Into the Wasteland of LA
Bellflower, Evan Glodell’s fiercely independent first film, is a beautiful slice of apocalyptic cinema with a pulsing heart that flirts with the edge of emotional and aesthetic cardiac arrest. Set in the outer sprawl of L.A. and featuring a 1972 Buick Skylark and a tight cast of characters who drink a lot and betray each other, Bellflower is a bleak and challenging movie about the emotional bankruptcy of greater Los Angeles. Filmed with handmade cameras and delivered in a hazy hyper real/surreal view through dirty blurry lenses, super-saturated colorscapes, and the grainy edge of dreams turned wrong, Bellflower is a stunning little gem that packs one hell of an aesthetic and emotional punch. Though “little” probably isn’t the right word for this movie. It is enormous in terms of emotional intensity and ingenuity in filmmaking. Made for a mere $17K over an eight year period, Glodell pieced this film together from salvaged optic equipment stitched together with a lot of guts and heart.
The narrative of the film is one we’ve seen before. It is a classic tale of love, betrayal, heartbreak and vengeance, but the process behind delivering the goods is charged with a raw freshness and sincerity that is hard to beat. Glodell stars in his own film as Woodrow, a geeky guy who, along with his best friend Aiden, is obsessed with preparing for the apocalypse. They are in the process of building a flamethrower and customizing a 1972 Buick Skylark named Medusa as an homage to the apocalyptic cult film Mad Max. Aiden and Woodrow are fixated on preparing for the apocalypse, but what they are destined to discover is that the apocalypse is “now” in the emotional wasteland of Los Angeles and the human betrayal that corrupts every relationship in the movie.
What makes the movie so effective is Glodell’s extremely personal investment in the film – in craft, emotion, and acting. His total immersion in the film can be felt in every inch of its production. But the film also works well because it turns all our preconceptions and expectations on their heads. As the story unfolds, it clings to edges of potential hope while pulling the rug out from under any opportunity of genuine human connection. The film sucks us in visually and emotionally, gives us teasing moments when we think that there is a chance for connection and redemption, then ultimately goes up in emotional flames.
Set in Oxnard, California (part of the sprawling geography of outer L.A.) and with the main characters crafting the whole myth of their lives based on a film (Mad Max), Bellflower is another movie about the demystification of the “L.A. Dream” and the bleak emptiness of the L.A. emotional landscape in a long history of movies about Los Angeles and the people that city chews up and spits out. Woodrow and Aiden, like so many characters in so many movies, move to L.A. from a small town in Wisconsin to follow a dream that rapidly becomes a nightmare. They are not in Hollywood. There is no veneer of hip glamour. This is the grim and gritty bleakness of Oxnard with its shitty apartment buildings and plethora of chain link fences and strip malls.
In the storyline, Woodrow falls for Milly, a suntanned and tough L.A. girl who joins Woodrow on a whirlwind road trip to Texas where they drink a lot of whisky in scenes that play out like a romance road movie. But Bellflower isn’t a movie about romance and happy endings. It’s a movie about an emotional apocalypse, betrayal and vengeance. Milly isn’t the love of Woodrow’s life. She’s a femme fatale who does him wrong, and his dream of love and romance goes up in flames when the girl fucks him over but fucking her roommate Bob. At this point, all the relationships in the movie disintegrate into betrayals and violence with Woodrow at the epicenter of the emotional holocaust. As everything falls apart around them, Aiden tells Woodrow, “We should just leave.” But it’s too late. Just like in Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanial West’s novel that set the bar for visions of apocalyptic Los Angeles, the “holocaust of flames” has already been set in Bellflower. There is no turning back for anyone in this film, especially the bloody, battered, heartbroken, and brain-fucked Woodrow.
This all sounds brutal, and it is, but it is also tremendously beautiful, wrenchingly emotional, and starkly original even though it is a classic narrative storyline. What makes Bellflower so fresh is the creative ingenuity and the emotional passion of its filmmaker Evan Glodell. Glodell takes D.I.Y filmmaking to the Nth degree. Not only did he write and direct the movie, but he poured his entire emotional presence into the film through the physicality of the filmmaking process. He custom built the cameras to create an intensely personal vision. Experimenting by attaching a variety of optical lenses to a DV camera, it took Glodell years to get his vision right. The movie is filmed with a variety of lenses to depict variations in the emotional landscape. He used everything from vintage 16mm lenses to scrap components from photo copiers, surveillance cameras, photo enlargers and military equipment. Glodell then manipulated the camera physically by tilting the bellows or bringing the camera within inches of the actors to alter perception and the plane of focus and provide a disorienting and unsettling edge to the film.
