Fort Tilden invites you to snicker at millennial hipsters, then dares you to empathize with them. I plead that you give yourself over to the humanist filmmaking of Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty and let them both entertain you and prove that Fort Tilden is the spiritual ancestor to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves.
written by: John Matsuya
art by: Ben Matsuya
Spoilers for Fort Tilden and Bicycle Thieves
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic (a trait I'd plead guilty too anyway), but Fort Tilden is the best and most humanist of the year. The filmmakers set up an elaborate screen; the rompers, fixies, emojis, and snark invite us to laugh at “horrible hipsters” (a hollow pejorative bankrupt of any real meaning), and engage in the very ironic mockery that we ascribe to these Brooklyn types. But if you choose to look closer, Fort Tilden does a remarkable thing: it is a humane study of Williamsburg/Echo Park superiority complex as defense mechanisms and does so with a quiet compassion that is a credit to the writer/directors Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers and the leads Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty. If you’re open to it, I contend that Fort Tilden is the spiritual ancestor to one of cinema’s most important works: Bicycle Thieves.
Allie (Clare McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliott) are part of the millennial legion stuck in arrested development post-college. Allie is more in love with the idea of telling people she’s going to the Peace Corp, than actually going abroad and Harper struggles (maybe struggles is not the right word) to make art. Bored out of their minds at their "friends" musical act, the girls invite themselves to a beach day at Fort Tilden with two guys. Sounds simple enough, but not for these two.
As they set off on their journey, Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott give tremendous performances, inviting you to laugh at their bad behavior and passive aggressive jibes. They set themselves up as objects of mockery as they look down on the Brooklyn resident's in their wake. But in between the comedy, I realized that the outlook of these girls are only symptoms of a larger, more cruel reality: one shaped by an unforgiving economic landscape, a lifetime of helicopter parenting, and a trophy room of participation awards. What could privileged youths possibly have in common with destitute post-war Italians? Allow me to explain:
Pedaling in Tandem
During World War II, the Axis Powers were obsessed with matching the quality of Hollywood studio films. National cinemas became important status and propaganda symbols. In Italy, Mussolini opened Cinecitta studios in 1937 to create both hard propaganda and soft messaging. The studio has a rich history and is still in use today, with upcoming movies like Everest and Zoolander II. One genre developed under fascism was “The White Telephone” films. Most of these movies were romantic melodramas and comedies reinforcing traditional Italian values; lavish sets of the Italian upper-class showcased how the Italian bourgeois had grown under Mussolini. The white telephone - present in many of these pictures - became emblematic of this projection of Italian wealth and stature.
Following the fall of the fascists, post-war Italy was devastated by war; the landscape ruined and a whole generation cut down. The "White Telephone" films came to represent the obscene wealth of their former leaders, and disillusioned filmmakers turned to make films about the every day person, eschewing ostentatious production for intimate portraits of the working lower-class. The movement - known as Italian Neo-Realism - focused on non-actors as leads and used real locations to highlight the poverty and psyche of a conquered society. In 1948, Vittorio De Sica (himself a former matinee idol and veteran of the White Telephone films), directed the humanist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves which highlighted the bleakness of an impoverished society blighted by economic malaise.
A common man, Antonio Ricci finds work putting up posters, but the job requires a bicycle. In his desperation, Ricci pawns his family's bedding for a bicycle and gets to work. But his bicycle is stolen. Ricci and his young son spend the day searching through war-torn Rome - a near hopeless and daunting task. Ricci and the film have a clear purpose: find the bike, but there is no clear direction on how. To Antonio, the bike is the future - even though we don’t know where it is or if we’ll find it. It is a future that is as vague and opaque as searching for his stolen transportation.
Likewise in Fort Tilden, Allie borrows a bike from her neighbor to get the beach. The reason for the bike is much less grave than in Bicycle Thieves, but what the bike represents is the same. We can talk about "first world problems", but putting us in the places of other people and generating empathy is what cinema can do at its best. The definition of struggle is certainly different: welcome to a 21st century America where, people with less access to food are obese, not gaunt. The “over-educated” are under-prepared and unemployable. Allie and Harper may live in a nice Williamsburg apartment and be part of the boho-chic crowd, but their futures are as uncertain as Antonio Ricci's.
