The Roof is on Fire

The summer season brings with it many traditions and seasonal changes: beer gardens suddenly open up their canopy decking, gin and tonics are suddenly being ordered by far more bar patrons than usual, people feel the need to dress for summer no matter if the weather actually calls for it, and homebodies like myself start to feel a bit miserable that we can’t just stay on the couch and watch a movie on DVD or Netflix with the excuse of “it’s raining!” or “it’s too cold!” because, gee, the weather is so nice we have to utilise it (apparently). Gah!

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However, the prolificity of outdoor cinema venues such as parks, botanical gardens, open screens (think the free screenings held in Melbourne’s Federation Square), and rooftop theatres has at least helped merge the two ideals together. Rooftop Cinema – the organisation, not the concept – have brought about a wonderful collection of films and venues to their ongoing series of films. I have been lucky to visit three times (and hopefully a few more over the next few, warm months – last week I even ended up providing impromptu volunteer work post-film) and while the festival has had to play chicken with the weather on more than one of those occasions, each time has been a delight. Even if I became a sort of communal grump and didn’t like one of the films in the face of a room of instant fans.

In fact, the one film I didn’t care for – Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ The Kings of Summer (reviewed at Quickflix) – was one that succumbed to the whims of Mother Nature and had to screen at the alternate downstairs indoor screening hall. The other two, which managed to screen upstairs on the roof without any major hitches, were rather fabulous. And one of them was even a mighty surprise given I had never even heard of it before. I sense a pattern.

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The first feature was Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the director’s second collaboration with Greta Gerwig after Greenberg. The Lower East Side screening location at New Design High School couldn’t have been a more appropriate setting for their tale of twentysomething arrested development. While the seats are not the most comfortable, given I’ve been to cafés that make people sit on milk crates (hipsters won’t be done until we’re drinking out of rusty tin cans, won’t they?) I think we can make do. The visually spectacular graffiti designs that cover the rooftop walls match perfectly with the falling sunset that falls over the city in colours of purple, pink, and orange. It’s a gorgeous setting and the cool breeze that frequently blows throw is just the  cherry on top.

As for Frances Ha, the film is a delightfully spry vacation into the life of a woman who doesn’t really deserve the affectionate film around her. She’s an exceptionally frustrating woman to spend 85 minutes with, but it is to the credit of screenwriters Baumbach and Gerwig that the film itself isn’t frustrating along with it. If the film has one problem it is that’s the end doesn’t quite feel as deserved as it thinks it does, as if it suffered from that most saddening of independent film symptoms – the ending that ran out of cash (worst of the worst: Pieces of April, which literally ends mid-scene with a polaroid montage). It wraps up a little too quickly and a little too neatly for my liking just as things were getting interesting. It’s as if they had the bows, but not the wrapping paper and they just went “voila!” and let it go out half-dressed. Meanwhile, that was a bunch of mixed metaphors that I don’t even know.

The film is gloriously photographed by Sam Levy who shot in colour and altered it to black and white in post-production. It lends the film a crisp look that is entirely bewitching. Whether they deliberately wanted to evoke Woody Allen’s 1979 masterpiece Manhattan (my personal favourite Allen film) or not I’m not sure, but the film’s beguiling monochrome vision of New York – Manhattan and Brooklyn for the most part, plus it was nice to see Washington Heights get a piece of the pie – does just that. Jennifer Lame’s brisk, tightly-executed editing certainly helps things immaculately. And, of course, Gerwig is a breath of fresh air as she inevitably always is, reminding me of other steadfastly indie queens Chloe Sevigny and Parker Posey, but with the awkward wit of a Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

The Dirties a few weeks later was a pleasant surprise. “Pleasant” in the ways that a film about a school shooting can be, I suppose. Despite the prickly subject matter, Matthew Johnson’s debut feature is an energetically made and comically tense navigation into the motivations and building scale behind a school shooting. It’s fresh and original and utilises the popular trend of mockumentaries to watch a horror unfold in an entirely different and unique way. If the film wasn’t such a DIY effort from the production team then I might have been worried that the screenplay was suggesting a link between film and the enacting of violence, but I think the filmmakers do a very good job of suggesting that the lead character of Matt (as played by the director) was clearly unstable before any of this was set into motion. “Movies don’t create psychos, movie just make psychos more creative”, as one famous movie once hypothesised (that movie was another high school massacre movie, but one of a decidedly different nature, Wes Craven’s Scream.)

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What the film isn’t shy about, however, is its linking of teen bullying to acts of violence. Whereas Gus Van Sant’s Elephant tried to skirt the issue and present it in very black and white terms (although suggesting everything from bullying to homophobia to video games to incessant piano concertos), Johnson makes no qualms about suggesting that school corridor bullying is to blame. That the end throws an ambiguous, atypical curve ball is a credit to the director and adds another layer of teen mythos to the oft told story of gun-toting boys that has been examined in films Polytechnique (another Canadian production), 2:37 (the Australian film that blatantly ripped off Elephant) and Home Room.

I admired the film for inserting a sense of humour to the project, without which the film surely would have suffocated under the dire low budget aesthetic. It doesn’t make jokes about school massacres, but merely has funny characters at its centre. It’s actually refreshing to see core characters of a story such as this not represented in the typical fashion. Like so many bullied children, Matt and Owen try to make their rather miserable existences as bearable as possible by wrapping themselves up in a world of laughter. And while Matt’s sexuality (or, non-sexuality as it actually seems) isn’t directly brought up, it’s quite obvious that he’s a homosexual (the film is set in 2001 and he has posters of The OC‘s male cast hanging on his wall) and I found that just another bonus layer of intrigue in this fine film.

While the sold out audience that greeted Frances Ha was hardly surprising (especially so with Baumbach and Gerwig in appearance for a decidedly awkward Q&A afterwards), it was wonderful to see the seats packed for The Dirties, too. The lively Q&A was a delight too, and kudos to whoever at Rooftop Cinema is in charge of hiring the pre-film music accompaniment since the bands selected have been top notch. Brazos at Frances Ha, Bird Courage at The Kings of Summer, and Hani Zahra at The Dirties. Not only that, but they typically fit quite well with the films they preceded. And if music and a movie in a wonderful location weren’t enough (there are multiple locations across the boroughs, but I haven’t had the chance to experience them yet), there is always an after party at a bar around the corner called Fontanas where, if you’re lucky, you can score three or four free beers. Pretty good for less than the price of a movie ticket at AMC.

Rooftop Cinema have some excellent product coming up soon including screenings of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Central Park Five (a free event on Tuesday the 18th), Crystal FairyTowheads, and a selection of short programs that are heavily focused on New York City, as well as a highlights package from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A full look at their schedule can be found at their website.

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