Frownland

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Synopsis

A nightmare transmission from the grungiest depths of the New York indie underground, the visceral, darkly funny, and totally sui generis debut feature from Ronald Bronstein is a dread-inducing vision of misfit alienation at its unhinged extreme. In a maniacal performance of almost frightening commitment, Dore Mann plays Keith, a disturbingly maladjusted social outcast and self-described “troll” whose neuroses plunge him into an unstoppable spiral of self-obliteration as his crummy coupon-selling job, pitiful living situation (featuring the roommate from hipster Brooklyn hell), and last remaining human relationships disintegrate around him. As captured in the grimy expressionist grain of Sean Price Williams’s claustrophobic camera work, Frownland is DIY cinema at its most fearless, uncompromising, and unforgettable.

Picture 7/10

Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The film has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.

The end results are not an easy set to parse through thanks to several factors borne from the film’s production and how it was assembled and released. Simply put the presentation is rough, limited by Bronstein’s resources at the time and what sounds to have been—based on an included interview with the director found on the disc—his own struggles with self-doubt and anxiety. There’s a lot going on here, and while I will forewarn that the high-definition presentation isn’t even an average looking one, it is first worth noting why that is before getting into its problems and why they all end up playing to the film’s benefit on Blu-ray anyway.

The film’s history is not unusual for an entirely independent production of the late 90’s/early 2000’s, yet even then it’s clear Bronstein hit his fair share of brick walls while making it. Bronstein started filming shortly before 9/11 and he would not finish until around 2007, the same year the film would finally get a screening. The reason for the lengthy shooting schedule was related to a lack of funds after blowing through his initial $30,000 quickly (as he states in his interview, he figured that was the magic sum needed based on the budgets of Slacker and Clerks) and having to film as money would allow through the years. The advantage to this, so he mentions, was that he could both hone his technical skills and better develop the story. On the other hand, the drawback to all of this comes down to the use of general resources and a finicky film stock stretched over a longer period.

He doesn’t mention it by name, but Bronstein explains how he used a now-discontinued high-speed Kodak 16mm film stock when shooting, one he was drawn to by an advertising slogan that promised the film would capture “a black dot in a black cave.” While it appears that was more-or-less true Bronstein discovered the film stock was wildly inconsistent in quality reel-to-reel when it came time to develop. Grain was all over the place with the general clarity not always up to par, and things were further complicated when it came time to do color timing with Bronstein going to the cheapest lab he could find due to, you know, not having money. Unfortunately, he felt the lab was trying to fleece him (I’m admittedly not too sure based on what he describes) and he found the experience all so overwhelming and stressful that he had to literally flee the scene. At this point he was pretty much done for with no idea what to do next, but luckily for him filmmaker Andy Betzer offered to time the film for him for free.

This would save the film but, as Bronstein also notes, the timing is not correct in many sequences and it’s also clear that blowing the film up to 35mm has sharpened and enhanced the inherent grain, making the grain look like “bees attacking” the actors.

All of this then feeds directly into this new 2K “remaster,” and when I say “directly” I mean “directly.” When the filmmaker finally felt up to doing a 2K scan of the film (following a screening where, for the first time, he felt proud of the film) he had to get outside funding to do so and I can only assume his budget for it was, like everything else up to this point, not large. His uncertainty and anxiety around the film’s look paired with his desire to not deal with aspects like color timing again led to him scanning a 35mm theatrical print in place of the original 16mm negatives (or even the original 35mm blow-up), guaranteeing the end results would keep the look it always had but also ensuring that the image would not be as sharp as it could while every wart accumulated from filming to final screening would be there pure as day.

And “there” those warts most certainly are. Since things aren’t as bad as I was anticipating I suspect that the film went through, at the very least, a basic algorithmic clean-up that stabilized the image and maybe removed some of the larger marks and scratches. Still, whatever “restoration” efforts the film went through leaves behind bits of dirt and other marks alongside faint scratches and stray hairs, rarely all that heavy mind you, but the frequency is steady enough that it’s impossible to ignore. The grain can vary heavily throughout as well, going from fine and mostly clean enough as to not negatively impact the image by much, to instances in the film’s many nighttime shots where just about all you can see is the grain.

The digital master itself also offers up a few anomalies that enhance problems inherent to the film elements. For starters it doesn’t handle the grain all that well and there are areas of the image that can look noisy, particularly on the edges of the frame, leading to a bit of a digital polish in places; there are a handful of shots that almost look like they could have been filmed with a standard-definition digital camera. Black levels are also all over the place, coming off milky and gray a lot of the time (not always), but to be fair this could all be related to color timing or the original lighting for the scene, the film using (I believe) available light. Colors have a real dull look to them, which isn’t a surprise at all, but to its credit there are some real sharp pops of red including a red-lit sequence close to the end.

So no, it doesn’t look great, the film elements and the digital master severely limiting things and assuring a less-than-ideal high-def presentation. Yet isn’t that how the film really should look? It’s a knowingly unappealing film with the imagery to match and the “less appealing” the image ends up being I’d say it was for the better. Considering the film focuses on an individual so frozen by social anxiety that he can barely function doesn’t it seem appropriate and becoming of its spirit that said film’s look and its 2K master came about due to the filmmaker’s own over-thinking, self-doubt, and crippling anxiety pushing him to make decisions just to get them over with and not deal with them anymore? I’d say it does and in that regard the presentation is more than suiting. It’s not pleasant, but then I really couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Audio 7/10

The biggest surprise here ends up being the audio, which, despite everything going against this film’s production, sounds pretty good. Filmed on the streets and in what I have to assume are not sound-friendly rooms the audio, presented here in lossless PCM mono, sounds incredibly sharp and clear.

