Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Dance Party USA (2006), the first film by independent filmmaker Aaron Katz (now available in a gorgeous DVD package with Katz’s follow-up, Quiet City (2007), from Benten Films) opens on a Tri-Met train rolling through Portland, Oregon. The dazed, gregarious Gus (Cole Pensinger) sits regaling his slightly more dazed-appearing pal Bill (Ryan White) with a raunchy story about a none-too-hygienic sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl. The story smells too much like fiction for Bill, who calls out his pal in complementary crude language. It’s a conversation between two young men, 17-18-ish, who relate to each other in terms defined by sexual braggadocio, who are comfortable with this kind of give-and-take that is emblematic of the way many young men relate to each other (and have for generations), and who fancy themselves far more swift of wit and articulation than they really are. (In this way and others, Dance Party USA might be termed the anti-Juno.) A chance meet-up with Jessica (Anna Kavan) at a party (the event which the movie‘s title references with deceptive irony) exposes the floundering unease underneath Gus’ friendly jock demeanor. Faced with the relative surety of Jessica’s resolve—she informs him in no uncertain terms that she will not be sleeping with him—Gus finds himself trying to feel out a way to respond to this woman, who has stirred something in him he doesn’t necessarily want to articulate. And in the course of a fumbling conversation that forms the center of the film, Gus confesses a vile date rape scenario, one in which he casts himself as potential savior and then confused, hostile violator, the true version of the story he spun for Bill.

The rest of Dance Party USA is indeed a dance done to and in the rhythms of two restless people desperate to connect to someone—perhaps each other—who must deal with the ramifications of the honesty Jessica inspires in Gus and where it will lead them, if it can lead them anywhere. Director Katz has fashioned his first film in a way that remains true to the sensibility of self-absorbed teenagers without itself becoming bogged down in a morass of self-reflection or self-serving romanticism. His camera is free-floating but patient, willing to settle on Jessica’s relatively mature gaze, or on the squirming self-consciousness of Gus’s self-protecting grin as he begins to reckon with the ways Jessica is beginning to transform him, from a sexual predator to a social partner. What Katz finds in those visages, as well as in the freshly observed city environment in which their small drama plays out, brings flesh to what could have been just another plastic indie D.I.Y. romance of the sort Sundance spits out like sunflower seed shells these days.

Dance Party USA distinguishes itself from its unpretentious form in another way as well—Katz, in concert with Pensinger, who is good in a way that really sneaks up on you, and a young, unformed actress by the name of Natalie Buller, rather daringly give us a scene in which Gus, compelled by his newfound confessional mode, pays a visit to the girl he raped at the party. She doesn’t recognize him, at least at first, yet she invites him in to watch TV, and the scene progresses along an awkward trajectory headed we know not quite where. It’s a bit of a high-wire act that doesn’t pay off in histrionics, certainly, but it does give us a clue that Gus is suddenly, achingly for real, that he’s grown past bullshitting games with his buddies, but also that his growth is no assurance he won’t soon be even more alone than ever.

After 65 minutes the movie ends with one last encounter between Gus and Jessica amongst the dime games and carnival rides of Oaks Park, a rundown Portland amusement park, and a lovely moment of self-discovery and personal risk that is all the more exhilarating for it being the image with which Katz, displaying wisdom befitting a director of many more years than he has as yet put in, chooses to end his film. For these teenagers, much like the ones I know and have known, self-expression comes begrudgingly, with acknowledgment of self-imposed roles that mask every form of insecurity, and at a price, that being fear of true exposure. Gus and Jessica can’t so easily tap into what they feel, and they’re so much more interesting, and real, because of that. I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing Quiet City, which by all accounts is an even more rich and assured film than this first one. But if the evidence displayed in Dance Party USA can be trusted, Aaron Katz has already carved a place for himself among the new voices of American independent film. I can’t wait to see where he takes me on that second disc, and in the many fine films he’s likely to make in the future.

(Dance Party USA and Quiet City are available today on DVD from Benten Films.)

1 comment:

David Lowery said...

Now that my blog's fixed, I can finally get my review of this online! I dearly love Dance Party USA and am a big fan of Quiet City, too -- I don't know if you read my multiple conversational pieces with Katz and his producer, Brendan McFadden, over the past few years, but they collectively represent some of my favorite bits of blogging.