Thursday, April 01, 2010

ND/NF ’10: Quadrangle

It was like Amy Grappell and her sister were raised by Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, except her parents actually followed through on their experimental notions. Paul and Deanna Grapell tell their very 1970’s story to their director-daughter in her new documentary short, Quadrangle, which screened during this year’s New Directors New Films, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Using split screens, Grappell shows her worldly parents discussing their “quadrangle” with their married friends, Robert and Eleanor. As her mother explained it: “we swapped, but we weren’t swingers.” Monogamous in a way, as soon as the kids were asleep, the men exchanged places, sneaking out again in the morning to keep up appearances. Still, despite their efforts, they suspected the kids still knew what was going on. The neighbors certainly did. Things seemed to be going along swimmingly, but eventually it led to predictable conflict and resentments.

Clearly, Deanna was the dominant Grappell, while Paul seems to be far more reserved and passive. Surprisingly though, their accounts of those fateful events largely agree—no Rashomon syndrome in this case. Still, it is clear they approached the affair (for lack of a better word) at the time with radically different mindsets. In a way, Grappell (with a keen assist from editor-co-producer Aaron Raff) is able to present a dialogue between her parents even though they were not physically together during filming.

It certainly sounds like the lurid stuff of tabloid headlines: “Wife-Swapping on Long Island,” yet Quadrangle’s relative brevity (20 minutes) precludes reveling in the sensational details. Not that Grappell would probably want to delve too deeply in her parents’ experimental sex lives—talk about a creepy proposition.

Still, the exclusive focus on her parents leaves several obvious holes. The audience is left to wonder about the perceptions of their partners and perhaps more importantly the Grappells’ daughters. However, it is safe to assume there were emotional repercussions for director Grappell. She was after all, moved to make a film about her parents’ alternative lifestyle.

Quadrangle would make a fitting companion to Doug Pray’s Surfwise, a documentary about the Paskowitz chilldren’s unconventional upbringing. Though the parents might think they are being cool at the time, flaunting traditional norms of family always seems to take a toll on their children in the long run. It is hard to draw a lot of conclusions, but one would suspect there was a reason Grappell started the film with her mother’s words of wisdom: “everybody has a tragedy.”

Well constructed, Quadrangle never leaves audiences feeling dirty, which is a neat trick considering the voyeuristic nature of its subject matter. Already a selection of SXSW, Sundance, and the ongoing New Directors New Films 2010, look for Quadrangle to play more high profile festivals in the coming months.