Let Them Chirp Awhile, the movie
As we discovered after its premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival, Let Them Chirp A While, 24-year old Jonathan Blitstein’s East Village drama-comedy, was made on the cheap, in just 18 days flat, one of which the director spent in hospital suffering from stress! But you wouldn’t know it from the charming confidence with which his movie unravels, nor would you guess from the many well-played scenes that they were mostly shot in a maximum of two takes. Let Them Chirp Awhile comes across, if not exactly fully formed or perfectly filmed, then with enough wit and style to suggest that a major new film-maker is in town.
Let Them Chirp Awhile – the title comes from an Emerson poem with only tangential reference to the movie itself– revolves around flailing young East Village screenwriter Bobby (played with amusing self-debasement by Justin Rice), his best friend Scott, an uncommitted musician (delivered with deliberate disdain by Brendan Sexton III) and his nemesis, the successful, cynical playwright Hart Carlton (Zach Galligan). Audaciously, Blitstein’s movie starts and ends by realizing Bobby’s script ideas on screen, and stages Carlton’s play in the middle – complete with a scene theft from one of Bobby’s rejected scripts and a real life cameo by Rent semi-star Anthony Rapp as Carlton’s (no-show) lead. Confused? You should be, but even with all these enigmas wrapped inside of riddles, Blitstein keeps the whole thing moving effortlessly along.
Being the East Village, there’s a fair amount of musical beds. After Scott kicks out his live-in girlfriend Michelle (gorgeously portrayed by Pepper Binkley), she rebounds through both Hart and Bobby, though the latter has the decency (to Scott, if not to himself) to stop at first base. “You’re doing that thing that depressed girls do that isn’t eating chocolate,” he tells her as he rebutts her advances. Bobby, your classic 20-something East Village dilettante, is in fact far too busy dealing with girls to get his script finished; aside from his brief make-out with Michelle, he finds himself stuck with a ditzy NYU teen he picked up in Washington Square Park, while also successfully hitting on a beautiful Swedish assistant working American Apparel on Houston Street. In addition, he strikes a deal with the bi-sexual girl he thought might become his girlfriend until she chose, instead, to become a full-blown lesbian: when she requests that he looks after her Jack Russell while she visits LA, he demands payment in the form of one night’s passion – “and you have to move your hips like you love me.” She readily agrees. Those of us who know the East Village will recognize both types and, apart from finding the whole thing perfectly plausible, will also intrinsically understand that the deal will never be honored.
If it all seems slapstick and slightly clichéd, well, perhaps it is, but there are some deft satirical touches nonetheless. Scott and Michelle panic when they want to research the local movies but “the wi-fi is down.” The after-party for Hart’s premiere has a college student parroting her professor’s already-dated opinions about the Internet’s potential for consumer democracy. And, of course our heroes all drink Pabst Blue Ribbon out of cans. But at least the movie wasn’t based in Williamsburg. In fact, as someone who lived and loved in the East Village for many years, it was reassuring to recognize so many backdrops, and to see how little has changed socialogically. Through Blitstein’s precocious eyes, the Village still attracts dreamers, schemers, doers and losers, and they will inevitably wind up stealing creative ideas and lovers from each other, and one or two of them may just make it anyway – and chances are, they’re not actually the ones who deserve it.
Discussing the movie-making process afterwards, Blitstein was as funny in person as Justin Rice was up on the screen. (He was not, however, half as good-looking – all the more reason to allow his cinematic alter-ego to so easily pick up a young Swedish blonde.) He also looked shockingly, frighteningly young to have written, produced, directed and edited such a confidently endearing movie. There’s a lesson here, something about shooting your movie in 18 days flat rather than waiting around for extra seed money. (There may be another one, about attending NYU Film School, and learning one’s craft with the best.) There certainly doesn’t seem to be much by way of master plan. “If it gets two weeks in an East Village art house, I’ll be ecstatic,” Blitstein said – or words to that effect. He may just be protecting himself by keeping his hopes so very modest. But even if the cineplexes nationwide never get the treat, Let Them Chirp Awhile fully deserves its run on Houston Street: the Sunshine and Angelika should be preparing their marquee as I type. Really, it’s a delight.