Readers of online criticism probably know the name Ted Fendt for his invaluable French translation work—on this site alone he’s published English-language versions of interviews (with director Jean Eustache and cinematographer Caroline Champetier) and pieces on Straub-Huillet, Bresson, Grémillon, and others. He’s also offered his own perceptive analysis of Paris Goes Away, Rivette’s half-hour Le Pont du Nord rehearsal, and compiled theauthoritative bibliography to Godard’s Goodbye to Language. Less visible, though, has been Fendt’s own work behind the camera—he currently has five narrative shorts to his name, works at once delightfully shaggy dog and rigorously formalist, and they look and feel like little else happening in American independent cinema right now. We’re thrilled to finally present the online premiere of his films Broken Specs (2012) and Travel Plans (2013) on MUBI.
Reviewing Fendt’s choice of translation work, you can trace the seeds of his stylistic influence as a filmmaker: the precise compositions of Eustache, the naturalistic lighting of Eric Rohmer, the gawky comic timing of Luc Moullet, but the spirit of French New Wave and post-New Wave productions is just as important to his working method. Fendt’s model is fiercely independent, working with a two-person crew and self-financed budgets cobbled together from his work as an arthouse projectionist in New York. Despite minimal resources, he defiantly shoots on richly textured 16mm, placing him among the small but loyal ranks of young American filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry committed to celluloid. (Going Out was even filmed on the exact same 16mm camera used for Perry’s The Color Wheel.)
Fendt’s comedies aren’t fashionably quirky or raunchy or arch, a far cry from the one-joke calling cards that clog up most festival shorts blocks. Structured as a series of gags around a single organizing principle, they perhaps best resemble silent comedy two-reelers, a debt Fendt openly acknowledges—Harry Langdon is thanked in the credits of his Shattered Sleep (2011), and its title is tellingly taken from Harold Lloyd. All five of his films to date present a single quotidian problem (often directly stated in the title)—unhappiness at work in Quitters Can’t Be Choosers (2011), a bedbug infestation in Shattered Sleep, a pair of broken glasses in Broken Specs, the need for a vacation in Travel Plans, finding a significant other in Going Out (2014)—and proceed to detail the ways in which the characters try (and usually fail) to solve them. As Fendt himself admits, his student work Quitters Can’t Be Choosers and Shattered Sleep don’t quite add up to more than a series of well-executed jokes. But in his three most recent films, Fendt has developed a sensibility that’s far richer and stranger.
Broken Specs, Travel Plans, and Going Out form a kind of loose trilogy. Each provides a vivid regionalist portrait of Fendt’s hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey, a suburb outside Philadelphia perhaps best known cinematically (if at all) as the inspiration for the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois in John Carpenter’s Halloween. In all three shorts, the narrative framework is fundamentally the same: the protagonists have chance run-ins with friends on the street (Fendt’s Haddonfield is a wintry, drab cousin to Rohmer’s Paris, with acquaintances constantly bumping into each other) and get casually whisked off to some kind of social gathering: a party or an apartment get-together or a meal or a bar. People hang out—they watch hockey, drink in kitchens, play with model train sets, see the Robocop remake at the multiplex—but mainly talk past each other. Every time, a character blacks out somewhere he or she shouldn’t, waking up in an unfamiliar place and walking off alone.
Fendt populates his casts with non-actors—old high school classmates, friends of friends, and other Haddonfield/Philadelphia locals—all playing versions of themselves. The actors use their real names—Mike MacCherone is “Mike,” “Rob Fini” is “Rob”—and Fendt typically films in their actual houses. Their characters—like those in the films of another overlooked filmmaker, Chicago’s Frank V. Ross—are resolutely ordinary and blue collar, stuck in dead-end jobs, working days at nondescript offices or public schools or nights for UPS. They wear Philadelphia Flyers varsity jackets and get too-drunk on domestic beer. They tell stories about the small struggles of their days: lamenting a broken copier at work, or debating whether to keep contributing to the office lottery pool. They wander through an endless series of strip malls, chain pharmacies, neighborhood pizza joints, and vinyl-sided duplexes, aimless and restless and yearning for escape.
The characters don’t offer much solace to one another, and the peculiar comedy of Fendt’s work derives primarily from their uncomfortable encounters. Conversations are full of failed double-entendres (“You could re-enact some Civil War scenes with this hat.” “Yeah, I’d like to re-enact some Civil War scenes with you.”), out-of-left-field aggression (“Do I look like a smoker? Screw you, Rob.”), and abrupt declarations (“I’m going to drive away now.”), typically punctuated by odd pauses and blank stares and forced smiles. The line readings from the non-professional performers are often stiff, but this plays less like “bad acting” than a deliberate, stylized attempt to heighten the awkwardness of everyday interaction. It’s a sense only reinforced by a disciplined stylistic approach: cinematographer Sage Einarsen shoots with a locked-down camera, often in Academy ratio, the boxy frames taking on an almost comic strip quality (which makes sense, given Einarsen’s background as an illustrator).
After screenings of Broken Specs and Travel Plans at BAMcinématek (in their BAMcinemaFest and Migrating Forms series, respectively) gained Fendt a small but devoted cinephile following in New York, his work finally seems poised to break through on a wider scale: Lincoln Center and MoMA’s prestigious New Directors/New Films will feature the world premiere of Going Out as part of its 2015 line-up this month. (Fendt has struck a 35mm print, and it will be the only film in the festival exhibited in that format.) Going Out represents his most accomplished achievement yet, an all-elbows take on the romantic comedy with sly structural ambition: the protagonist’s ostensible romantic interest brusquely and hilariously exits halfway through the story. Its hopscotch narrative—bouncing freely between characters and locations—suggests the short form can’t contain Fendt’s ambitions.
Indeed, Fendt began shooting his first feature Short Stay in February—again in Haddonfield and Philadelphia, again on 16mm, again self-financed, and again with his makeshift stock company of performers and trusty microscopic crew. But he’ll be working with, quite literally, a bigger canvas, using a 1:85 aspect ratio (a decision inspired by Fendt’s recent viewing of Philippe Garrel’s Un ange passe) and a larger narrative scope. It promises to be one of the most eccentric and beguiling debut features in recent memory, the latest chapter in the development of this wholly singular comic voice.