Short Stay + shorts
Directed by Ted Fendt
December 16-22 at Anthology Film Archives
In a time of shockingly bad faith—in cinema audiences and the electorate, and in anyone elected, and anyone considered the elect; in short, of everyone in everyone else—Ted Fendt is a loyalist. His three short films and one feature have all been shot by the same cinematographer, Sage Einarsen, on 16mm film. Broken Specs, Travel Plans, Going Out, and the 61-minute Short Stay all share a non-actor cast, made up largely of Fendt’s friends from high school, playing distilled versions of themselves; Mike is Mike and Mark is Mark. Fendt went to college in New York, and lives here, but all his films are set and shot in the little borough of Haddonfield and the various neighborhoods of nearby Philadelphia, where Fendt and friends grew up: Mark, Mike and the rest drift from south Jersey to central Philly and back again. Because he funds his productions himself and considers the money spent, rather than invested, Fendt has near-perfect control over how the films are made and how they get screened (in 35mm, the transfer being his only major expenditure). His camera stays in one position for the duration of each scene; he uses one lens. In interviews, he talks the straight talk, describing the shift to digital projection as a phenomenon that “has nothing to do with aesthetics;” it is rather a profit-motivated decision to “[force] theaters to adopt digital projection and buy expensive new projectors.” Such commitment has kindled answering commitments at New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center (where Fendt works as a projectionist), and at this year’s Berlinale. At the very least, stubborn loyalty—to a medium, a set of constraints, and a method—is rare, and it seems right that it should be recognized.
Even in fraught times, though, one must ask: is loyalty an unqualified good? Anyone catching Short Stay during its weeklong Anthology run will have to decide, faced with an hour of friend Mike doing nothing much, though with particular and persistent aplomb, consisting in his saying “yes” to nearly everything. By having Mike agree with dedication, Fendt strings several sidewalk run-ins into a plot, wherein Mike leaves his mother’s suburban house, and his pizza-delivery job, for a sublet and a tour-guide gig in Philly. The people Mike encounters include Mark, who goes traveling in Poland; Marta, Mark’s ex-girlfriend; Meg, Marta’s roommate, etc. But though spontaneity is the perpetual motor of the film, any sense of levity is quashed; Fendt presses his friends for the flattest delivery possible. These uniformly affectless, white, precariat children of the middle class are distinguishable by their presiding traits: Mike is only agreeable; Marta is consistently kind; Mark is basically a douche. In the shorts, screening alongside the film, brevity allows for an airier humor. Going Out is an Etch-a-Sketch image of romantic disappointment, and in Travel Plans, an electric train set (seemingly borrowed from another director’s universe) precedes one character’s escape from his mundane life. The same guy appears again in Short Stay; perhaps for the true Haddonfielder, there really is no exit. Not does there necessarily need to be. With characteristic rigor, Fendt has said that he tries “to keep [his] feelings out of the films,” but surely his devotion to this landscape has to do with the humid summer lushness of the city, and the wet wintertime desolation of its suburbs. There is a pleasure in glimpsing this world as Mike runs or walks or loiters in it, and it is a pleasure that’s uniquely possible on film. Why else would anyone feel such fealty to it?