Things do not go according to plan in Aaron Katz’s films. This has been the case with his work from the start. People disappear and plans get put on ice, as do relationships between characters. These films then turn into quirky, surprisingly intriguing mysteries. Katz’s two best works, Gemini (2018) and Cold Weather (2010), will be playing at the Harvard Film Archive back-to-back on Saturday March 16 and Friday March 22 under the program title “Accidental Detectives.” These two formally polished, confidently told films play with genre and stick out as indies that create a constant conversation between character and region. With that, Katz’s forays into the mystery genre and the film noir tradition have become one of the more intriguing developments in contemporary American independent cinema.
Katz’s humble beginnings came in directing microbudget movies Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007) that fell under the term “mumblecore,” a movement of 2000s-era independent filmmaking that had him associated with Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Katz has always stood out from the gentrified Brooklyn stereotypes regularly associated with mumblecore, partially due to the settings of his work, as well as due to his genre proclivities (film critic J. Hoberman, in his review of Cold Weather for the Village Voice, notably called the film “a founding work of mumble-noir,” although that never quite materialized as a subgenre). The native Oregonian Katz may not have carved an easily recognizable or influential film identity in his home state like his filmmaking hero Gus van Sant, but Katz’s strengths as a filmmaker, much like van Sant’s, include an evocative sense for depicting place. Cold Weather is a hybrid of comedy and neo-noir mystery set against the pine green Oregonian forests and rain-soaked rocky river gorges around Portland. The film is highly original for a number of reasons, and part of that comes from giving the audience something they have not seen before by providing a new, different location for the type of genre it operates under.
Cold Weather can also come across as a riff on the milieu and malaise associated with the millennial generation. The main character Doug (Cris Lankenau, previously in Katz’s Quiet City) returns to Portland after not completing his graduate program in forensic science; his new job at an ice factory barely pays him a living wage. Despite the film’s release around the time of the global financial crisis that limited the ambitions of millions of young Americans, Doug is the opposite of an depressed, angry sad sack for failing to complete his career aspiration. Instead he accepts being underemployed, possessing no clear drive nor ambition for anything beyond his meager comforts, preferring to see his interests as hobbies rather than occupations. When his ex-girlfriend Rachel disappears, Doug, a mystery-novel obsessive, becomes an amateur detective, even taking on tics such as smoking a Sherlock Holmes-esque wooden tobacco pipe. Doug is a slacker but the intrigue and potential danger of somebody he knows vanishing pushes him—as do his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo), who assist him in untangling the web of what happened to Rachel. Longtime Katz collaborator, cinematographer Andrew Woods, uses the then-new RED camera to capture a crisp, clean digital image of the nature and vegetation of the beautiful Oregon landscapes. The momentum in the film can be heard in the clock-like percussion-heavy score provided by composer Keegan DeWitt, another longtime Katz collaborator, playing over the risky adventures of this do-it-yourself investigation, which Katz so often structures around more human images—characters exchanging glances.
Katz portrays the modern detective mystery as one where the tropes and logic of the form are known by these characters, a byproduct of the legacy that true crime and detective fiction has on modern culture. The characters encounter various mundanities in being on the trail of a mystery as nonprofessionals, needing to rely on a shaky scholarship foundation of Doug’s forensic science education and everything they learned from detective fiction and other media, which gives their investigation a run of trial and error. There are no experts or systems running the investigation for them seen. Cold Weather speaks to an era of access and information democratization, marked by the idea that anybody can be an expert on something. The film has a relationship to the internet age that ultimately figures into the crime solving, although this predates amateur “web-sleuthing” on Reddit, where crimes get solved from Internet deep dives on computers or digital devices. Katz and co-writer Brendan McFadden prefer to show the legwork of their characters, who are regularly depicted investigating out and around the city. And Cold Weather itself becomes less of “whodunit?” mystery procedural. The film feels closer to a Jacques Rivette-like conspiracy narrative, full of secrecy and unseen forces at work, while Rachel’s disappearance has the elusiveness of a narrative turn from a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Rachel’s role as a symbolic enigma is made clear when her physical absence becomes stylized by Reed and Katz in shots of landscapes dwarfing the characters and near-empty rooms. Somebody is missing and people do care, even if their hobbyism is just as much the driving force.
The LA-set Gemini leans more into the influence of VHS-era mystery films, thrillers of the 80s and 90s, more as a piece of DNA to inhabit than as a reference tool for characters like detective fiction was used in Cold Weather. Much like Katz’s previous films, Gemini functions as a two-hander that maintains that quality, even as something once again happens to disrupt the prior-established character dynamic. The story about harried personal assistant Jill (Lola Kirke) working for tabloid fodder sometimes-actress Heather (Zoe Kravitz) becomes a film of intrigue when Jill walks in to find Heather’s dead body on the floor from a gunshot. Jill must contend with a deadpan LA Detective Ahn (John Cho), who is highly suspicious of Jill. As she seeks to exonerate herself, Jill’s insecurities mount along with the uncertainties in finding out the truth.
Andrew Woods’ cinematography once again stands out, a neon blue color palette that creates a smooth cocktail with Keegan DeWitt’s score that trades the reverberating percussion of Cold Weather for jazzy synth techno. Gemini has its own visual and aural pleasures, but there is more to the film than a look and a posture, it goes further than pastiche. Katz lets you move alongside Jill as she becomes an amateur detective getting lost and obsessed with details, desperately seeking a tidy resolution that is not at all there. Gemini is about living in an existential crisis, something that shifts from permeating Heather’s sad life and ennui to transferring to Jill, whose isolation and alienation overwhelm her. The only acknowledgement Jill has in this life station is her association with a murder. What materializes from that presents an opportunity, a way to reinvent and start fresh in a new identity for Jill. After all, she is in Hollywood now. She’s on a ride, and Katz is the driver who will take detours that give their audience a unique viewing experience of a kind that feels missing from most American indies, so afflicted with an eagerness to please the audience. In fact, Gemini will likely divide audiences with how it ends. But Katz is not taking audiences for fools. If you were as invested in this mystery as Jill was, one can only expect to feel the exact way she does when the film ends.
Aaron Katz’s movies on amateur gumshoes are filtered through modern times and unique settings that show characters invested in their own connections with events and disappearances of others. These characters come from places of personal histories in failing and finding stability in mediocrity. There is a moment in Gemini when Detective Ahn asks Jill, “Did you always want to be a personal assistant?” a true query aimed toward figuring out how somebody can feel so comfortable in such a thankless position. Cold Weather and Gemini show characters who find a different drive and purpose once investigating the crimes at the center of these films. Investigation becomes an outlet to give them a new lease on what they want to do and an opportunity, however tenuous, on starting anew.
“ACCIDENTAL DETECTIVES. TWO FILMS BY AARON KATZ” IS A DOUBLE FEATURE PLAYING AT THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE ON SAT 3.16 AND FRI 3.22. GEMINI PLAYS AT 7PM ON 3.16 AND 9PM ON 3.22. COLD WEATHER PLAYS AT 9PM ON 3.16 AND 7PM ON 3.22. $9 PER FILM.