The advent of the digital revolution may well prove to be, quite effortlessly, the most destabilizing and transformative movement in the century-long history of cinema. More so than the arrival of home video — or perhaps even the transition of silent films to talkies — the introduction of digital technology into the production-to-exhibition pipeline would upend all convention, creating just as many opportunities for young upstarts as it created problems for entrenched vets. The ever-widening accessibility of high-quality digital cameras coincided with online video streaming platforms like YouTube to fulfill the democratic promise of the technology; for the first time, any individual with the time and inclination had the power to create a film and get it seen by the world. It wasn’t long until corporations went looking to harness the “cool factor” of short digital films for their marketing campaigns, resulting in the creation of the nascent medium of branded content. Like music videos before it, branded content offered an avenue for short-form experimentation— and a break-in point for emerging filmmakers.
Of all the industries to dip their toe into the branded content waters, the fashion world would adopt the medium so heartily that an entire subgenre emerged: the fashion film. Far more than the esoteric, avant-garde montage of luxury tableaus to be found in conventional haute-couture and fragrance commercials, the longer runtimes afforded by the fashion film enabled their makers to be genuine storytellers. Clothes can be better integrated into an organic narrative, and don’t necessarily need some elaborate story setup to justify its existence. People tend to have a decent bullshit meter, easily turned off by a piece of media when they can sniff out that they’re being sold on something. If fashion films, by their very nature, can be said to be the stealthiest of the “hard sell” mediums, then it doesn’t get more stealthy than director Josh Safdie’s 2008 feature THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED. Through his proclivities for subversion and sheer creative willpower, what initially began as a short piece commissioned by Kate Spade to sell handbags would transform into the full-fledged theatrical debut of a major new filmmaker— complete with a splashy premiere at Cannes.
The name Safdie — within the cinema world at least — is so synonymous with the partnership of Josh and his younger brother, Benny, that most regard the 2009 feature DADDY LONGLEGS as their true directorial debut. In a very real sense, it is; that film marks the first feature-length project where both are credited as a directing team. Though Benny would have a hand in its editing, THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED is a glimpse into Josh’s sensibilities as they are when untethered from his brother’s. A fierce, truly-independent passion remains constant; indeed, in this first outing Josh seems entirely unconcerned with audience considerations, and far more interested in following his scrappy protagonist into scenarios and interactions that, while not necessarily “dramatic”, clearly fascinate him. Set in contemporary New York City, and working off a story he co-wrote with lead actress Eleonore Hendricks, Josh’s vision of THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED showcases (relatively) humble roots and a sincere appreciation for the kind of neo-realist street cinema popularized by American forebears like John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese.
The faint sketch of a plot, in which Eleonore’s (self-named) klepto ragamuffin floats between a series of improvised social interactions while working her way up from stealing handbags to automobiles, suggests THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED as a kind of apex for the nascent mumblecore/DIY wave that swept the indie film world in the late 2000’s. Such labels, however, prove reductive; the film’s continual ducking of expected tropes resists easy categorization. Its capture on Super 16mm film alone is a huge distinguishing factor when so many homegrown indies of the time embraced consumer-grade digital video. Presented in the format’s native aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the image eschews any sense of silver-screen artifice its photochemical acquisition might otherwise suggest, opting instead for the gritty, handheld realism of documentary. Josh is credited with shooting THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED himself, along with his Red Bucket Films collective colleague Brett Jutkiewicz (who also serves as producer and co-editor). Long lenses attached to an Arriflex camera provide an expedient setup for the filmmakers to achieve their aesthetic ambitions on a threadbare budgetary scale. Indeed, just about any given exterior shot possesses a distinct depth-of-field that implies a fair distance between camera and subject; it’s easy to imagine the camera stashed safely inside the cab of a car across the street, pointed out the windows to clandestinely capture the action without drawing attention to themselves— and their lack of an official permit in a city where production costs are notoriously expensive. Thank God for wireless lav mics, right?
