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Baffled by Bellflower

I will admit to being somewhat baffled by Evan Glodell's Bellflower (2011) and that this bafflement is probably a function of being twice the age of anyone on screen or behind the camera.  Let me add: I think that's great. It's about time a cinema emerged that tells me and my kind to get bent, or if not that, at least refuses to explain its twenty-centric worldview to those now so addled by middle-aged nostalgia as to have forgotten how much it sucks to be 25.

Bellflower (2011) is precisely the kind of movie that cinephiles constantly complain does not yet exist. For years now we've been promised that as camera, sound, and editing technologies got cheaper, and as production and distribution expanded beyond the usual corporate players, there would one day be an explosion of idiosyncratic, bare-bones, D.I.Y. filmmaking, a world where any group of yahoos, artistes, rednecks, girl scouts, or mental patients could come together and make their own feature film. We are told this film was shot in and around Ventura for about $17,000 by a collective who go by the handle "Coatwolf" productions.  If true, Bellflower takes the limbo bar down yet another notch in the indie bang-for-the-buck competition. I suppose this is the impulse behind all the Kickstarter emails I get now.  If so, fantastic--I would love to see a system of patronage replace whatever economy explains the current glut of utterly forgettable films coming out the industry's front door. A spectacular failure is always more interesting than the sleepwalk of competence, so more kicking and starting would be a good thing.

Glodell: human being or industry simulation?
If nothing else, Bellflower should inspire young procrastinators around the world to get off their collective butts and make a movie. The film isn't perfect, but it is so good that it makes me suspicious that it was really shot for $17,000.  I'm not making any criminal accusations, but it's hard to imagine how this production could budget at the price of a Prius without someone doing some creative borrowing, boosting, or outright shoplifting of something--film stock, car parts, day-old Cinnabons, something.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Bellflower was actually made for twenty million by New Line and then given this ridiculous "Coatwolf" back story to make cine-dopes like me get all teary-eyed for the resurgence of authentic authenticity.

Related to this, I'm also suspicious as to whether "Evan Glodell" really exists.  Writing and directing a feature is tough work, but when you add the immense effort of being and remaining photogenically handsome enough to play the main lead, film-goers have every right to remain dubious. Add to this the fact that Glodell also served as the film's cinematographer using a wonky, one-of-a-kind hybrid camera that he personally assembled from spare parts, and you really begin to feel like the Blair Witch hype team was brought in here to fabricate an indie Paul Bunyan.  All we need to complete the legend is a story of Glodell illegally projecting the finished film onto the water tower at Warner Brothers in order to get a distribution deal.

I'll let the law and the Hollywood Reporter sort all that out.  Again, my interest here is in bafflement--a state of reception that is different from modernist ambiguity.  For example, one could argue Bellflower is a distant cousin to another muscle-car classic, Vanishing Point (1971).  That film is steeped with good ol' modernist alienation, culminating in a dramatic act of narrative non-closure that is calculated to keep viewers discussing larger issues after leaving the theater.  Bellflower, on the other hand, has a tone that I will call, for lack of a better word, "queasy," and is baffling rather than ambiguous in that this effect (for me at least) may be as much sociological as aesthetic (yes, I am aware the two are ALWAYS bound as two sides of the same coin--just humor me for a moment).

Vanishing Point: Man and car ponder the meaning of it all.
Let's start with the Netflix blurb crafted to lure viewers into watching Bellflower
Two buddies prepare for the impending apocalypse by building a stockpile of high-grade weapons. Fostering dreams of launching a gang called Mother Medusa, the duo's plans are put on hold when they meet an incendiary young woman.
Technically true, I guess.  But for some reason, that premise sounded to me like the sort of thing Jonah Hill and Micheal Cera might do as a Superbad reunion.  But Bellflower isn't funny.  It isn't funny at all. If I were writing the blurb, it would go like this:
In a SoCal hellscape of squalid anomie, two buddies construct a vehicular totem to the Mad Max franchise either out of boredom, ironic excess, or perhaps both.  A girl enters the picture, initiating a cascade of emotional violence, fiery revenge, and brutal hate-fucking.
This might lead to fewer Netflix downloads (actually, it would probably lead to more!), but at least it would speak more honestly to the film's sensibility. This is an interesting aspect of reception that really needs more study--how these ridiculous blurbs shape our expectations for a film and thus figure prominently in our experience of surprise, disappointment, outrage, (or whatever) when the movie turns out to be something else entirely.  This is a different experience, I think, then simply stumbling onto a film at random with no pre-conceptions whatsoever.

