VHS spirit haunts Los Angeles: An interview with ‘Gemini’ director Aaron Katz

Gemini
Neon/Courtesy

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Against a backdrop of paparazzi camera flashes and towering palm trees, a rising starlet (Zoë Kravitz) and her personal assistant (Lola Kirke) meander through the Los Angeles nightlife, attempting to go unseen.

Every attempt at escape is obstructed by the shadow of her fame: a threatening phone call from an aggressive director, a dickish screenwriter who won’t take no for an answer and an unpleasantly protracted interaction with a stalker. The two want nothing but to be alone together, but their reputations haunt them no matter what pocket of the city they wander to.

It’s a setup that continues the eternal affair between filmmakers and their medium’s hometown, pulling at the usual threads of celebrity and vice. But with “Gemini,” writer-director Aaron Katz attempts to both indulge and investigate those historicized depictions of Los Angeles. Katz spoke on the well-trodden aesthetics of the city. “It’s something we were conscious of and we just wanted to do it our way,” Katz said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

“(That) boiled down to going to places, looking around and feeling inspired by what we saw and not worrying too much about how it’s written into the script or the impressions we might have from other movies and just looking at the specific place we were,” he said.

Grounding a mystery in a distinct sense of place isn’t new for Katz. From the damp streets of Portland in his festival break-out “Cold Weather” to the grand mountain vistas of Iceland in “Land Ho!,” none of his films are shy about putting the narrative on hold to soak in the particular atmosphere and patiently observe local ways of living.

That effort to be attuned to the look and culture of a community comes from a personal place for Katz. “All my films … have been set in places where I’ve lived or was living at the time,” he began. “I just think where you are informs so much about the experiences that you have and I love watching films with those strong sense of place.”

Though “Gemini” exchanges his usual routine rhythms for the chic, glossy rabbit hole of celebrity culture, he continues to pay careful attention to the manner in which a particular environment informs both his characters’ behaviors and a film’s overall mood.

Unlike most mysteries, “Gemini” spends plenty of time caught up in the interim of commuting from one place to another. Isolated from the rest of the world, subdued heart-to-hearts and reflective pauses emerge, quietly threading an emotional throughline to be tried by the obstructive noir narrative.  

 

 

Gemini

Neon/Courtesy

“I like, just as an audience member, feeling out a relationship and kind of seeing the behavior and learning little things. … It’s just a great way to engage an audience,” Katz stated before chortling, “In fact, sometimes when I watch the movie I wish I had spelled it out even less clearly.”

The overpowering aura of the city is able to ripple through its inhabitants’ interactions because of its vibrant rendering. The film’s ghostly vision of Los Angeles is brought to life through neon haze, deadened sunlight and a crucial, dreamy score concocted by Katz’s frequent collaborator Keegan DeWitt. Katz expressed his belief in the necessity of music in pitching the tone of a film, especially with regards to mysteries and thrillers.

According to him, the score of “Gemini” is of two sensibilities — “one of which is the tradition of ‘80s and ‘90s thrillers, but another of which is the relationship between these two characters.” He continued, saying that he “wanted the score to feel nostalgic and appropriative of the sort of VHS era of films, but also contemporary and something these characters would want to listen to.”

This marked the third or fourth time Katz had evoked his own film viewing during the interview. From citing the influence of Joe Eszterhas’ provocatively pulpy screenplays to projecting the ‘40s thriller “Behind Green Lights” in the background of a scene, the director wasn’t dishonest about how much “Gemini” owes to the wit and wonders of older, gimcrack crime pieces.

Katz’s sentimentality for unfortunately outdated modes of filmmaking reached total fruition when he slipped into gushing over the merits of the extinct VHS format. “For some films from the ‘80s and ‘90s, (VHS is) the best home format because it has life to it and vibrancy,” he said. “You feel the sort of subtle roll of imperfect registration as opposed to just the rock-solid look of DVD and especially with streaming platforms.”

Though “Gemini” utilizes decidedly contemporary situations, such as Instagram culture and high-speed motorbikes, its romanticization of older forms of noir hangs over every moment. Simultaneously sleek and hazy, the film’s distinct look is as based in Los Angeles’ fashionable glamour as it is in the city’s timeless pollution and inconveniences. Its most appropriate viewing experience would be off a magnetized tape rented on a whim from a Blockbuster down the street.

In that way, “Gemini” is a distinctly modern film in its desire to transcend its time and place. Katz maintains a resilience in facing the swiftly mutating media landscape, one that increasingly prioritizes convenience over tangibility. “We’re on this road until…” Katz trailed off, distraught. “I don’t know, whatever. I’m going to keep going to my local video store until I can’t anymore.”

“Gemini” is currently playing at AMC Metreon 16.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].