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Movie Review: The Short Films of Rebecca Conroy

Heavyset woman sits at kitchen table lighting a cigarette

I’m Serious, She’s a Bitch – This is Rebecca Conroy’s latest short film and the first one (out of all the ones that I have seen) that imposes a fairly conventional narrative structure on the experimental filmmaking techniques she has developed. The film is also her best and most self-assured one. Rebecca’s shorts, all of which run approximately five minutes, are as much about place and time as they are about characters; actually not even characters, but character types. Confined to a tiny Lower East Side apartment in NYC, I’m Serious is in Spanish and, from Rebecca’s description, “una telenovela muy dramatica” about three women: A bully, a victim and a dispassionate observer. Although composed of the elements of drama, the movie is about the absence of dramatic tension. Conroy lets events unfold exactly the way we expect them to. We aren’t given enough time to learn about these women in any depth, so they act out the roles the genre say they must. This is the drama’s anti-drama. Terrible events unfold, but are carried out with the gusto as if the three women are simply folding laundry. But it is the very lack of suspense that creates a wholly compelling film. I’m Serious, She’s a Bitch is available for viewing on YouTube and I’ve embedded it at the bottom of these reviews. Highly recommended viewing.

Skip – This is a more traditionally experimental movie by Conroy featuring several youthful figures spending lazy days in the remote countryside with some slightly religious iconography. Composed of various repetitive sequences, Conroy keeps the action moving along and knows precisely when to start mixing up her sequences and shots before they instill familiarity. The film is also carried by a sparse, haunting score by Nea Ducci that meshes perfectly with the images. You can watch Skip on YouTube.

The Girl Who Fell in Love With Herself – As told to me by Rebecca, this is a short she shot 12 years ago, but only finished editing recently. As such, it’s her least successful work. It’s supposed to be like a ’20s silent movie, but I’ve never really enjoyed faux aging techniques done on film unless it’s really crucial to the story being told. It’s not so much here. Also, like I’m Serious, there’s a straight-up narrative this time featuring generic dating mishaps before the lead character does indeed fall in love with herself, at which point the movie at least picks up a little and the “loving” sequences are somewhat fun. Overall, though, this is an interesting film only as an historical piece to witness Conroy’s strong growth over the years. Not available for view online.

Sweet Pea: Drowning in Frivolity – This is the first in a tryptich of experimental documentary portraits of random NYC citizens, and is the most successful of the bunch. (Reviews of the other two follow below.) This is the story of Renee Racicot, a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I probably have a soft spot for this particular film since I lived there for three years myself. Renee works in a tiny clothing boutique in a mini-mall. She’s a failed designer herself, but “failed” in the sense that she never really tried to make it in the business. It’s an experimental portrait of Renee in that she narrates her life on a soundtrack independent of the images, although the images Conroy chooses to illustrate her story nicely match the narration, e.g. lonely shots of run-down structures in upstate New York as Renee talks about her miserable childhood growing up there; panoramic shots of the store she works in; Renee hanging out with the friends she describes; etc. Renee is the kind of cranky, sarcastic, hipster resident of Williamsburg who might drive you nuts in real life, but is fun to listen to in a movie. Really fascinating piece and I only lose respect for Renee when she starts picking on the store cat, Sweet Pea. Don’t pick on cats. You can view Sweet Pea on YouTube.

Star Chef – While interesting, this portrait of McKenna’s Pub chef Stephen is not quite as successful Renee’s portrait. What makes Sweet Pea work is viewing all of Renee’s world while she rambles on. Star Chef is contained almost exclusively of Stephen at work in his claustrophobic little kitchen. He’s good with his little stories and he’s interesting to listen to, the film isn’t as fun to watch. What makes it mostly jarring is that the “gag” is that Stephen talks to much, so much of the film is him talking to the camera, even though the soundtrack is independent of the visuals. And, for example, when Stephen talks about his family, it would have been nice to have seen them or any of his life outside the kitchen, but Conroy probably couldn’t get access to them. It’s a quirky little piece, though, and available for viewing on YouTube.

Nuthin’ But the Blues – This is the most experimental of Conroy’s three portraits. Marc Orleans is a blues-guitar playing subway performer and it’s his music that fuels the soundtrack along with his ruminations on life, New York and women. The film is as much about Orleans as it is about the city. Conroy has a really great view of NYC that comes out in just about all her films, i.e. the ones that take place there. It’s a loving view of the dirt, grime, garbage and crush of humanity that is New York. Orleans is a self-admitted neurotic fellow who dreams of a bigger musical career, but is settled in the life he has carved out for himself. All three documentaries taken together reveal that Conroy is a great interviewer, able to coax out of her subjects really intense, personal ruminations about themselves, but delivered in a fantastic laid-back style. She also has picked out three great characters to train her camera on. Great piece. You can also watch Nuthin’ But the Blues on YouTube.

Above Ground – Another mostly experimental film, but follows the narrative of a woman flashing back to an equally happy and tragic moment of her life. The narrative isn’t quite as direct as I’m Serious, She’s a Bitch, but not as abstract as Skip and with really beautiful images of childhood. The tragedy, like a repressed memory, isn’t quite fully fleshed out giving the film a haunting disquieting feel. You can also watch Above Ground on YouTube.

Taken altogether, Conroy has amassed an incredibly impressive selection of shorts in various genres. While she seems to have perfected the short form film and I will gladly watch any future shorts she directs, it does make me curious to see what she could do with a longer narrative, either a feature or a semi-feature. I’m anxious to see what she comes up with next.

And, as promised, here’s I’m Serious, She’s a Bitch:


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