Film

Nathan Silver, an Iconoclast Who Probes Group Dynamics, Is Back at Tribeca

The New York director’s typically reflexive new movie, “The Great Pretender,” concerns dubious decisions, onstage and off

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“There’s a compulsion to create,” says the prolific New York filmmaker Nathan Silver, explaining how he’s managed to direct or co-direct eight feature films in the past decade. This month, he premieres his third movie at Tribeca in as many years, The Great Pretender — the title of which might as well refer to its maker’s prodigious appetite for fiction-making. “Usually the people who are my collaborators are as obsessed as I am,” he continues, over a recent lunch at an Indian restaurant in the East Village. “I think production is the only time I’m happy — the rest of the year is pretty miserable. Editing is a fairly miserable process, writing has its ups and downs, but I love the circus, and I love being around friends. Obviously the pay sucks, the lifestyle around it is pretty self-destructive. There’s very little sense of being settled as a human. I really think it comes down to this obsession to continually make stuff.”

Silver’s seat-of-the-pants methods and resourceful co-conspirators create films which careen through barely modulated melodramatic intensity, moody open-endedness, corrosive catch-in-the-throat humor, and heady reflexivity. The Great Pretender, an ironic romantic roundelay that begins and ends with the performance of a play, is only the latest of his films to unfold within the confines of a creative endeavor. In Actor Martinez (2016), Silver and co-director Mike Ott sought to make a movie out of the life of aspiring actor Arthur Martinez (playing himself … more or less) and upend his sense of himself in staged scenes collapsing several tiers of filmed reality. Stinking Heaven (2015), shot on America’s Funniest Home Videos–era digital, concerns a cult-like New Jersey sober-living home whose members act out their rock-bottom moment for each other in a kind of hypertrophic reenactment therapy — or a Nathan Silver set. Silver recalls that one French reviewer said he’d rather scoop out his eyeballs than watch the film again. But, he counters, “I don’t think a film set will ever be a healthy-in-quotation-marks thing … and if it is, what the hell’s the point of making the film? There has to be something that’s driving you crazy, that will drive other people crazy. Who the fuck wants to watch watered-down shit? There’s plenty of TV for that.

“You have so many meetings with people and they’re trying to push you in the direction of being mediocre,” Silver continues. “This sense that you have to engage with a larger audience, I understand that, but I think there are a lot of people who have no faith in an audience’s threshold for discomfort.” The Great Pretender, which boasts a premature-ejaculation sight gag in one of its less emotionally punishing sex scenes, cannot be accused of undershooting the mark on that score. “Just in general, it’s an awful time to be a human, it really is, and so I understand that you want something that feels like a warm hug, instead of sandpaper on your face,” Silver adds. “I’d like to make things that’re recognizable in form and have moments where you can identify with the characters for sure, but I also think that if that’s the end goal, there are hundreds of thousands of things that already do that. What’s the point of me adding to that pile of garbage?”

The title of The Great Pretender also nods to Silver’s frequent interest in infatuation and amorous self-delusion. Uncertain Terms (2014) plays like a micro-indie Beguiled, as a handyman shows up at a home for pregnant teenagers. In Thirst Street (2017), grieving flight attendant Gina (Lindsay Burdge) hooks up with a slacker Parisian bartender on layover, then falls into stalking and obsession. In The Great Pretender, Frenchwoman-in–New York Mona (Maëlle Poésy) has written an off-off-off-off-off-Broadway play about her heart-tearing tryst with a broken older man — or, as Silver puts it, “her tepid affair with an older photographer,” borderline-alcoholic midlife-crisis cliché Nick (Linas Phillips). Their stage stand-ins, naïve Thérèse (Esther Garrel) and depressive fuckboi and self-proclaimed “nice guy” Chris (greasy-haired NYC no-budget axiom Keith Poulson, exquisite as ever), are likewise drawn into a vortex of hook-ups, humiliations, missed signals, and wallowing regret and loneliness. Some early viewers, says Silver, “have been completely repulsed by Nick, but I start to think about how I look at exes and the repulsion I feel — not towards all of them, but certain elements. Like, how could I have loved this person so deeply, and what was there? Or was it simply a time in your life?”

The project originated as a web series for BRIC, but the budget and shooting schedule led Silver and Jack Dunphy, his co-writer here as on Stinking Heaven, to streamline the script, scrapping scenes that would have fleshed out standalone chapters. The project retains a cruelly omniscient episodic structure, with its daisy-chained narrative jumping from one character’s perspective to the next — the narrative baton is handed off across hookups, rather reminiscent of Ophüls’s La Ronde (1950), in which point-of-view is transmitted like an STD from character to character. Silver has spoken frequently of his admiration for how Fassbinder transmuted Sirkian melodrama into something scabrous and modern, and Great Pretender reflects his desire “to have bigger sets, to be able to do more expansive things, sit longer with a script before rushing into production.”