Shoestring budgetary techniques such as this often telegraph the limitations of said budgets, undercutting ambitious storytelling with technical constraints that a better-resourced production could otherwise avoid. THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED largely ducks the problem of one’s reach exceeding their grasp because of Josh’s inherently lo-fi sensibilities. His embrace of documentary flourishes like handheld photography and nonscripted interactions enables the capture of an organic, authentic sense of New York street life in all its unpolished vibrancy. The people inhabiting his frame contribute to this effect, each one embodying the hustling, bustling nature of the Big Apple to some degree. Some are actors like Hendricks, but many are not, dropped into the middle of a narrative scene to inject the edge of unpredictability or to encourage surprising interactions. Josh himself even gets in on the act, appearing as an old friend of Eleonore’s whose sweet, unspoken affections for her prompt a mid-film road trip to Boston that culminates in a platonic sleepover. Even the film’s music approach reinforces these conceits, foregoing the dramatic artifice and emotional manipulation that a conventional score might impose. Save for a jazzy piano cue that opens and closes the film, THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED’s music is mostly diegetic— scratchy indie punk and bedroom folk leaking out of busted speakers. There’s even a second, very unofficial version of the film that was created in 2009 during a live screening, wherein members of the crew jammed out in real-time accompaniment to the images like some kind of deranged on-the-fly musical. Make no mistake, the end result is unwatchable, but its existence reinforces how Josh (and the Safdie brothers as a unit) draw a particular kind of creative power from chaos.
The problem with creative chaos, of course, is that it is most definitely not for everyone. To a viewer attuned to a certain degree of Hollywood polish, THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED could be seen as supremely ugly, undeniably amateur-ish, or profoundly boring because nothing really “happens”. Judging by the swath of negative reviews from the press (the film holds an uncomfortable 27% on Rotten Tomatoes), one wouldn’t necessarily think this was the origin point of a superstar directing career. Laura Kern of The New York Times would sum up these sentiments pretty succinctly, writing that the film “exposes itself as a technically deficient bore with little on its agenda”. A coveted world premiere at South By Southwest and an international debut in the Directors Fortnight program at Cannes would argue otherwise, the latter going so far as to nominate THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED for the Golden Camera and CICAE awards.
Indeed, the Safdies’ fixture at the forefront of the American indie scene is due in no small part to the support of open-minded critical and institutional forces who could see the film’s value in the context of the medium’s history, as well the contemporaneous wave of homegrown mumblecore works enabled by the aforementioned rise of high-quality digital video. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr would find that “the movie’s refusal to judge is its most interesting attribute, if one many audiences won’t be able to get around”— a tempered admiration expressed in a way that roots out the compassionate strain that runs throughout the Safdie’s filmography despite their penchant for unsavory or even repulsive characters. Mubi’s Daniel Kasman, undoubtedly no stranger to the small avalanche of mid-2000’s mumblecore indies, would see the film as a “fundamental improvement” on the Millennial-dominated subgenre, praising Josh’s feature debut as “a small quiet film that sees its small quietness with a sympathetic sadness”.
A labor of love stolen out from under a corporate commission, THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED resonates as an exercise in unreserved compassion for its fellow man even as it spits in the face of the Hollywood machine. Abrasive & defiant without being conceited or elitist, the film shows little concern for coddling audiences accustomed to antiseptic production values. Indeed, this is cinema as punk rock— whatever admiration one feels is the result of an active effort on the viewer’s part, because the work certainly makes little effort to ingratiate itself. Just as punk rock isn’t for everyone, and took some time to find purchase among demographics wider than its core of frustrated and misunderstood youths, so too has THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED grown in esteem over the years. In the context of the subsequent Safdie library, what was once seen as amateur-adjacent DIY scrappiness can more easily be understood as a genuine aesthetic and dramaturgical expression, and the beginning of a consistent artistic throughline that gives the brothers’ combined voice its cultural value. Though its success may be meager by mainstream industry standards, THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED stands as notable work— if only for the fact that it introduces a new filmmaking entity poised to carry the ferocious independent spirit well into cinema’s second century.
THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED is currently available on standard-definition DVD via IFC.
Written by: Josh Safdie, Eleonore Hendricks
Produced by: Josh Safdie, Brett Jutkiewicz, Sam Lisenco, Zachary Treitz
Executive Produced by: Casey Neistat
Director of Photography: Josh Safdie, Brett Jutkiewicz
Production Designer: Sam Lisenco
Edited by: Josh & Benny Safdie, Brett Jutkiewicz