Aaron Katz’s Gemini Is a Stylish L.A. Mystery
SXSW alum returns with a new feature
It has been 11 years since writer/director Aaron Katz screened his first feature, Dance Party, USA, at SXSW. Made for $3,000 in his hometown of Portland, Ore., the film was "to some extent defined by the fact that we had a finite amount of resources and a finite amount of experience." It also came one year after the world premieres of Kissing on the Mouth, from Joe Swanberg; Mutual Appreciation, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski; and The Puffy Chair, directed by Jay Duplass and starring his brother, Mark. Now celebrated as one of the central films of a major movement in American cinema, Dance Party, USA was put into dialogue with the works of Katz's contemporaries; and the filmmakers themselves were labeled, sometimes sloppily, as the saints of mumblecore. Katz recalls wistfully, "We all wanted to make truthful movies and engage with experiences that we had actually had. Now, we are all doing different stuff. There is less and less similarity between our work."
In the four features he has made since 2005, Katz has moved quietly from laconic character studies to genre filmmaking, with Roger Ebert calling his direction of the 2010 micro-thriller Cold Weather "just about flawless." Land Ho! (2014), the buddy-comedy which he co-directed and co-wrote with Martha Stephens, tinkered with the structure of Planes, Trains and Automobiles by transplanting it to Iceland. It is nonetheless surprising that Katz's latest film, Gemini, is a full-blown mystery drama replete with sarcastic cops, obnoxious reporters, and a protagonist framed for homicide. "I could not have predicted it either," Katz says of writing, directing, and editing a true neo-noir. "As I've gotten older, this is what truly interests me."
At a breezy 92 minutes, Gemini is a handsome, hyperintelligent whodunit, inspired as much by "Los Angeles-set, Eighties and Nineties erotic thrillers" like Curtis Hanson's Bad Influence as by "the tight black-and-white film noirs of the late Forties." It stars the luminous Lola Kirke as Jill, personal assistant to a harried Hollywood starlet (Zoë Kravitz, never subtler) who has upset the public by dropping both her old boyfriend and a film role. Immediately following her patron's simultaneous desertions, Jill is put under close scrutiny as a murder suspect by a Columbo-like detective (John Cho). Notes the director, "I like the idea of approaching performance like Ozu or Rohmer, but with this genre structure behind it ... I really wanted to honor the genre in this case, while at the same time honoring the integrity of the characters."
That meant having Katz's longtime collaborator, Andrew Reed, adhere to a "precise visual language" of crisp color juxtapositions and extensive Steadicam shots. The filmmaker laughs that "there were times where Lola had to walk a very specific path," but that did not preclude inspiration and freewheeling from reaching the set: "I like for the actors to be able to forget [the camera]. If we are doing our jobs well, we are going to get those shots without making the actors feel it in their performances."
By striking such a balance between classic noir camerawork and freedom for the actors (Kirke and Cho are particular standouts), Gemini ultimately plays like this young filmmaker's most dramatically mature and aesthetically stylish production – like La La Land written by Raymond Chandler. But with the movie nearing its premiere, Katz says that he is after something even more profound: "There's this idea that a more powerful person is almost more of a person, or that their dreams are more powerful than someone else's. I wanted to explore the idea that many of our assumptions about identity are just a matter of chance."
NARRATIVE SPOTLIGHTSunday, March 12, 9:30pm, Stateside
Tuesday, March 14, 3pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 16, 6:45pm, Zach Theatre