Many of Silver’s previous films had been heavily improvised, shot off treatments sometimes only a couple of pages long, with subsequent scenes rewritten, and the story’s end or beginning reconceived, based on the impulses of the actors. Uncertain Terms had its structure more or less in place, and Thirst Street had scripted dialogue, but Great Pretender is written all the way through, give or take the usual on-set tweaks. It’d have to be, with its backtracking chronology, scenes replayed with different inflections, and the calibrated distance of its voice-overs. Silver’s films take on an unpredictable energy by riding the performers’ instincts, as in Stinking Heaven’s scream-filled breakdowns — a tendency parodied in Actor Martinez, in which Silver and Ott, or “Silver” and “Ott,” bring in Burdge to play Martinez’s “girlfriend,” then spring a sex scene on her midway through the unstructured shoot. (“Which I got a lot of shit for,” Silver says, “but it was Lindsay’s idea.”) Here, the abrasive edges poke through the cutting one-liners and farcical reversals of Dunphy’s script, though the performers can still surprise Silver — “rather than manic explosions, it’s these small movements, and those become just as fascinating to watch. Afterwards, I’m still laughing behind the camera.”

Particularly through Thérèse, who struggles to land jokes or read sarcasm in her second language (Garrel, who plays her, is French and only recently learned English for Call Me by Your Name), but more generally across a cast of characters all hung up on their misshapen image of someone else, The Great Pretender is a companion piece to Thirst Street’s lost-in-translation romance. Silver has lived in Crown Heights for ten years, and wanted the sound mix to emphasize how “you always hear traffic and people yelling, trucks barreling down Rogers Avenue.” Cinematographer Sean Price Williams was “really excited to show scaffolding,” says Silver. “He said something along the lines of, ‘New York is a garbage city and we should show that.’”

Yet he and Williams, who also shot Thirst Street, return to that previous film’s palette of unmotivated red and green lighting effects — “that Sirk, Fassbinder’s Lola world where colors are felt instead of explained. Because of the budget we have for production design for a given location, we can paint it with light.” Silver also at times opts for soft-focus exteriors so gauzy the camera seems to be shooting through a see-through nightgown, “like Walerian Borowczyk, where it’s almost pornographic.” In contrast to Thirst Street’s American-in-Paris plot, The Great Pretender nods to French work influenced by the New York No Wave, like Angel/Maimone album art and Jacques Scandelari’s made-in-NY gay and arthouse erotic films New York City Inferno and New York After Midnight (both 1978). “I think when you’re a foreigner coming to a country that you have associations with,” Silver says, “it has this nostalgia built into it. You might not have lived it, but you’ve seen it your whole life. You’re trying to impose a certain feeling on a place because you’ve grown up thinking it would feel this way.”

Silver was himself a teenage Francophile, who “fell in love with Rimbaud’s poetry when I was twelve or thirteen — I started writing poetry in French, convinced I would be the next Rimbaud … pathetic.” As a high-schooler, he did a junior year abroad in Brittany, thinking “it would be these young intellectuals, French poets, and I got there and it was just a bunch of disgusting teenagers.” The trip did, though, turn him on to experimental theater. (And Buñuel, too, though after he was hyped up from seeing The Exterminating Angel for the first time, one of his host parents told him — and imagine a smug French accent here — “It’s so obvious, it’s for teenagers like you to enjoy.”) Silver started out studying theater at NYU (“I think if I had studied filmmaking there, I would not be a filmmaker”), and interned for Richard Foreman, but switched tracks when Foreman himself kept recommending stuff to rent at Kim’s.

Mona’s play, once we see it in The Great Pretender, is not exactly ontological-hysteric —“it’s more like college productions I’d seen,” Silver says, laughing. The dialogue is dueling therapeutic I-statements, and the stage is all but bare save for a mattress — and red and green gel lighting, casting this autofiction, with its false “happy ending,” in the same distorting light as the movie’s New York. Mona’s great pretension is that “this will help change their lives … and it doesn’t,” any more than Stinking Heaven’s monologue exercises work for its characters, or Actor Martinez does for poor Arthur, left abandoned by the crew at film’s end, his apartment set disassembled.

Silver’s characters try to live the movie of their lives, via relationships that can’t bear the load. “Miscommunication and misunderstandings are part and parcel for any relationship,” Silver says. “There’s something inherently interesting about throwing a stranger into any given situation — a foreigner. I guess every movie I’ve made does that to some degree. How group dynamics work, and when someone’s outside of the group, what that causes. … As you get older and people around you start to have their own families, seeing how they relate to the world outside of them, you’re constantly readjusting your view of who you’re closest to. I’d say the people I’m closest to are the people I work with — it’s like a sense of family because we have something we’re building together. I went to three different high schools, two different elementary schools, and had an awful time. I could fit in sometimes, on a very superficial level, but it was never people I liked.

“Sean said something once that meant a lot to me. He said, ‘You’re the best version of yourself when you’re directing a movie.’”

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