigate, they discover a hastily vacated motel room, a shady character lurking in a pickup truck and some surprising details about the sort of work that Rachel has been doing.
These developments present a couple of major problems for Cold Weather. There is first the difficulty of imposing a big story on what is essentially a small story structure. It's a bit like trying to mount a car chase with a couple of Toyota Priuses (Priusi? Prii?). Equally problematic is when Cris Lankenau is called upon to act. He can't, really. Mr. Lankenau slacked his way satisfactorily enough through Katz's Quiet City and the early, easy-going stages of Cold Weather, but both he and the story lack credibility when called upon to do anything but mosey along.
Cold Weather's attempt to change gears is not without its amusing moments. Again, imagine a race between rather slow-moving vehicles. Doug's sense of urgency is such that, upon learning of Rachel's apparent disappearance, he decides to buy a pipe to help himself think, like his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes (much as he had taken pains to point out to Carlos that the oversized pipe and double-billed hat were movie cliches). Then he has to shop for tobacco, which he forgot to do at the pipe store. When further mind-clearing is deemed necessary, Doug goes to the batting cages. He flails at pitches about as effectively as you would expect from a guy who walks around Portland with his bunched hands at his hips, as if the raising or swinging of arms requires too much vigor.
Also rather droll is the low-tech mood of Cold Weather. During that rooftop conversation, Doug asks Gail if she met her date on the Internet, as if the World Wide Web an on-line dating were both strangely new-fangled phenomena in their relatively big city. And God bless him, Katz has his young sleuths twice go to the local library on research missions. Baseball statistics figure prominent in the mystery of Rachel's disappearance, so Doug and Gail go roaming the stacks for numbers that could have been gotten on the Internet in a fraction of the time. And during a quiet moment at film's end, the pair sit in a car listening not to an iPod or a CD, but to a mix tape.
|To the stacks! Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn in Cold Weather.|
That last scene is typical of Mumblecore films in its almost bemused lack of finality. Unfortunately, with the miscalculation of trying to impose a more overt story in Cold Weather, it is the shortcomings, not the strength of the genre which are exposed. There might have been more hope had the story focused instead on Gail and Ms. Dunn's more exotic presence, but the big mistake was trying to introduce a real plot at all. Mr. Katz might have such a story in him, but this isn't it.
However, what remains is Mr. Katz's eye for urban settings in general, his affection for Portland in particular. He has a city lover's eye for the poetry of underpasses, rail yards and neon. But there are also shots of Portland's mundane downtown skyline. The city's lovely Bagdad Theater is seen from the vantage point of the street, but the neon upright of another neighborhood theater is espied over the roofs of an unassuming sea of houses. Katz is abetted by cinematographer Andrew Reed, who manages to photograph even the gradations of Portland's frequent gray skies in such a way as to make the city seem all the more desirable for them.
To see the elements of a mystery film, or even noir, introduced among young characters in a contemporary setting, check out Rian Johnson's Brick(2005), if you haven't already had the pleasure. But also seek out Aaron Katz's Dance Party U.S.A. and Quiet City, which you can probably get as part of the same DVD set.