Dialogue is easy to hear and understand (despite the main character’s issues in saying what he has to say) and the street noises are presented with a surprising level of range. Yes, there can be a slight reverb in places, and yes volume levels can be inconsistent, but it ends up being rare. Music inserted also has an interesting, almost dreamy kind of quality to it at times but also shows decent fidelity and range.

In all the soundtrack is not “perfect” by any means, but it ends up being much stronger than I would have expected.

Extras 8/10

I get the idea Criterion had their hands tied a little when it came to supplements due to Bronstein’s hesitance in talking about his work and doing interviews, something that is largely evident in the material we get here and on Criterion’s companion release to this title, Daddy Longlegs, that film featuring Bronstein in what could be classified as the starring role. Despite that lack of director involvement with the supplements on this release (though Bronstein does supply notes in the supplement menus) and only a modest amount of material, the supplements do end up coming off unexpectedly satisfying.

The disc first features a couple of deleted scenes running 9-minutes and 11-minutes respectively. The first sequence may have been some of the initial material filmed, Bronstein’s menu notes suggesting the cast and crew may have been having “too much fun” with that attitude bleeding through to the end scene. The sequence in question has our hapless hero Keith (a younger looking Dore Mann) attempting to sell coupons to a couple of potential customers, one making fun of him while also suggesting he could get Keith work mowing lawns. The sequence does have a different feel compared to the rest of the film so it’s easy to see why Bronstein cut it out, but interestingly the scenes end up looking better than a lot of the footage in the final film, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s all sourced from (maybe the original 16mm elements).

The second scene is an extended one featuring Keith talking to an analyst. According to the notes Bronstein did hire an professional analyst and then had Mann talk to him in character (the notes also point out that Keith was able to better communicate here because the analyst allows him to talk and doesn’t just try to “shoo him” away). It appears to be all improvised, Mann being quite brilliant in the scene but what lifts it is the fact that the analyst does offer his professional opinion to the character, and it all feels genuine. They do run out of film before the discussion is done but you end up hearing Bronstein say that it’s perfect where it all ends.

Also here is what is advertised as a 3-minute introduction but it’s an unorthodox one. The director hates doing anything that he feels is simply an orientation of the film for an audience, but he was asked to do something for a Canadian broadcasting of the film in 2008. To aid him in this he brought in directors and his then-newly found friends Josh and Benny Safdie to create one. It’s hard to properly explain but at its simplest it features someone rubbing dog excrement on a dollar bill and placing it on the ground followed by footage of people going to pick it up only to discover what’s under it. While this happens Bronstein, in voice-over, explains the basis of the idea for the film and how it came from his “wretched run” in New York.

It’s amusing (and I’m not surprised if it aired on the CBC or whoever commissioned it) but not all that insightful. Thankfully Bronstein did sit down to do an interview in 2017 for The Criterion Channel, filmmaker Josh Safdie sitting with him to conduct it. Running a whopping 37-minutes the filmmaker talks more in-depth about the film and its production, explaining how he first raised the money he thought he needed to shoot it before getting into all of the hardships and roadblocks he faced along the way to completing it. He even talks heavily here about the technical difficulties he faced and gets into creating a new 2K scan for the film. Surprisingly he also talks about what he was trying to accomplish with the film, seeing it as a sort of antidote to those “loveable loser” films where he’s sure audiences would never like that “loveable loser” if they existed in real-life. It’s an incredibly engaging and very informative discussion, with the director being more than forthcoming about his own anxieties and how that played into making the film. He even talks about how he’s reacted to the film over the years, hating it at times and being proud of it at others. He mentions how he can’t imagine anyone finding anything he’s talking about being interesting (why he hates doing interviews) but he really is good at expressing himself and sharing stories, keeping it entertaining and funny with just enough self-deprecating humour that prevents it from becoming cringey or eye-rolling. It probably helps that Safdie is there but he does appear to be more at ease as the interview goes on. He may disagree, but I found this an absolutely fascinating discussion about the film and the process in making it, and I think anybody that may be playing with the idea of making their own film may get a lot out of worthwhile material out of this.

If the supplements lack in one area it’s in the academic area. Richard Brody does provide an excellent essay about the film and its technical aspects in the included booklet, and it is a shame he doesn’t appear on the disc supplements anywhere (he’s a good champion of odd indie fair like this, even participating in content for releases like Cinema Guild’s 2011 DVD for Putty Hill). But the 44-page booklet does make up for things in another area by including what can be best called an “oral history” of the film’s production entitled Au Hasard Frankenstein and put together by Michael Chaiken. The piece is constructed from excerpts of interviews he conducted with Bronstein, actors Dole Mann, Paul Grimstad, David Sandholm, Paul Grant and Mary Bronstein (her and the filmmaker married after meeting on the film), cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and producer Marc Raybin (amusingly neither he nor Bronstein knew what the title of producer entailed). It’s a fabulous read, building off of what Bronstein talks about in the disc’s interview, and along with that interview it’s probably the best addition to this release. Criterion also includes photos, drawings and samples of the script and notes throughout.

In all it’s not a stacked edition by any means but I think the material does a more than adequate job exploring this odd little film, the interview with Bronstein and the oral history on its production being the highlights. It’s a wonderful little selection of material.

Closing

Despite everything going against it, Criterion has put together a terrific new edition for the film, one that I can't recommend highly enough, warts and all.

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Directed by: Ronald Bronstein
Year: 2007
Time: 106 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1137
Licensor: Ronald Bronstein
Release Date: August 16 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.66:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Introduction by Ronald Bronstein   Conversation between Ronald Bronstein and filmmaker Josh Safdie   Deleted scenes   An essay by critic Richard Brody and an oral history of the making of the film