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Article – Nathan Silver – Chickentown’s Fassbinder – Vienna International Film Festival 2015


Posted November 3, 2015 by

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Nathan Silver – Chickentown’s Fassbinder

One of the pleasures of this year’s Vienna International Film Festival was making the acquaintance of the highly prolific East Coast American filmmaker, Nathan Silver. Silver is 32 years old and has made a film a year for the last four years – five features in total since his debut, The Blind in 2009. None of his films has received commercial distribution in the UK, in part due to their lo-fi nature. His 2012 film, Exit Elena, about a live-in aide who has no place to live, was screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. As well as being as prolific in Vienna as the Schnitzel, Silver is a firm favourite of the Melbourne International Film Festival. I guess they like him – he’s a fun guy. Oh, and he works with his mother, Cindy, whom he casts in his movies. Like most of us, she doesn’t like doing more than one take.

Why have we never heard of him? He is a product of the crowd-funding school of filmmaking. Stinking Heaven, his latest film was had 244 backers on Kickstarter, raising $20,077. He is in the process of completing another project. If Silver’s films have a theme, it is looking for a place to live, a refuge. The brief synopses of his catalogue are a give-away:

Exit Elena (2012) – a live-in aide has no place to live

Soft in the Head (2013) – a woman is thrown out of her apartment and relies on the hospitality of friends

Uncertain Terms (2014) – the main character, Robbie, ends up in a home for pregnant teenagers

Stinking Heaven (2015) – set in a home for recovering addicts

Of course, another reason we haven’t heard of him is that he is resolutely non-commercial. In particular, his films are ensemble works set in confined spaces. He claims to be from Chickentown, Massachusetts, though I guess that is more a slang name for his neighbourhood – my attempt to trace it on Google maps ended with a big nada. One thing we do know is that he graduated from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005, though you can’t check graduate lists, so I can’t verify this. But what does that matter? He makes movies – they get into film festivals, if not into movie theatres.

Stinking Heaven is set in Passaic, New Jersey in 1990 and begins with a wedding between Kevin (Henri Douve), an older recovering drug addict and Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) several decades his junior. This is not your ordinary wedding officiated by a licensed individual, rather a symbolic gesture. Kevin is much older than the majority of the waifs and strays taken in by Jim (Keith Poulson) and his wife Lucy (Deragh Campbell) and he is extremely volatile, as evidenced in one of the re-enactments of past desperation that Jim officiates as part of the residents’ recovery. No one pays rent, but they must take part in group activities. If they don’t, they are sent to clean the bathroom. Into the house comes Betty’s (female) ex-lover, Ann (Hannah Gross) and Betty makes a run for it, bringing the house into chaos as Kevin blames the newcomer for his woes.

The house of recovering souls resembles a cult and there are certain scenes that remind one of Martha Marcy May Marlene, notably when Kevin, now back on smack and his daughter, Courtney (Tallie Medel) go shoplifting. Recovery is fragile as evidenced by one character being confronted – nay berated – by a former boyfriend in a supermarket.

One of the most humorous scenes is the attempt by the house mates to sell their ‘health drink’ (‘it’s a tea’) out of their van for five dollars a pop. The drink ferments in the bath tub. There aren’t many takers. In this scene we sense the fragility of their income. Jim goes to his aunt, who runs a scrap yard, to get more money and is badgered by a man who works there to join the house – he desperately wants to meet women and thinks hanging around recovering addicts is a way to practice his social skills. In this sub-plot, Silver demonstrates his originality, looking at the pressures that alternate social systems are under – even they need entry criteria.

Silver doesn’t answer the question as to why Jim and Lucy help others instead of getting on with their lives. There is the sense perhaps that it is a different sort of drug habit – preventing others from relapsing is its own addiction.

Silver earns the comparison with German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder partly because of his output – though he will need to speed up to crank out three movies a year, as Fassbinder did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Fassbinder, he finds ‘female characters more interesting’ and in his first film, The Blind, advocated a stylised form of acting in the Fassbinder mode: ‘I asked the actors to repress their reactions. I asked them to live their roles in the passive tense. The characters’ emotions are undergone; the characters’ lives are lived without the characters’ knowledge.’

He doesn’t write scripts in the usual way: ‘A lot of the time, I base the characters on the actors portraying the characters. I start talking to them about what I know about their life and then we create a character out of certain details and they make up some things in order to create a distance from who they actually are.’ He also likes to create an atmosphere on set that actors aren’t aware of the camera. The film Soft in the Head featured a card game scene in which the actors didn’t know who was being filmed and who wasn’t.

Stinking Heaven was filmed using the Ikegami HL-79 E, a broadcast TV camera from the 1990s. The footage gives the film a televisual feel, better than VHS home video but not by much. It is a way of taking us back to the period, in much the same way some filmmakers use black and white when a film is set in the 1920s (for example, in The Artist). He was also able to record a lot of footage, with takes lasting as long as 40 minutes. Incidentally, Stinking Heaven runs at 70 minutes and doesn’t feature long scenes that inflate the length of the movie unnecessarily.

Described as a ‘tar black comedy’ Stinking Heaven actually isn’t that funny. It does however describe the chaos that results when trying to enforce rules for living. There are scenes of horseplay outside the house. At two points they appear to have group showers. Silver’s film has its own aesthetic, distinct from Mumblecore.

Silver’s next project isn’t being funded through Kickstarter. Perhaps in 2016 he will reach another tier in independent filmmaking. Looking through the press notes for The Blind, I liked his response to being asked whether he wants to enter the mainstream:

Q: Do you see yourself as an independent filmmaker for life? Or would you consider directing studio pictures?

A: This is like asking a young lady if she plans to ever get married.

With thanks to the Press Team at Viennale 15


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Larry Oliver
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