Like a signal flare rising above the streets of Lower Manhattan, Frownland announces that underground cinema is alive and well and taking up residence—at least for the next week—at the IFC Center. That’s where the writer-director of Frownland, a veteran NYC film projectionist named Ronald Bronstein, is self-distributing his debut feature, and it’s difficult to imagine how this derelict, malformed brainchild of a movie would ever reach the masses otherwise. Even the most risk-taking of independent distributors tend to shy away from movies whose core audience would appear to consist of shut-ins, sadists, and manic depressives, and which are guaranteed to offend (or wig out) the remotely well-adjusted.
Bringing us face-to-face and much too close for comfort with a stuttering, snot-nosed, compulsively forehead-rubbing twentysomething Brooklynite named Keith (played with freakish intensity by an actor named Dore Mann), Frownland is either a primal scream issued from a potentially dangerous mind, a wildly original work of outsider art, a doctoral thesis on how not to make friends and influence people, or all (or none) of the above. Only this much is certain: It’s been a while since something this gonzo turned up at a theater near you.
Bronstein establishes the queasy look and tone of the film early on and rarely veers from it. Interrupted from his TV dinner in front of an el cheapo monster movie by a frantic call from his presumptive girlfriend Laura (Mary Wall), Keith rushes to her side, babbles something incoherent about his difficulty in expressing emotion, forces himself to cry by holding his eyelids open, and finally brings Laura back to his mouse-hole apartment, where he further tries to console her by turning an episode from his day job as a door-to-door charity solicitor into a pathetic bit of sock-puppet theater. Barely more articulate or intelligible than her significant other, the dark-haired, military-jacketed Laura responds by repeatedly rubbing her down-allergic face against Keith’s down bed pillows, before warding off his clumsy advances by stabbing him with a pushpin. (We will later discover that she likes to stab and cut herself, too.) All the while, Bronstein and cinematographer Sean Williams light the scenes in various shades of dried vomit and press the camera as close to the actors’ faces as possible without losing focus, magnifying every bad pore and bead of sweat until they become nearly indistinguishable from the pronounced grain of the 16mm images.
And that’s just the aperitif. Less a straightforward narrative than a collection of disjunctive vignettes, Frownland goes on to follow Keith as he pounds the pavement of his soul-crushing nine-to-five, engages in trench warfare with his aspiring-musician roommate (Paul Grimstad) over an unpaid Con Ed bill, and repeatedly forces his way into the life (and apartment) of his only apparent friend (David Sandholm), an effete waiter who prefers sipping tea and watching silent movies alone to spending a single unnecessary moment with Keith. In fact, nearly everyone in Frownland‘s unhappy universe seems more content in their own company than that of others, save for Keith, whose haphazard attempts at human connection provide the film with one of its cruelest ironies: The most social creature on-screen is the one you’d soonest cross the street to avoid.
Frownland is hardly without precedent, at times bringing to mind the dysfunctional family values of Eraserhead, the ripped-from-the-gutter grit of the Chicago-based filmmaker James Fotopoulos, and the recent wave of neo-Cassavetean, Gen Y confessionals known as “mumblecore.” But like its closest relative in the indie-cinema fossil record, Damon Packard’s equally mondo-bizarro Reflections of Evil, Frownland owes the most to the shoestring provocations of such ’70s grindhouse auteurs as Wes Craven, William Lustig, and George Romero, who similarly used their films’ crude façades to blur the boundaries between art and exploitation and to test the limits of audience identification with undesirable or potentially homicidal characters. Not for nothing does Bronstein begin Frownland with a monster-movie homage, though by the time he revisits that image, late in the film, with a drooling, sputtering Keith in place of the Frankenstein-like creature, it’s unclear whether we’re expected to fear or feel sympathy for the beast. In fact, even after a second viewing, I can’t say I’ve completely deciphered what Frownland is all about, or why it’s so hard to get it out of my head. But there is some kind of demented brilliance at work here, and I can’t wait for the encore.