One man and four women live through 12 alternately tense and melancholic hours in Jay Anania’s stream-of-consciousness film, “Day on Fire.” One of the more overt responses to 9/11 by a Gotham filmmaker which never specifically addresses that day’s events, pic holds to a dreamy mood and a radical aesthetic but, in the end, the extremely repetitive use of certain sound and images has truly diminishing returns. Defiantly independent work will find select auds at fests and in vid, but distribs seem sure to shrink from the challenge of handling such a demanding work.
Most directly tied to Anania’s similarly Impressionist study of Gothamites, his 1998 “Long Time Since,” “Day on Fire” alternates between five characters’ points of view–plus that of a Palestinian suicide bomber (Avi Tairy) and vid news footage of his attack’s bloody aftermath. Though not nearly as powerful in its final effect, the overall cinematic design is similar to another authentically indie 2006 film dreamily connecting a group of seemingly isolated folks, Jennifer Shainin and Randy Walker’s “Apart From That.”
The viewer is dropped down in a Manhattan evening, where something terrible seems to have happened on a street corner. An ER doctor consults with a physician about harvesting a corpse’s corneas for a patient who was the victim of an apparent assault.
With a disturbing mood established, time flashes back 12 hours to what seems like a typical winter Manhattan workday. Palestinian journalist Najia (Carmen Chaplin) interviews Dr. Mary Wade (Olympia Dukakis) about the medical details of a bomb’s impact on the body. Lithe fashion model Shira (Alyssa Sutherland) is doing a photo session, while singer Judy (Judy Kuhn) records Anglo folk tunes with pianist and arranger John Medeski. Alone at home, Walter (Martin Donovan) carefully dresses and then goes outside to observe passersby from a park bench.
Per usual his own editor, Anania weaves these separate pieces into a whole that, at least in the early phase, is a moving study of a human community. He uses the Kuhn-Medeski recordings of “Greensleeves” and “Loch Lomond” as aural linkage, just as he deploys startling clips of the suicide bomber and attack as a visual rupture.
Eventually, the characters intersect. Najia makes the strongest connections, first with Dr. Wade. Later, Najia meets Shira in a cafe. In pic’s only literal reference to 9/11, Shira tells Najia of a friend who died in the Twin Towers.
Elsewhere in the same cafe, Judy argues on her cell during a studio break. Some of the film’s character linkages are more artificial or slight than others, while more oblique tie-ins (particularly with Donovan’s cool, gradually unsettling Walter) grow more startling as afternoon shifts into evening.
Narrative return to elliptical early moments now carries much greater tragic import, but a certain preciousness (due mainly to the misjudged over-repetition of the Medeski-Kuhn songs) softens the impact. “Day on Fire” may strike some viewers (especially New Yorkers) as a film, like Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour,” that conveys the post-9/11 zeitgeist of emotional displacement in the terror age.
Unfortunately, it lists toward becoming an objet d’art rather than a flesh-and-blood vision of the need for people to connect.
With little standard dramatics to rely upon, the actors do a fine job of conveying emotional states of mind through facial expressions, brief bits of dialogue, pauses and eye contact. Donovan is the most isolated of the bunch, and what first seems like a blank perf is cover for darker impulses. In a cast that comes close to a clinic in silent film thesping, Chaplin —Charlie’s granddaughter — is ironically the most verbal in a central turn that contains much of pic’s focus on terrorism and its impact.
Despite their wildly overused songs, Medeski and Kuhn make a fine duo that plays like a Greek chorus calling for peace. Anania’s complex editing conception is pic’s most striking achievement, aiming for no less than poetry.
Though pic’s politics are more global than national, it features Democrat party tie-ins: Dukakis, of course, as failed Prez candidate Michael Dukakis’ cousin, and Anania as failed veep candidate John Edwards’ brother-in-law.