“There’s always noises…”
In the spring of 1964, a woman was stabbed and assaulted outside of her apartment where, allegedly, 37 onlookers did nothing to help. Kitty Genovese, the victim, had screamed for help, only to be summarily ignored. A psychological condition dubbed the “bystander effect” was brought to attention due to this incident, and has factored into the realm of psychology with beneficial effects to this day. Many of the initial claims made by the first paper to run a story on the incident, The New York Times, have been recanted and written off as lazy, grandiose reporting, but that hasn’t stopped the myth from growing in popularity. With the death of the perpetrator happening earlier this year, along with the highly-rated documentary about the case from last year, The Witness, it’s a prime time to revive the myth with some pop culture flair.
The film is simply 37, and it is writer-director Puk Grasten’s ambitious first full-length feature, which is also an adaptation of her own short film of the same name. It shows, but not from lack of effort. There have been much worse debuts, but I can’t say 37 is a fantastical cinematic triumph. It’s a slow, disjointed effort to turn the tragedy of Genovese’s death and the supposed apathy of the Queens residents who let her die into a commentary on the socioeconomic status of the time for three families and how their quirks and class differences somehow interfered with them calling the police for help. Grasten’s bare-bones writing doesn’t lend any of the ensemble cast too much to work with, although some characters wind up being much more well-rounded than they have any reason to be. There’s a moody, somber atmosphere that, for most of the film, is too dour to swallow, but the lighting effects can sporadically be imaginative and lend credence to the bummer moodscape. There are strange subplots that aren’t fully resolved by the films anticlimactic ending, and there’s a tease of a genre switch that feels ostensibly out of place in such a dire film.
As previously mentioned, we have three families involved in the day leading up to the night of the attack. We have grandma and grandpa Florel and George (Lucy Martin and Thomas Kopache), a Jewish couple taking care of friendless and troubled Debbie (Sophia Lillis), whose mother did some sort of crazy something that earned a “going to Hell” level of reputation. Bob and Mary (Jamie Harrold and Maria Dizzia), a middle-aged couple with two boys, troublemaker/alien believer Billy and not-in-the-movie Mark (Evan Fine and Sawyer Nunes). Lastly, we have Archie and Joyce (Michael Potts and Samira Wiley), a young black couple, toting their young son Troy (Marquise Gary) about their new apartment. On the periphery we have local lonely drunk Sam (Don Puglisi), friendly Hispanic hotel worker Gonzales (Adrian Martinez), and the creepy Mowbray Sisters (Nancy Ozelli and Virginia Robinson), who literally hiss at young Troy and don’t say anything else for the whole film. Quite a cast of characters. A tad shy of 37, but these are our players, and they’re trapped within their own little worlds, barely contained by thin apartment walls.
Honestly, Kitty Genovese (Christina Brucato) has but one sole interaction in the film with Debbie. Her death is just a flimsy hook to make this Magnolia-style film where everybody in the phone book becomes intricately woven together through one major cataclysmic event. As such, this fictional take on the events of the night of her murder turns into a strange series of what are basically vignettes showcasing each family’s unique struggles brought to them via the social stratosphere of the mid-1960s. That in and of itself would have made a more interesting movie, I think, because having to use something as grisly as the rape and murder of a young woman to tell the story of lower middle class struggles of a certain era seems a little macabre for my tastes.
That being said, the film isn’t too effective in the sense of actually conveying these characters and their struggles as relatable, realistic, and empathetic. The only family that really seems to hold any weight with their struggles would have to be Archie and Joyce, mostly powered by Potts’ intense performance as a father trying to raise a tough son who, not even five minutes after setting foot on the property, is subtly attacked by the other tenants with polite, restrained racism. It makes sense why Potts is billed first and foremost: he is, by and far, the most interesting and well-rounded character in the film, with his idolation of Cassius Clay as a God-like savior and projection of his own insecurities onto the five-year-old Troy being a highlight. The older family’s main struggle is with Debbie’s psychosis (she counts her steps and only allots 5000 a day, because “something terrible” will happen when she reaches 5000). It’s a genuine struggle, for sure, but the only reason they don’t actually have for helping is due to some strange child protective services subplot that has literally one line of acknowledgment. The other family’s problems are related to the job market struggle, but no progress is made on that story line by the end of the film, making it and it’s bland protagonists a moot point in an already-crowded film.
There’s very little life in this film. It’s ineffective as a character study, because we never really want to study any of these characters. Usually a sense of feeling comes from the characters inhabiting this slice of life we’re viewing, but even though director Graston dedicates more than two thirds of the film to setting up the various failings and shortcomings and problems and issues and odd ticks all the members of this community has, it’s not very exciting or engrossing. Archie is the main source of excitement in the film, as I said already. There was one bizarre aspect of the film that I both really didn’t want to happen, but also really wanted the film to go there, just to spice something up. I guess I really shouldn’t spoil it, but lets just say that sometimes the lights are used through windows (in combination with the strange, otherworldly soundtrack the film possesses) to make things feel a little alien in nature.
While the story and characters may not have been too vibrant, the sound mixing, on the other hand, is fantastic for a film of this size. Layering multiple levels of different sounds, both natural and man-made ambiance, add a sense of frenetic chaos that lends itself well to some of the more tense interactions. The cinematography was interesting…at times. Lighting was used effectively in the film, conveying more of a sense of mood than the wooden dialogue could. We get nice, washed out feelings in some of the barren apartments, sullen, dark lighting for a sad birthday, and a neat effect where police sirens fill every room emphasizing their presence in everyone’s lives. Graston sticks to alternating between dizzying hand-held work and more traditional static camera framing. There’s some decent camera movement, and the up-tempo editing keeps the pacing of this film from becoming an absolute slog, but even at a short hour and twenty minutes, it really doesn’t feel as if the story fills the void that decent cinematography cannot.
Even if this film had all the fancy camerawork in the world, the script still would have held this film back from being noteworthy. It’s not to say that 37 is terrible. It’s not. On the same hand, it probably isn’t worth a Redbox rental. With very few fully fleshed characters and a story that wrote a long arc that fell off a short bridge, it’s not satisfying as entertainment or as a character study or as a period piece or as a recounting of the murder of Kitty Genovese. I feel as though if Puk had taken her story in a different direction, away from having to anchor itself to a real event, it could have gone in a different, broader way, and maybe have actually had something to say about the time period or class struggles on which is comments. As it stands, 37 is almost a husk of a film, with very little volume, all of which is mostly forgettable. I have no jokes to make about the event itself, and the movie lacks any levity of itself, so I’ll just end by saying Puk seems capable of potentially making a decent film with a bigger budget. She should just trust herself next time to be wholly original.