So, part of the bafflement here was no doubt a function of expecting a comedy and instead getting punched in the gut over and over again for an hour and a half.

Your cake faked: Miracle Mile (1988)
Back to the general state of queasiness. Not only does the blurb put you off balance, the film itself uses various genre cues to misdirect the viewer so as to work a righteously disturbing 180-degree reversal.  In this respect, Bellflower seems highly informed by Steve DeJarnatt's Miracle Mile (1988), another creepy rom-com gone wrong that lures the audience with the typical "boy meets girl" plot only to then spiral off into the void.

We need more films like this--not movies that mash-up cowboys and aliens or the inane pitch-algebra of "It's Twilight meets The Hunger Games," but films that have the courage to do an about face and go someplace the genre as a whole usually attempts to suppress.  Imagine a Batman film that was a solid action flick for the first 40 minutes, but then, after Batman clips and kills an innocent pedestrian in the Batmobile, becomes a pensive meditation on guilt and redemption a la Another Earth (2011).  And how is it that we have still yet to see a Meryl Streep film where, halfway into the second act, she transforms into a winged lizard?  Imagine how legendary Hope Springs would be if the middle-aged couples trapped in the theater for a poignant marital comedy had to suddenly bear witness to the might of a winged Streep-lizard terrorizing the Sonoma Valley.

The "coatwolf" camera
Bellflower's queasiness goes beyond the genre switcheroo, however, to pervade almost every frame of the film.  I also watched the film without knowing beforehand about the freaky, homemade "coatwolf" cameras.  There is something positively uncanny in the photography that is difficult to explain (which of course is exactly what makes it uncanny).  For one thing, the film is tremendously yellow.  And not just any yellow, but an often sickeningly hyper-vivid yellow that seems to permeate most of the images.  I figured it was a filter fetish, but even that didn't explain how so many of the shots were at once overly warm and intimate while also remaining suffused with a type of crisp dread.  I blame (or actually, credit) the camera--which apparently has the capacity to do all sorts of technical stunts that other cameras cannot do (camera-geeks should visit here for a full accounting of the camera's specs).  Glodell has vowed to build a new camera for each future film--another bid for D.I.Y. indie superhero status: "I will literally reinvent the cinema with each film by forever turning my back on 35mm Panavision!)

The lion's share of my bafflement stems from the dynamics of intergenerational circulation. Perhaps Bellflower makes perfect sense to 25-year-old guys, and only slightly less sense to the 25-year-old gals that live near and among them.  For viewers over 40, however, Bellflower raises a number of interesting questions about the world of contemporary young adulthood, subsection white, urban, and possibly bohemian.  For example:

1. Are all twenty-somethings now this listless and bored?  Early in the film, we watch as Woodrow (Glodell) and his best pal Aiden (Tyler Dawson) work to slingshot and shoot a propane tank so as to produce an awesome fireball.  We are also led to believe this is a project to which they've devoted great time and effort over the past few weeks (part of their larger mission of producing a Mad Maxish arsenal for an apocalypse that may or may not be coming).  Offered as a brief moment of homosocial bonding before the heterosexual storm to follow, this scene has two possible readings: 1). Wow, wouldn't it be cool to just hang out somewhere shooting at propane tanks?; or, alternately 2). Wow, isn't it sad that these two guys, in the prime of life, have nothing better to do than hang out somewhere shooting at propane tanks?  And here I am genuinely baffled--is it a lifestyle fantasy or a generational lament?  This bafflement continues as we meet all the central players in Bellflower--are we supposed to like and/or identify with their situation or find the entire milieu abhorrent and loathsome (and I guess there is always the possibility that the truth is somewhere in between).  In this respect, Bellflower is like a dirtier, more downscale, and thoroughly dude-centered version of HBO's Girls; which is to say, it isn't like Girls at all except that viewers over 40 may have a hard time distinguishing the tiresome from the tragic.

