Dir:- Evan Glodell
Starr:- Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw
Every twenty years, or so, cinema produces a few enthusiastic innovators who seem to meld together disparate influences effortlessly, forming in the process their own unique, stylistic signature. In the crumbling 50’s of post-Golden Era Hollywood, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller were the saboteur auteurs of a new American cinema, whilst the French Nouvelle Vague threw up the conflicting personalities of Francois Truffaut and enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard. At the end of the 60’s, or the start of the 70’s, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas and De Palma emerged from the California sunshine to put across their own very different perspectives on cinematic narrative, whilst German cinema awoke from its post-war doldrums with the incestuous circle of Fassbender, Herzog and Wenders. At the dawn of the 90’s a young video-shop clerk created his own Hollywood mythology with a piece of pulp filmmaking that seemed to come from another planet (the planet 1970’s), thus Reservoir Dogs and Quentin Tarantino took over the very idea of cinematic cool. Inbetween each of these high-water marks you’ve got superb auteurs (Jim Jarmusch, Don Siegel, Spike Lee, Takeshi Kitano, Mike Leigh) who might have a far greater cultural impact over the long-haul and have, at the very least, paved the way for these other filmmakers. However, the zeitgeist doesn’t embrace subtlety, nuance and a lengthy career, it simply recognises and promotes the game-changers out there. All of this is by way of introducing you to Evan Glodell, the director, writer, producer, editor, actor, stuntman and general tinkerer of the bizarre, reckless, uneven and rather invigorating apocalyptic psycho-dramedy Bellflower. I’m not going to say he is this generations Quentin Tarantino, as Roger Ebert basically has, but he certainly has a unique approach to film.
Original filmmakers, like original novelists and artists, tend to have absorbed a whole load of influences, and thoroughly processed them, by the time that they venture out on their own works. It inevitably gives their earliest features a familiar quality, even when their work seems so radically different. To assume the zeitgeist after all, the work must have a degree of accessibility, alongside the dubious distinctions of ‘cool’. Glodell comes out of a Californian collective of filmmakers gathered under the banner of Coatwolf Productions. The major player in this collective was Vincent Grashaw (who plays the enigmatic Mike in Bellflower), who was the first of the group to receive some critical attention for his short movies (in particular 2009’s short drama Savanna). Glodell started out as a visual effects cameraman on Grashaw’s earlier short film Eliki and then graduated to full cinematographer duties on Savanna. Aside from his work for Coatwolf, Glodell also worked on Nick Slatkin’s low-budget horror Placebo, once again as cinematographer. It was here that he met cameraman Joel Hodge, who he worked closely with whilst designing the camera for the Bellflower shoot. Hodge became cinematographer on the project, to enable Glodell to concentrate on front-of-camera duties. The final significant part of the Coatwolf jigsaw is musician and editor Jonathan Keevil, whom Glodell also met whilst working on Placebo. Keevil provides Bellflower with its hauntingly understated soundtrack, which channels some of the fractious energies of Slint, Bonnie Prince Billy and Sonic Youth to impressive effect.
Glodell is clearly enamoured of the ferociously anarchic energies of George Miller’s Mad Max, a film title frequently referenced throughout Bellflower (alongside its more successful sequel The Road Warrior). The Australian film that made a star of Mel Gibson is frequently overlooked in retrospectives of 1970’s cinema, but it was one of the most startlingly original movies of its time and seemed to intuitively understand some of the punk ethos that was circulating within the popular/underground culture of the period. In Bellflower Glodell plays Woodrow, a Wisconsin native who has drifted to the seedy side of LA along with his best friend Aiden (played with crude and feckless charm by Tyler Dawson). The two boymen are gadget-obsessed geeks, who when they aren’t illustrating their post-apocalyptic fantasies of the super-masculine Mad Max 2 character, known as Lord Humungous (Humungus in the Mad Max movie), can be found trying to construct their very own flamethrower (known as Mother Medusa), or souping-up their muscle car to look like a modern incarnation of the flame-billowing vehicles at the centre of MM2’s carnage. The early sequences of the duo putting a bullet into a gas cannister have an almost cinema verite quality about them, resembling the kind of stunts and antics undertaken by Steve-O and Johnny Knoxville in Jackass. Glodell and Dawson designed and constructed both the flamethrower and the muscle car and there is a definite sense that the glee they express at their technical ingenuity isn’t just confined to their characters. This is part of the movies ineffable, easy-going charm, the fact that these characters with all of their ‘superawesome dudeness’ aren’t really too far removed from the people who are playing them. The movie blatantly plays on the thrillseeking enthusiasm of the filmmakers in the production process, effectively dissolving the wall between character and performer.
