Film

Stumbling Into Strange: The Films of Ted Fendt Make the Everyday Uncertain

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Ted Fendt’s movies distort everyday life into something just beyond the recognizable. He shoots in and around his native Philadelphia suburb of Haddonfield, New Jersey, and though this allows for beguiling, documentary-level detail — characters trudging across snowy concrete with hands stuffed inside Flyers attire — Fendt’s project is to transform, to poke at and exaggerate norms of ordinary behavior. The people in his stories (all played by non-actor friends) are constantly running into each other on sidewalks and changing their plans at a moment’s notice; they complain about their jobs using calmly surreal language (“So, the photocopier at work today is dead…and my one job at work is to copy things”); many of them pass out mid-interaction and wake up on acquaintances’ couches the following morning.

In short doses — like Fendt’s six-minute Broken Specs (2012), seven-minute Travel Plans (2013), and eight-minute Going Out (2015) — this shoestring comic sphere, all slightly askew situations and droll structural logic, charms in its novel oddity. (All three were shot on 16mm or Super 16mm in the wintertime over a span of two or three days, with crews that can be counted on one hand.) Travel Plans opens with a Schweppes-drinking UPS worker (Rob Fini) entering a vacation sweepstakes; it concludes with him happening across a Greyhound ticket and then entering a bus terminal in a flurry of snowflakes — a lovely, roundabout fulfillment of narrative promise.

Fendt’s feature-length debut, the hour-long Short Stay, plays differently: The longer exposure to this universe opens up its cruelty and indifference. The star is Mike Maccherone (the befuddled hero of Broken Specs); his character, also Mike, lives with his mom and works at a pizza joint, so it makes sense when he readily agrees to sublet the Philly apartment of his Poland-bound friend Mark (Mark Simmons). Mike’s new arrangement — set, unusually for Fendt, during a period of warm weather — has him temporarily running Mark’s “Free and Friendly Tours” business, which involves a Best Buy–blue T-shirt and dubious recountings of local history to audiences of one or two.

Mike is a blank slate, a quiet, seltzer-drinking, goes-with-the-flow type. (In a director’s statement, Fendt — a New York City projectionist who has translated French-language film criticism — describes Maccherone’s delivery as “quasi-Bressonian” and “unaffected.”) This register makes his behavior, which initially seems relatably awkward, all the more mysterious and discomfiting.

Mark comes back early from his trip and viciously tries to orchestrate Mike out of the apartment; Mike responds by sleeping in the kitchen. The image of him snoozing on the hard floor as Mark initiates a breakup offscreen is hugely upsetting: What is Mike, deep down, getting out of such an uncomfortable situation? The tension manifests through Fendt and DP Sage Einarsen’s unobtrusive but perceptive camera, which bounces gently among multiple focal points (the glasses bobbing on Mike’s chest, Mark’s frustrated expressions as he ties his shoes), collecting items of behavioral interest.

The obsession with sleep comes to seem, finally, like one of Fendt’s most emphatic points of resonance. He devotes much time to Mike’s fidgeting for comfortable resting positions. And the halting engagements that appeared benign in his shorts — the reasonable but curt instructions for sleep-prone guests to leave (“Should I go?” “Yeah.”), the date-ish drinks or movies that never end with anything other than a polite goodbye — take on an edge of despair in Short Stay. Mike doesn’t connect with people; he floats from day-to-day, doing menial things, enduring awkwardness, and then falling asleep.

Short Stay (and shorts)

Written and directed by Ted Fendt

Opens December 16, Anthology Film Archives

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