Like a signal flare rising above the streets of the Fairfax District, Frownland announces that underground cinema is alive and well and taking up residence — at least for the weekend — courtesy of Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. That’s where the devil-may-care programmers have booked the debut feature by veteran New York film projectionist Ronald Bronstein for a belated commercial run (more than a year after it opened in Manhattan), and it’s difficult to imagine how this derelict, malformed brainchild of a movie would reach the masses otherwise. Even the most risk-taking of independent distributors, after all, tends to shy away from movies whose core audience would appear to consist of shut-ins, sadists and manic-depressives, and which are guaranteed to offend the remotely well-adjusted.
Bringing us face to face and much too close for comfort with a stuttering, snot-nosed, compulsively forehead-rubbing 20-something Brooklynite named Keith (played with freakish intensity by Dore Mann), Frownland is either a primal scream issued from a potentially dangerous mind, a wildly original work of outsider art, a doctoral thesis on how not to make friends and influence people, or all (or none) of the above. Only this much is certain: It’s been a while since something this gonzo has turned up at a theater near you.
Bronstein establishes the film’s queasy look and tone early on and rarely veers from it. Interrupted from his TV dinner in front of an el cheapo monster movie by a frantic call from his presumptive girlfriend, Laura (Mary Wall, who has since become Mrs. Bronstein), Keith rushes to her side, babbles something incoherent about his difficulty in expressing emotion, forces himself to cry by holding his eyelids open, and finally brings Laura back to his mouse-hole apartment, where he further tries to console her by turning an episode from his day job as a door-to-door charity solicitor into a pathetic bit of sock-puppet theater. Barely more articulate or intelligible than Keith, the sullen Laura responds by repeatedly rubbing her down-allergic face against Keith’s down bed pillows, before warding off his clumsy advances by stabbing him with a pushpin. (We will later discover that she likes to stab and cut herself, too.) All the while, Bronstein and cinematographer Sean Williams light the scenes in various shades of dried vomit, and press the camera as close to the actors’ faces as possible without losing focus, magnifying every pore and bead of sweat until they become nearly indistinguishable from the pronounced grain of the 16mm images.
And that’s just the apéritif. Less a straightforward narrative than a collection of disjunctive vignettes, Frownland follows Keith as he pounds the pavement of his soul-crushing 9-to-5, engages in trench warfare with his aspiring-musician roommate (Paul Grimstad) over an unpaid ConEd bill, and repeatedly forces his way into the life (and apartment) of his only apparent friend (David Sandholm), an effete waiter who prefers sipping tea and watching silent movies alone to spending a single unnecessary moment with Keith. In fact, nearly everyone in Frownland’s unhappy universe seems most content in his or her own company, save for Keith, whose haphazard attempts at human connection provide the film with one of its cruelest ironies: The most social creature onscreen is the one you’d soonest cross the street to avoid.
Frownland is hardly without precedent, at times bringing to mind the dysfunctional family values of Eraserhead, the ripped-from-the-gutter grit of the Chicago-based filmmaker James Fotopoulos, and the recent wave of neo-Cassavetes-esque, Gen-Y confessionals infamously dubbed “mumblecore.” But like its closest relative in the indie-cinema fossil record, Damon Packard’s equally mondo-bizarro Reflections of Evil, Frownland owes the most to the shoestring provocations of such ’70s grindhouse auteurs as Wes Craven, William Lustig and George Romero, who similarly blurred the boundaries between art and exploitation and tested the limits of audience identification with undesirable and/or potentially homicidal characters. Not for nothing does Bronstein begin Frownland with a monster-movie homage, though by the time he revisits that image, late in the film, with a drooling, sputtering Keith in place of the Frankenstein-like creature, it’s unclear whether we’re expected to fear or feel sympathy for the beast. In fact, even after a second viewing, I can’t say I’ve completely deciphered what Frownland is about, or why it’s so hard to get it out of my head. But there is some kind of demented brilliance at work here, and I can’t wait for the encore.
If Bronstein’s film is indicative of the best, boundary-pushing work being done on the no-budget margins of American cinema, writer-director Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (which screens on a double bill with Frownland at Cinefamily) represents the navel-gazing worst — navel lint is more like it. In fact, there’s nothing pleasurable about this (barely) feature-length, self-consciously retro piffle starring Safdie’s girlfriend and muse, Eléonore Hendricks, as a free-spirited young woman who wanders the streets of Manhattan, engaging in random acts of kleptomania (including the theft of a car) and bedding down with a sorta, kinda boyfriend (played by Safdie). A movie this thin needs lots of charm to get by, but The Pleasure of Being Robbed has none to burn.
Better to hightail it out of the Silent Movie Theatre at intermission and head over to LACMA, where Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light returns for two nights — almost certain to be the last time the film screens locally before migrating to DVD. Coming on the heels of the elephant-dung Virgin Mary that was 2005’s Battle in Heaven, Reygadas’ austere, astonishingly beautiful drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community somewhere in the Chihuahua Desert, seems more the work of a confident master than that of an impish enfant terrible. It is also a film that commands the large, wide cinema screen in a way that suggests 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia were made only five minutes ago, and Antonioni and Tarkovsky are still very much with us. That is another way of saying that Reygadas is an old-school art-house auteur in an age that has largely abandoned auteurism, where cinephilia is more hobby than passion, and where the art houses themselves may soon be victims of foreclosure. Once upon a time, a movie like Silent Light would have had moviegoers queuing up around the block and standing out on the street afterward, arguing into the night. Today, it risks passing through town without arousing so much as a whisper.
FROWNLAND & THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Through Sun., April 26 | www.cinefamily.org
SILENT LIGHT | LACMA Bing Theater | Through Sat., April 25 | www.lacma.org
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes