For young Danes my age, the films of Regner Grasten are as central to childhood as Nickelodeon is to Americans or Disney films to everyone. One of the first producers to take advantage of the commercialization of the Danish film support system in the eighties, the first Regner Grasten films were cheap, hated flops. But he found his niche with a string of family films, beginning with Krummerne in 1991, which had an inescapable title song that had my whole class of six-year-olds obsessed throughout my first school year. A string of sequels and copies followed, pretty much every school holiday for the rest of the decade. It’s not just that the films were the de facto choice for a cinema trip all throughout my childhood, but also the fact the films – and eventually tv-series – were often based on the same books every kid read in class: Thøger Birkeland, Dennis Jürgensen, Bjarne Reuter. The producer behind so much of my first culture intake, but also the guy who taught me how disappointing a work of culture could be and made me understand what ‘commercialised’ and ‘soulless’ meant before I knew the words. And coincidentally, the Krummerne films was where international hit-maker Lukas Graham got his acting debut as a very young kid.
Regner Grasten used the same formula, the same release schedules, even the same actors over and over and over. But he always defended himself by saying the product created the money for the kind of films that he really wanted to make, something more serious, more artful. Often also based on novels, the studio made, for instance, the almost three-hour-long Just a Girl from the autobiography of writer Lise Nørgaard – winner of two Bodil awards and four Robert awards – as well as the 200 minute Lost Generation based on the four-novel family saga by writer Christian Kampmann. The studio is currently trying to make a film based on the life of Karen Blixen, who already was put on screen by Oscar-winning Out of Africa. As might be inferred, the more serious material has been pretty formulaic as well. But 37, produced by Regner Grasten and directed by daughter Puk Grasten, released by the studio, is something else: a low-budget, English-language indie film based on true events. It’s a weird, very much a debut film, but probably the best thing the studio has ever released.
On the 13th of March 1964, young woman Kitty Genovese was killed in the street outside of her home in Queens, New York. The killing became the catalyst for an enormous debate in the US after New York Times published an article named ’37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police’. For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens’ it said, and the two different counts should perhaps have indicated that the story hadn’t been 100% fact checked. But it became a central part of the mythology about New York, and the callousness that ruled streets of the modern big city. Puk Grasten depicts it as an epochal event, a sign post in the modern history of identity. The problem was that the original story was flawed, to a degree bordering on the irresponsible. There weren’t 37 people who saw the murder, most of the neighbours just heard noise from the street and there actually were bystanders who called the police. The story had been planted by the police itself, who definitely must have known that the details were off, perhaps to cover the fact that they’d failed to catch a serial killer before he killed again, perhaps to cover for the unusable calling system, which on of the neighbours had gotten stuck in until he gave up on informing the police. The story was retold and given nuance in last year’s documentary The Witness. Puk Grasten puts more nuance into it, and if she doesn’t dive into the lives of all 37 people, she definitely touches on a lot of them and finds more or less believable explanations as to why nobody called. Some just couldn’t figure out what happened from their apartment. Some were busy doing other stuff and ignored the noise. A few are hard not to see as callous and cowardly. The resulting movie is sprawling, with an enormous cast of characters, who mostly are sketched out rather than delved fully into.
Many characters are played by many well-known actors. 37 feels like a real American indie film, and to a large extent, that’s because so many faces are recognisable from television, just as in most Sundance films. There’s Poussey and Polly, a.k.a. Samira Wiley and Maria Dizzia, from Orange is the New Black, as housewives and Brother Mouzone himself, played by Michael Potts, as Wiley’s hard-edged husband. It’s doubtful that anyone will win an Independent Spirit award for the film, the characters don’t have enough screen time and their personalities are too thinly drawn. Potts character says as he sets foot in the new neighbourhood ‘Welcome to the middle class!’ There are families falling apart, dead mothers and weird old women, beatniks and kids with troubled minds. Honestly, most of it is banal, which might be the point. It was banal things – life – that kept people from calling. That does not provide the film with a narrative spine, though.
That’s probably why the film relies on its aesthetic instead, and hurray for that. The film is shot on celluloid with a large focus on light and sound-effects. Little Billy Cunningham is convinced aliens will arrive, and the headlights from the ambulance do seem like UFO ’s. Everything can be heard in the apartment complex, but that just makes the screams of the poor victim melt into a cacophony of arguments and gramophone music – which at some point anachronistically includes Wild Child by Danish hippie band Savage Rose. Motives are repeated, numbers, UFO’s, kids learning to doubt their parents until the repetitions become the structural foundation the narrative does not provide. The death of Kitty Genovese forces us to recognise with a certain meaninglessness, no matter if the New York Times were honest in their original coverage of the episode. But out of the banality and the meaninglessness, Puk Grasten manages to construct a framework for thoughts and impressions, for that is what art does.