In one, a tousle-haired young woman thieves everything she can get her hands on -- purses, grapes, kittens, a car -- somehow bringing an enigmatic innocence and naive inquisitiveness to her ragamuffin rebellion. In the other, a stammering young man, whose inarticulateness makes him the world’s least-likely door-to-door salesman, grapples with his loneliness and isolation from the world. Taken together, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Frownland” make for the most unusual and compelling (and likely hippest) double feature to hit screens in Los Angeles in quite some time.
On the face of it, the films make for an unlikely double bill, as the sketchbook-doodle whimsy of “Robbed” is in stark opposition to the near-pathological intensity of “Frownland.” On closer inspection, the films reveal themselves as intimate character portraits, with a particular attention to the way clothes or cars or apartments externally reflect the interior emotional states of people.
“It always made sense to me, but in an ineffable way,” said “Frownland” director Ronald Bronstein of the films’ odd pairing. “The movies are . . . almost like two sides of the same coin.”
Both films have had unexpected success on the festival circuit. Directed by Josh Safdie, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” premiered at the 2008 South by Southwest film festival and was subsequently the only American film screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Bronstein’s film premiered at the 2007 South by Southwest festival, where it won a jury prize, and went on to be nominated for a Spirit Award and to win a Gotham Award.
Though each film has shown on its own in Los Angeles either at a festival or as a one-off event -- and “Robbed” has been available on video-on-demand -- when they screen together at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre from Thursday through next Sunday it will be in effect the first significant local theatrical run for either.
Both films take place in and around New York City, though “Robbed” does takes a brief road trip to Boston, as it playfully follows a young woman named Eleonore (played by Eleonore Hendricks as a cross between a silent-film waif and a hipster heroine) as she slides around the margins of society, quietly and subtly pilfering what she needs along the way.
Many of the film’s secondary characters were found through “streetcasting,” literally casting people off the street rather than from auditions, with some being found not long before the camera rolled. The film’s wistful, mischievously off-the-cuff style allows Eleonore’s motives to remain uncertain as her interactions increasingly take on the tenor of an art project or social experiment, until reaching a finale involving a homemade polar bear -- it makes sense in the film, honest -- that feels like a dreamy reverie.
“Frownland” takes a near-opposite tack in its exploration of urban despair, the lonely-in-a-crowd feeling that can be such a big part of life in the big city. In the film, Keith (Dore Mann, in a truly singular performance) struggles with his overwhelming inability to articulate his feelings and desires in the face of everyday issues. Just trying to get his roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad) to pay his share of the bills becomes a task of insurmountable proportions. Keith’s building social dilemma ends at a party where he doesn’t know anyone, because as Bronstein added, “other people’s fun can be terrifying.”
Perhaps the best summation of what makes these filmmakers such unlikely colleagues is illustrated by how they recently received phone calls for separate interviews. Safdie, 25, was munching on a bagel as he toured around the studio he maintains with his brother and team of collaborators in New York City’s Chinatown, a hive of activity, people and sounds. The 35-year-old Bronstein, also in New York, stood alone outside in the rain.
Before “Pleasure,” Safdie had made a well-received series of short films, and his feature debut was originally intended to be another short. It was only when he reached the editing room that he realized he had enough material for a feature. Just before the premiere of “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” he had second thoughts and almost held the film back from circulation.
“At times, I wonder if I did the wrong thing,” he said. “It was a very personal movie for me, and very much an experiment. I mean, I’m happy that it exists, but every once in a while I get this feeling in my stomach. It’s just the idea of people looking at my accident.”
With “Frownland,” Bronstein, a longtime film projectionist on the museum circuit in New York City, has crafted a debut film quite unlike anything else. Using a method similar to the style of British filmmaker Mike Leigh, Bronstein used long periods of rehearsal and improvisation to conjure the characters and situations, giving the final film an emotionally unforgiving style amid deeply mannered performances. “Frownland” notoriously once prompted a shouting match among audience members after a festival screening; for some, the film is a dispiriting affront, while for other viewers, it is a darkly funny comedy.
“The movie, on a heightened, abstract level, is autobiographical,” Bronstein said. “I was trying to make this kabuki monster portrayal of the insecurity and desperation and self-loathing I was experiencing ad nauseam in my 20s. Movies have taught us to love the superficially awkward, the lovable loser, and those movies use all sorts of insidious tricks to appeal to the loser in all of us. But in reality, the nature of desperation, of neediness, that’s a repulsive agent. I just wanted to go all the way with that. Hopefully by the end of the movie you find some grounds for compassion, a deeper perspective.”