Sending Your Kids For Groceries
by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
dir. Josh and Benny Safdie
In one photograph of my father's, he asked my brother and I to sit on a set of stairs in Soho as he focused his Minolta for a stranger. I was eight, it was July, and the stairs, embossed with round metal bumps, were hot. Irritated by his impulsive need to document, we complained as he handed his camera to the stranger, Just click, just click, and hurried to sit between us. In this picture, my arms are resting on my knees as I look directly at the camera; my face red and sun-tired, my lips dipping into a snarl. Both my brother and my father somehow missed the cue entirely and are looking away.
I remembered this moment last night as I stayed for the Q & A that followed Benny and Josh Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs. Joined by the whole cast, the two brothers — both writers and directors of the film — answered questions that refreshingly had nothing to do with budget or the idiosyncrasies of technique, but focused more on story and the relationship between memory and film. As was the case in my childhood, their father too, stood mostly behind the lens; hundreds of home videos he shared with them in later years, prompting the narrative for Daddy Longlegs. (The original title was Go Get Some Rosemary.)
Benny Safdie described the urgent and unexpected sensation of deeply relating to a film no matter how foreign the content, the family, the place, the generation. Like having a stranger identify your secrets, and instead of violation, feeling quiet vindication. Despite memory’s delusions — both corrupted and wistful — our inexplicable closeness to something we’ve read or seen can become the most pressing and perhaps most honest fabrication of our own recall.
Spilling over with a staccato mix of Cassavetes compassion and confusion, panicked love and rage, Lenny Sokol (Ronnie Bronstein) is given custody of his boys Sage and Frey for two weeks in the year. Lenny’s madcap parenting and incoherent choices are so easily condemned. He sends his kids out alone for groceries, he foul-mouths school principals, he deals with pharmaceutical mix-ups, a frenzied temper and a short fuse. Though Lenny's life seems eternally at odds between ecstasy and dejection, he still elicits empathy despite his failures to find resolve.
Shot on 16mm, Daddy Longlegs evokes the grainy agitation and melancholy of a New York City now forgotten. The film’s desperate mix of heartbreak and happiness is made authentic by Benny and Josh’s direction. They endow the city’s spiralling and often bullying temper with intuitive touches of intimacy: small apartments and makeshift beds, sugar highs, magic tricks and morning cereal.
In one scene Lenny is on a date with his girlfriend at a Chinese restaurant. He explains the tension and roving itches that live inside his head by alternating between sips of soda and water, back and forth, back forth, soda, water, soda, water. The film’s tone is equally erratic. One minute Lenny is arguing about shifts at work with another film projectionist, “I have no flexibility!” The next, he’s running wildly down the street, late to pick up Sage and Frey from school, and then back to the cinema, where the two boys find a photocopier and print one thousand copies of a comic they drew.
Later, as they leave the theatre, the boys’ bag whips open and the copies fly out; Lenny curses their drawings, “What is this? What is this?” while the boys giggle and enjoy the tornado of flying papers. This image, like so many in the film, captures the strained vitality of a father whose edge and unhinged gait is tested and sometimes complemented by his two sons. Despite or because of their embittered parents, they live gloriously in a world of anticipation.
But when hope dwindles — Frey’s drooping shoulders as he refuses to help his father unexpectedly move; Lenny’s unanswered phone calls and messages to his girlfriend — the story shifts into a reality so palpable and near that my own memories were stirred. I am suddenly reminded of the first time I witnessed the demoralized wilt of my father as he longed for something (or maybe someone) from his past, or the cheerless way my mother would hide behind a dinner party.
The Safdie brothers’ recognition of memory’s frame, sometimes strong, bold and lovely, and other times fragile and disjointed, is awake in this story in a way that while pulled from many influences (“The Holy Grail of father-son films,” as Josh described during the Q&A) is uniquely theirs. And still, as often as it happens, I am always thrown by the associative influence of someone else’s material, memory, and autobiography; so seamlessly it guilds with my own, inspiring a moment from my past like the metal stairs in Soho that warmed at my thighs as I watched my father focus his lens.
Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here.
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