Their 11-mile road trip truly (and hilariously) exposes how unprepared they are for the disorder and spontaneity of life outside of their cocooned existence. Their interactions with the residents of Flatbush is through a thin veneer of detachment and mockery. Bliss and Rogers lampoons the millennial in her natural habitat, while also revealing the inner-turmoil of Allie and Harper's characters. The two are painfully co-dependent and their passive-aggression boils over. Harper is deeply resentful of what she sees as Allie’s abandonment of her for Liberia and snidely undermines Allie's efforts at every opportunity. Allie’s second thoughts and continual delaying of her Peace Corp placement underscores her crippling insecurity and self-doubt. In one critical scene, Allie and Harper can only watch as a thief takes off with Allie's bike. Harper convinces her to abandon their existing, borrowed, bike to satisfy their own itinerary. Allie's pangs of conscience are hesitantly muted as they continue onwards to a fun beach day. It is this forced nonchalance and affected disregard for consequence - a YOLO attitude - that is their primary fault.
But the blame is never laid squarely at their feet. Not only thwarted by their inability to act, Allie and Harper are haunted by the sins of the father and parenting (or lack thereof). When Harper, a trust-fund baby, is evicted from a cab, we learn this unforeseen repercussion is a twice removed karma for the business dealings of her father: a dis-embodied voice whose main expression of love is money (it is hinted that he bears culpability for a Bhopal-like disaster). Incubated by a lifetime of leisure and trained only in the art of using others, the girl's best intentions go awry and every attempt at problem solving is sabotaged by their own lack of commonsense.
Bliss and Rogers juggle how to give us quiet "in's" to our characters, while never resorting to easy manipulation. Enough can't be said about the comic-tragic performance of McNulty and Elliott. McNulty is pitch perfect in her portrayal of Clare; her conflicted nature and yearning for success and acceptance masked behind a wall of apathy is painted equally by her expressive reactions and hilarious quiet yelps and squeaks of frustration. Clare's Allie consistently flirts with change, but ultimately is unsalvageable to her best frenemy or herself. Despite every obstacle, Allie and Harper reach Fort Tilden and are summarily underwhelmed. The destination that they so slowly ambled towards is cold, unforgiving, and barely a beach. The message is clear: the life we imagine for ourselves is rarely how life turns out.
At the end of the day, Allie returns to her neighbor who loaned her his bike (a man she clearly looks down on) to admit she lost it. She accepts what little responsibility she can, but stops short of facing any actionable consequence:
When prodded further to return the bike, Allie admits to him and herself that she is not even going to the Peace Corp. This confession of inaction is the ultimate indictment of herself. In Bicycle Thief, Antonio is pushed to the point of stealing a bike himself, only to be caught and admonished in front of his son. It's a tragic scene that gets me every time. Antonio is only allowed on his way by the pity of the crowd - emotionally undressed in front of his son. Antonio and Allie are both left empty-handed even with their thefts; where Antonio loses his self-respect (and his son's admiration), Allie gains troubling self-awareness. The loss of their respective bikes, though, amount to the same metaphor: an unclear and uncertain fate.
It's too easy to merely laugh at Harper and Allie. Elliot and McNulty are undaunted by accentuating the caricatures of these characters, and I challenge you to match the filmmaker's boldness by also empathizing with these millennials to see into the root of their pain. It's certainly hilarious, sometimes cringeworthy, but paradoxically compassionate. I'd like to think De Sica with his love for humanity would approve of Bliss and Rogers taking his bicycle, synthesizing it with a 21st century scenario, and taking his legacy for a ride.
* I'm not associated with or compensated by the filmmakers in anyway. To film lovers everywhere, I urge you to support independent cinema and films that take narrative and creative risks.
Fort Tilden (2014)
- Director: Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers
- Writers: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Brian Lannin
- Starring: Bridey Elliott, Clare McNulty, Jeffrey Scaperrotta, Griffin Newman
- Producer: Mollye Asher, Ariana Bernstein, Geoff Mansfield
- Music by: Alexander Moro
- Cinematography: Brian Lannin
Bicycle Thieves (1944)
- Director: Vittorio De Sica
- Writers: Cesare Zavattini, Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi
- Starring: Lambero Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
- Producer: Giuseppe Amato and Vittorio De Sica
- Music by: Alessandro Cicognini
- Cinematography: Carlo Montuori