The Only Luxury: An Interview with Ted Fendt
By Dan Sullivan
For the past few years, Ted Fendt has been one of the busiest under-the-radar figures in film exhibition in New York: a projectionist at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he is also the city’s go-to live-subtitler of rare, unsubtitled prints of French films, and ranks among its most active moviegoers. But his contributions to film culture extend beyond the local scene to the online sphere, where he has become an essential translator of texts by Jean-Luc Godard, Luc Moullet, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-André Fieschi, among others. He has also produced new English subtitles for a number of films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (having taught himself German in order to so) and co-edited the catalogue for an upcoming retrospective of their films to tour the US later in 2016.
Finally, he is himself a filmmaker quite unlike any other. His short films are uncompromising yet spendthrift miniatures shot on 16mm—and, in the case of his most recent output, blown up to 35mm for exhibition. Broken Specs (2012), Travel Plans (2013), and Going Out (2015) all follow the faintly absurdist travails of a group of ostensibly unremarkable denizens of Haddonfield, NJ, the mesmerizingly anonymous suburb of Philadelphia where Fendt grew up. The elegance of these episodic works is matched only by the precision with which Fendt magnifies the humour and emotional texture of a socially awkward young man whose glasses are broken at a party (Broken Specs), a UPS employee considering taking a trip (Travel Plans), and a girl going on a date to see the recent remake of Robocop (Going Out). The films’ non-professional performers are pure presence, and their opacity accentuates the air of spontaneity and mystery. These cipher-like figures float from one encounter to another, telling and retelling stories, attending house parties, drinking cheap draught beers in dive bars with Big Buck Hunter-type arcade games clamouring in the background. Surrealist flourishes—impenetrable narcolepsy is a recurring motif, as are social interactions so brief they can’t be considered conversations—are grounded through a sneakily rigorous materialism born equally of the means at Fendt’s disposal and his staunchly upheld preference for shooting in lived-in domestic spaces with a skeleton crew, mostly natural light, and direct sound. Fendt’s austere style and laconic writing aims at a dramatic relaxedness, and accordingly the films feel slight and charming rather than cold and cerebral.
His feature-length debut, Short Stay, which just received its world premiere in the Berlinale Forum, steadfastly continues the project of Fendt’s short-form work. The taut 61-minute feature follows Mike (Mike MacCherone, a key member of Fendt’s troupe), a listless Haddonfield pizza delivery guy who offers to fill a sublet for a smarmy sort-of friend (Mark Simmons) in Philadelphia and pick up his shifts at a walking-tour company. From there the shaggy-dog narrative unfolds segment by segment, and in each leg of Mike’s anti-journey Fendt subtly plays with his limitations as a leading man, almost completely dispensing with dramatic psychology in favour of a documentary-like attentiveness to gesture and openness to chance. Along the way Mike figures into an ineptly pursued romance with Liz (Elizabeth Soltan, the star of Going Out), and becomes subject to a series of somewhat failed attempts at kindness made by Mark’s spurned girlfriend Marta (Marta Sicinska) and her roommate Meg (Meaghan Lydon). Fendt renders these incidents—whether they be practical discussions about where Mike can spend the night or all-too-familiarly limp party scenes that throw Mike’s disconnectedness from his own milieu into harsh relief—with a deliberation, assurance, and sensitivity to forms of everyday inconsideration that evidence his status as an unapologetic formalist, sly humorist, and unlikely moralist.
Short Stay manages to contain multitudes despite initially seeming unassuming and sparse, unexpectedly locating a wholly new and refreshingly unsentimental brand of humanism within the mundane fabric of the kinds of lives that cinema hasn’t hitherto deigned to depict. Fendt carefully bypasses any immediate resemblances to mumblecore, instead drawing from his own unique host of influences (Straub-Huillet, Moullet, Rohmer, Henry King, sundry others) to arrive at a way of working and a constellation of themes and tones that has become his and his alone.