John, your post alone made me watch Cold Weather, so kudos. I just had to get in on this debate. Too interesting to skip.
First off, I want to stress that I liked Cold Weather. It is a humane film. It is interested in personal relationships, and for this I respect it. I agree with all you have said John and with Ben too.
But since you asked us Drive lovers to defend our love, I am here to (clumsily) heed this call.
There is one point you made that really interests me. It is the idea that Katz is constructive whereas Refn is merely reconstructive. Great debate fodder.
As you mentioned, both films are reproducing cinema. I would say that Cold Weather is as highly constructed as a “film” as Drive is. It is cinematic even if it is working within a model of purported realism between people. I have no idea whether Katz was trying to make his film realistic or not, but it seems as if he were trying to achieve this effect.
I have trouble with this bogus term “realism” too. I truly believe that there is no such thing as realism in cinema or in art, period. All cinema, all art is the recreation of art, not reality. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is what makes art so appealing to us. We like to imagine spaces; art fulfills this desire.
Cold Weather is rooted in a modern indie film tradition (a desire for realism, personal relationships, etc.) just as it is playing off crime tropes. It works within those archetypes. This isn’t a bad thing either. If you are working within those archetypes and are able to create meaningful characters and interrelations, then you are succeeding. It’s like working within the rules of classical theater. One can adhere to the unities of Aristotle while still creating a meaningful and original play through variations in character, dialogue, action, etc. Katz is interested in working within a tradition of “the personal.” He makes an admirable film, but not the subversive piece of cinema you create it to be. This is no more revolutionary to me than Drive is. If Katz is preparing a feast, he is using the same Sundance menu as most other indie filmmakers at the moment. Katz clearly has more talent (and more to say) than lots of other indie filmmakers I’ve encountered, but he is still working from the same template. Again, I like the film and think Katz works well off this template, but he is not revolutionary (and he doesn't have to be). Just because one is filming personal relationships doesn’t mean one is somehow outside cinema. All filmmakers are working within a frame. The only way to refuse to play the cinematic game nowadays is to not make a film.
I haven’t seen any Rohmer films (until I borrow those VHS! Yeah!), but I’ve seen plenty Truffaut. The distinction between he and Godard is well taken. But I would never link Katz with Truffaut...maybe only as a very pale shadow. That isn’t a dig a Katz; that’s praise for Truffaut. Still, I understand the point you are trying to make though. You believe that Katz is working in the spirit of Truffaut, which I totally get.
Anyway, so both films work off cinematic archetypes/genres/styles. I’ve explained why I think Cold Weather isn’t as innovative as you present it to be (I wouldn’t have used this as a point of criticism if you hadn’t brought it up though, and I don't mean it as a dig at all). Now here’s my defense of Drive.
Drive isn’t necessarily innovative, for sure (though I don’t think I’ve ever seen an action film that wanted to be PRETTY IN PINK before, so it has that). But, Drive is so exhilarating and satisfying because of how much artistry went into transforming it from the Hugh Jackman Fast and Furious rip-off it was predestined for. Refn’s artistic choices to transform this action film into something more consciously and joyously cinematic is what makes the film so visceral and pleasing. Refn is cinematic and he knows it. There are many great modern filmmakers that are cinematic as well. Tarantino, Scorsese, Spielberg, PTA–they all love cinema. I love cinema, a lot, which is why I love all of them. I don’t think recreating cinema is entirely stagnant just as I don’t think any of these filmmakers are. One always recreates, but one can recreate in new ways.
You make a great point in stressing that there is no good reason for us to be contrasting these two films. They aren't trying to do the same thing (but my point is they are both being cinematic–one more consciously than the other). Drive is an action film, first and foremost. It’s reworking a currently very shallow genre by incorporating retro/fetishistic touches and flairs. Tarantino is great at this too, as you mentioned. But to say that Tarantino just regurgitates is too reductive. Tarantino’s real strength as a filmmaker lies not in his reproduction of style but in his ability to create powerful, compelling scenes with interesting characters and sharp dialogue. He is recreating the cinematic “scene” but he does it in a way that is uniquely his own. Paul Thomas Anderson does something similar (and better!). If we are all just recreating cinema, then it comes down to who recreates the cinema you want to see. I tend to like my films to be more consciously interested in cinema than realism because I like cinema. But I do like films like Cold Weather too. So, it is great that we can have both. I can enjoy both and I do.
I only make this whole argument because I am reacting against your notion that Cold Weather is moving cinema into new places while Drive is too busy playing within its own cinematic cesspool. The only film I’ve seen since Synecdoche, New York that I think is moving cinema into new places is The Tree of Life. Rarely do I see a modern film that is moving cinema forward–we are just too influenced by the films before us and the films around us. We are a generation playing in the cinematic cesspool because we’ve had a wider access to film than any other generation before us.
But despite the cinematic cesspool metaphor, this isn't really a bad place to be in. Maybe because there really aren't such things as forwards or backwards in cinema. There are only good films and bad films. Drive and Cold Weather are two good films. John, I see why you prefer Cold Weather to Drive and you have made your case very well. I don't make my case to say you are wrong but merely to show why I don't think of these two films in terms of forwards and backwards. I just think of them in terms of what I like more.
And I've decide that I like head stompings more than I like personal relationships! Long live violence in film! This is really what my argument comes down to.