There is nothing quite so quaint as creating a simple, interview-based documentary about the people in one’s life. It’s an exercise that many filmmakers embark upon when first starting out, but of the thousands and thousands of films in this subset, Quadrangle might be the only one to win awards at both Sundance and SXSW. Partly due to the prurient interest of its subject, but largely due to the formal skill of its presentation, Quadrangle became one of the sensations of the 2010 film festival circuit, using the lens of autobiography to reflect on the countercultural spirit of the free love era. A celebrated work then, its recent emergence online demonstrates that the last 7 years have done nothing to dull its ability to fascinate.
In 1969, two married couples met and eventually swapped partners. The film is a remembrance of this arrangement from the perspective of one of these original couples, Deanna and Paul, who also happen to be the parents of the filmmaker, Amy Grappell. Inspired by a cache of black and white photos her father had taken during this period, Grappell decided to take a topic that is intensely personal and depersonalize it; Grappell doesn’t insert herself into the narrative until the credits. Shot separately, her parents explain the process the “quadrangle” undertook—and the feelings that were involved—in a manner at once blunt and reserved.
I normally give demerits to interview- and archival photography-based documentaries. There’s something a bit bland and routine about the approach, but Grappell manages to excite by turning the separate interviews of her subjects into a diptych, and by using an unusually thoughtful technique to advance the story’s themes. Originally conceived as a video installation, the side-by-side approach is utilized marvelously in this documentary to allow a virtual conversation to take place. Functionally, it’s more interesting to have the couple interviewed separately so that they are more candid, but from the tightness and the sense of wistfulness that exudes from their respective deliveries, but the separate interviews also serve to make the viewer wonder whether speaking to her parents together was even an option for Grappell. It works out for the best, however, and the separate interviews emphasize the distance and space between the couple even as they share reminisces in similar ways, and with similar language. The editing of the film is downright inspired; sometimes Deanna and Paul speak in counterpoint, and other times their words spill out over each others’, a development that is interesting when their observations are congruent, but perhaps even more interesting in those moments when their sentiments diverge.
Grappell writes to us that, while inspired by the spirit of the sixties, she also felt compelled to ask what became of the social experiments of this era, finding it ironic that so many involved with the counterculture of the ’60s (like her own parents) are now transformed, conservative professionals with traditional marriages and values. Like a slow-motion car crash, there is a sense of exhilaration in listening to this exciting and norm-defying relationship unfold, even through memory. But fear and queasy uncomfortableness are present as well, partly supplied by ourselves and the adherence to norms we have internalized, but also a sense of foreshadowing that is implicit from the early frames of the film. For what is in essence a very simple film, its blend of appeals, as well as the disparate emotions it’s able to invoke, is a testament to Grappell’s achievement with the film.
Grappell is currently working on a scripted television series based on the Quadrangle story, and she’s additionally developing a half-hour comedy series. On top of that, she is creating both a documentary and feature film based on the true story of a rivalry between Communist and Socialist summer camps in upstate New York during the McCarthy era. She’s on the lookout for creative partnerships and producing partners, so if you wish to connect, reach out at her website below.