The one aspect of Bellflower that has garnered most column inches is the way in which Godell and Hodge constructed a digital camera from fragments of older cinema cameras and an Si2K digital camera, enabling them to construct a unique prototype that creates the films distinctive look. Having recently seen Soderbergh’s Contagion, and possessing a good memory of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 1997 masterpiece Mother and Son, the tilt-shift tricks that are heavily utilised throughout Bellflower are somewhat less mind-blowing than they have been made out to be by some members of the film media. However, the way in which Glodell and Hodge go about defamiliarising the LA suburban landscape, using an intoxicating palate of primary, almost hallucinogenic, sodium lit and sun-scorched colours is quite breathtaking. The camerawork also does something that is truly unique, as it uses deliberately grubby, smeared and stained lenses to add a patina of detritus and decay to the cinematic image, that is so subtle that it took me about an hour to work out what was bothering me about the framing of the shots.
Perhaps Glodell’s one major failing, which like Mad Max before it manages to undermine the film’s technical excellence and creativity, is with regard to plot and story. Bellflower is a supremely simplistic story about boy-meets-girl, loses girl and then exacts bloody vengeance. It is populated with relatively charming slacker types and features one particularly strong female performance from debutant Jessie Wiseman (as the manipulative and impulsive object of Woodrow’s obsession, Milly). In terms of plotting it is constantly eliding crucial elements of its own chronology, only to re-examine them at a later point in the film, or cast doubt on the ‘reality’ of the movie’s events. The film starts with a burst of reversed, backward motioning sequences, as if time were trying to correct its events. The narrative is then patterned into vaguely linear, although slightly overlapping, chapters, that are introduced by a phrase upon a background of sagebrush and soil, not too dissimilar to the way that the opening credits of Sons of Anarchy are presented.
Woodrow hooks up with Milly at a gross-out cricket eating contest and thus begins an impulsive relationship, ignoring the fact that Milly may not be as interested in him, as he is in her. There is a quirky black-comedy about these early exchanges, particularly the roadtrip section to Texas, and both Godell and Wiseman are very authentic in their interactions, but as the movie progresses, relationships become somewhat murkier and difficult to discern. Rebekah Brandes’s Courtney is a particularly awkward character, seeming nothing more than an underwritten cipher of female redemption and petty envy. Whilst Mike (Vincent Grashaw) is a deliberately enigmatic and oblique figure, only ever seen fucking Milly, sitting around, or cooking bad food, but this shouldn’t excuse the fact that by the end of the movie we still have no real sense of his character. Glodell’s script is at its strongest in depicting the bond between Woodrow and Aiden. It is there shared sense of impending, Mad Max-style apocalypse, that seems to hold the greater interest, dwarfing the tiny apocalypse of the ‘tragic relationship’ on the films periphery. Clearly there are ambitions to piece together an imagistic and suggestive mood-piece, that details the thwarted attempts toward some kind of authentic expression of masculinity, in a culture that is swamped in emasculated male empowerment imagery and exaggerated shows of strength. These boymen are all superficial image and pose, trying to find a manly voice in which to express their energies in a more authentic manner, hence the obsessions with fire, fighting and violence. In one disturbingly prophetic sequence Woodrow turns from sexual intimacy to the handling of Courtney’s handgun, turning it on himself and describing how his face feels knowing it is only a thumb movement from destruction. Tellingly Woodrow doesn’t act out his self-destructive fantasy, but Courtney does unload and then reload the pistol with an alarming assurance that amplifies the power of a particularly visceral image near the end of the film. Overall Bellflower falls short of the probing, insightful and equally elusive explorations of masculinity that can be found in David Gordon Green’s delightful All the Real Girls, but then that movie doesn’t have a ‘supercool’ flamethrower and a whisky dispensing car, that Milly hilariously describes as being “like a James Bond car for drunks”.