by Eric McHenry
Chriss Williams knows enough about screen presence to know that he doesn't have any. The new COM assistant professor of film says his Hitchcockian cameo in Asbury Park, a movie he wrote and directed, is just brief enough to be acceptable.
"I watched myself in the scene, and realized that I was single-handedly slowing my own film down to a halt," Williams says. "It was hard for folks to tell me, but I noticed it right away. So I had to edit myself out. Now, I appear -- so people can laugh -- I have one line, and then I walk off screen and you never see me again."
His delivery must not damage Asbury Park irreparably, because it recently received the first annual Gordon Parks Independent Film Award for black filmmakers, a $10,000 vote of confidence. Write-ups in the New York Times and Variety added some icing. Williams is understandably pleased, and is currently looking into various options for distribution of the movie, in which a black youth accidentally kills someone and is forced to go on the run.
His colleague Charles Merzbacher, visiting associate professor of film, has also written and directed an independent feature, Jane Street. Like Asbury Park, it is awaiting a distribution deal. And like Williams, Merzbacher has a small role in his own movie. He agrees that directing and acting are two entirely different crafts.
"I appear as the Southern handyman," he says, "who actually ends up having a lot of influence on the way the story turns out. There was definitely a moment when I thought, 'What on earth have I gotten myself into? I'm in the midst of directing my first feature, and I'm on the wrong side of the camera.'
"It's comparable to driving a car in Britain," he says. "There's that first moment when you get behind the wheel and you feel like you're going to kill somebody because you're driving on the wrong side of road. Then, after a few hours or maybe a day, something clicks, and suddenly you see things from the other side."
In Jane Street, an unpolished specimen named Brian moves from his provincial hometown to Manhattan, where unforeseen turns of events leave him squatting in a vacant apartment on Jane Street. Posing as its owner, he arranges to share the place with Corinne and Suzanne, two attractive young women. He develops an intense crush on Corinne and is baffled to discover that she and Suzanne are not only lovers, but parents-to-be.
Almost every element of the plot is lifted from some real-life event or personality, says Merzbacher. For example, he came up with the premise after seeing a photo of two lesbian parents in the alumni magazine of his alma mater, Williams College. He also knows a woman who, because of managerial oversight, was able to live rent-free for several years in a posh Upper West Side apartment.
"She went through medical school," says Merzbacher, "while living in an apartment where she was, in effect, squatting.
"I think that comedy comes naturally to a place like New York City," he says. "Comedy depends on a certain level of chaos. To make a comedy, you've got to be constantly upending any sense of order. It's got to have a subversive side to it. And New York City is that kind of place; anytime you think you've got a handle on things, something comes out of left field and completely changes your expectations.
"And that's exactly what happens in Jane Street. It's a story about a guy who always thinks that he finally understands what's going on, and the carpet keeps getting pulled out from under him."
Merzbacher says he began thinking about what would become Jane Street's thematic material while teaching in the highly regarded department of undergraduate film and television at New York University.
"Over the years, I observed an interesting division in my classes," he says, "between the women and minority students, who were very often exploring issues of identity in their films -- what it means to be a woman, what it means to be gay, what it means to be Asian-American -- and on the other side, for want of a better way to put it, the straight white guys. Because they had grown up in a world that was largely run by straight white guys, they weren't really exploring this idea of who they were. Often I felt that when students were presenting work, it was as though there were an invisible wall that ran through the middle of the class, separating these two groups.
"And I thought, maybe I can make a film that somehow helps penetrate that wall, that helps these people share their views, and that doesn't necessarily give any one side the upper hand: what if I took representatives from these groups and put them in an apartment together? Let's see what happens."
Williams is no fan of that invisible wall, either. The expectation that minorities will only treat issues of cultural identity in their films is prevalent, he says, and invidious.
"There was something written in the New York Times about my protagonist going on the run and finding out about his heritage," Williams recalls. "What the hell is that? Oh, when black people go on the run, they find out about their heritage.
"We purposefully included no statements about what black is or references to anybody being black in the film," he says, "but the point of the matter is, I'm black, the people in the film are black, so it will always be a black film before it's an independent film."
Williams points to a diverse group of moviemaking influences that includes Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee, with whom he worked on the movie Crooklyn. He's a self-described "story guy" who gets up at five every morning to write and already has a second screenplay in the hopper.
"I'd rather watch a film with thin characters and a tremendous story," he says, "than one with great characters and no story. And I can't pay $8 just to look at pretty pictures. I'm ridiculous when it comes to my $8."