2.  Is contemporary twenty-something heterosexual courtship really this brutal?  To hear Bellflower tell it, contemporary relationships are not unlike the coupling of feral cats.  Every interaction seems both guardedly paranoid and violently competitive, almost as if any long-term relationship must start out as a dare.  Here, for example, our young lovers first meet during a trash-talking contest to see who can eat the most crickets.  Their first "date," meanwhile, involves goading each other to embark--that very moment-- on a 1600 mile round-trip to a God awful diner in Texas--just to prove, it would seem, who has the fewest "real-life" responsibilities and/or the higher threshold for ironic food consumption.  Whether this is a demystification of the typical rom-com blather or a documentarian's account of how the young folk of today bait themselves into momentary psycho-sexual alliances, I cannot say. 

Ironic glasses + Swans T-shirt + HAIR = ???
3.  Why are twenty-something white guys all so hairy now?  Woodrow and Aiden begin with a general sheen of sweat and stubble, but as the film proceeds, Woodrow goes into full-on Devendra Barnart mode (see left).  This is clearly a meaningful choice by Glodell, given that his character's decision to shave in the last reel appears to have profound meaning--although I'm not sure what it is.  Again, I don't know what it all means, but being in your twenties today certainly looks very itchy.

4.  What exactly is this generation's relationship to popular culture?  Before Woodrow meets the woman of his nightmares, he and Aiden dream of building their own post-apocalyptic muscle-car. This bond, we learn, was forged as kids during their repeated VCR viewings of Mad Max and The Road Warrior.  But they identify less with Mel Gibson's "Max" than with "Lord Humongous," the giant meat-man who ruled over the film's future desertscape. 

  As Bellflower opens, Woodrow and Aiden seem to be spending all of their free time and money reconstructing the vehicular arsenal of Mad Max, and I suppose it is a testament to a certain generational shift that what sounds like a premise born of ironic derision is approached here as a profoundly meaningful act.   There is a sense that their love of the franchise's universe has moved from a childhood fascination to teenage irony and then back again to an oddly invested earnestness.

And in this respect, Bellflower may actually not be all that baffling after all (or perhaps I have found a way to force it to make sense to my non-twenty-something mind).  If one puts aside the fleeting subcultural markers of generational difference, Bellflower's overall theme is quite in keeping with a dominant in contemporary cinema over the past decade or so; namely, the proposition that all contemporary men are now boys who refuse to "grow up."  While much of Hollywood cinema, and in particular the "bro-mance," focuses on guys in their thirties and forties caught up in our long national crisis of male regression, Bellflower looks at this process a little earlier in its incubation, when this pathology is at the threshold of "arrested development" rather than caught up in the full-on regressive backslide of converting a garage into a man cave for masturbating and free-form Rush jams (a la the highly underrated I Love You, Man (2009)).

Lord Humongous: Dude of Dudes
Hence the boys' identification with Lord Humongous over Mad Max. In one of the film's most poignant moments, Aiden tries to cheer up his emotionally and physically devastated best friend by inviting him to fantasize about what their lives will be like now that the "Medusa" car is finally complete.  They can get the hell out of Bellflower and go wherever they want.  They will drive around aimlessly, stopping in small towns to lean against the car, smoke cigarettes, and "look cool" to the various locals.  And, like "Lord Humongous," they will fight and fuck when and where they feel like it!  It is a retarded idea of manhood, obviously, but that's the point (I think...I hope!)  Even a fifteen year old would probably recognize life doesn't really work out that way.

As one might expect in a film written, directed, photographed, and starring a twenty-something dude, Bellflower tends to treat its bro-mance dyad as tortured and tragic (while the women are, accordingly, either pathetic or psychotic)--but it is nevertheless very affecting and self-conscious in its study of how young men handle the increasingly elastic threshold of contemporary adulthood.  It would be easy to dismiss Bellflower as solipsistic and overwrought, but I think that is the middle-aged perspective of those who have already converted their twenties into a nostalgic mixture of sentimentality, regret, and mild embarrassment.  The great thing about Bellflower is that it gives full and unapologetic voice to the emotional catastrophes of twenty-something life before they get filtered through the lens of a more "mature" restraint.  If that's what the whole DV mumblecore thing is about, I'm all for it.
My thanks to Andrew Syder for putting this on his top ten list last year, otherwise I would have never seen it.  

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