Narrative shorts may be among the most marginal forms of cinema. It’s possible that Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” is the only one to have achieved the canonical status of avant-garde shorts like Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” and Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” or documentary shorts like Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts.”
And it could be argued that “La Jetée” — which tells a story but uses still photos to do it — too belongs with the avant-garde.
All this means that Dustin Guy Defa is a very lucky filmmaker. He managed to get the Film Society of Lincoln Center to give a weeklong run to a feature-length program of his shorts. Although he has made one feature before, he returns to the format with “Person To Person.” It uses a re-working of one of his shorts about a collector of vintage records as part of its backbone. It has a complex structure and large cast of characters, but this doesn’t really suggest a genuine leap in ambition: Defa simply seems to have stitched together some of his ideas for shorts into a coherent 80-minute narrative.
The move to a larger canvas includes working with name actors like Michael Cera and Philip Baker Hall, but “Person To Person” is also an archetypal New York indie. If you’re familiar with the scene Defa comes from, you’ll recognize film critic Eric Hynes and Metrograph programmer Jake Perlin in small roles.
The narrative of “Person To Person” is too complicated to fully detail here. Suffice to say that newspaper reporter Phil (Cera) and his rookie co-worker Claire (Abbi Jacobson) look for leads in a mysterious death centering on a broken watch while Benny (Bene Coopersmith) gets conned about a rare Charlie Parker record. Ray (George Semple III) is temporarily homeless after breaking up with his girlfriend and sleeping on Benny’s couch. In an attempt to get revenge on her, he posted nude photos online and now faces the negative consequences. Teenage friends Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), who identifies as bisexual but has only had sex with girls, and Melanie (Olivia Luccardi) skip school and hang out.
Despite the bigger budget and mix of Defa’s friends with movie stars in the cast, there’s still something amateurish about “Person To Person.” This was charming in his shorts, but it’s annoying here. The subplots about cops and reporters are never very convincing. There’s a sense of drama club play-acting to much of this film. One problem may be the casting of Cera, who is a talented actor but who could still pass for an 18-year-old in his 30s. The supposed subject matter, theoretically full of mystery and drama, never seems to be the real point.
Independent American cinema used to offer bold new visions, and in the hands of narrative directors like Barry Jenkins and Kelly Reichardt and documentarians like Robert Greene and Joanna Arnow it still does. But there’s something fundamentally cozy and (aesthetically, not politically) conservative about “Person To Person.” It synthesizes the New York nostalgia of Woody Allen — although, to his credit, Defa’s vision of the city has room for people of color and queers — with a very mild version of Robert Altman’s sprawl. This is the exact opposite of bold — it’s quite familiar and frankly hampered by its own geekiness.
That said, the jokes about the thrash metal band Phil plays in are pretty funny, especially when he plays their tapes — the director actually wrote the music himself — to his folk music-loving co-worker. Shooting on celluloid usually adds something to a film, but I’m not sure that Defa’s choice to work in 16mm did much for “Person To Person”: the hazy texture is just one more suggestion that he would have rather been working around 1973.
Defa bit off more than he can chew here. The narrative is simultaneously overloaded and under-developed. It feels as though he had a lot on his mind while making shorts that could only be said in a feature-length format, yet so much of it is anecdotal and trivial. At its best, “Person to Person” evokes the Brooklyn-set HBO sitcom “Bored to Death,” which aired a few years ago.
Weirdly, current American indies can represent some of the blandest cinema being made in the world. I wouldn’t quite put “Person To Person” in that category, but Defa’s vinyl-freak love letter to a New York that probably never existed makes one realize that it took an Argentine director, Matias Piñeiro, to do justice to this city in an earlier 2017 release, “Hermia and Helena.”
PERSON TO PERSON | Directed by Dustin Guy Defa | Magnolia Pictures |Opens Jul. 28 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | Metrograph.com