Glodell also personally colorized each scene while filming so that the gorgeous colorization was done “in the moment” giving the movie a sense of immediacy that saturates every scene. Sure, some of the lenses are blurry, and dirt leaks into cracks and flecks the screen, but Glodell’s D.I.Y. approach to the equipment imprints the entire film with a personal stamp. His presence is felt in the “flaws” that add to the beautifully apocalyptic look of the film. Also, the fact that Glodell built the cameras from salvaged and scrap pieces of equipment mirrors the end-of-the world theme that runs in the movie especially as it relates to Mad Max and Road Warrior, movies where people live in a post-apocalyptic world where everything is pieced together from the wreckage left behind.
Glodell’s physical involvement with the film doesn’t stop with the cameras. He also custom built the 1972 Buick Skylark which is the most fierce character in the movie. The car took him three years to piece together, and it serves as yet another manifestation of Woodrow’s emotional turbulence. This beast of a car is a kind of doppelganger for the character himself. As the Woodrow’s emotional intensity builds, the car becomes more and more menacing. As Woodrow becomes internally explosive, the car gets outfitted with rear-exhaust flamethrowers. The car becomes completely outfitted at the same time Woodrow completely loses his mind. The movie ends with a turbulent show of muscle car, flames, and desolation as Woodrow drives Medusa out into the apocalyptic wasteland. He stands alone in the bleak outskirts of L.A. where he lights shit on fire with his handmade flamethrower, and he fades away into a cloud of smoke. In this final scene, Woodrow and Medusa are one and the same. See photos and read about Medusa in this article in Wired magazine.
The car may serve as Woodrow’s doppelganger, but Glodell’s performance as the lovesick white guy being driven by heartbreak and a taste for vengeance is equally an act of physical transformation. Glodell’s outer physical body deteriorates in direct relation to his disintegrating inner emotional landscape. Starting the film as a clean-cut geek, Woodrow is a naïve romantic who falls for the girl Milly and believes in love. Of course, the fact that they fall for each other when Milly beats Woodrow in a grasshopper eating contest in a bar should give Woodrow (and the audience) an indication that things aren’t destined to turn out rosy as the two of them literally stuff their mouths with insects that symbolize the apocalypse (e.g. locusts). As Woodrow sinks into his apocalyptic romance and becomes consumed by its disintegration, his body becomes more and more wrecked. His clean-shaven face sprouts unruly facial hair— the mess inside him literally growing out of his skin. After he witnesses Milly’s betrayal (when she is fucking her roommate Bob), he gets hit by a car and spends a good chunk of the movie dirty, bleeding and bruised. His damaged brain is the literal manifestation of his shattered illusions of love and romance. A soiled bloody bandage flaps off the side of his neck like an impotent patch attempting to stop his emotional hemorrhaging. Finally, even though Woodrow attempts to clean himself up by shaving, it’s too late. Milly has Woodrow’s face tattooed by thugs, so his emotional corruption, his heartbreak, and his disillusionment become permanently part of his body. He is changed forever. But according to the movies, that’s what happens when young people chase their dreams to L.A. and discover that life isn’t the movie they think it’s going to be.
Bellflower starts as one big party, but ends in an emotional holocaust. Opening in a scene in a bar, alcohol saturates every scene in this movie. Alcohol is what brings these characters together as beer is guzzled out of pitchers; whisky is dispensed from the dashboard in Woodrow’s car; and plastic cups of red wine are downed at the beach. But the party begins to end during a birthday party which is the pivot-point of the downward spiral that the film leads us through. Milly’s best friend Courtney has a birthday party at Milly’s house just when Woodrow and Milly return from their romantic whirlwind road trip to Texas. The party scene signifies a return to reality for Milly and Woodrow, and when the scene turns violent, it is also serves as the breaking of the illusion of the “party” that is Los Angeles. The party ends with Aiden and Woodrow getting in a fight with a big drunk guy, and from that moment on, alcohol is no longer the substance that binds the characters. Instead, it is just part of the bleak everyday reality that gets bleaker with each frame of the film. Alcohol is still always present but only as mise-en-scène, props to show the reality of emotional destitution. After his accident, Woodrow lies in bed bleeding, smoking, and drinking a beer, but there is no party in this scene, just a fucked-up and fucked over guy drinking a bottle beer and chewing on his wrecked heart. Alcohol is just another banal prop in the wasteland that has become his life.
With the heavy dose of partying and mix of young white people interacting in a Los Angeles landscape, Bellflower is referencing another L.A. movie – the 1996 hipster hit Swingers. Swingers features a cast of unemployed white actors who hang out at a bar in the hipster-infested L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz. Sure, the characters in Swingers are full of little emotional dramas and traumas, but it all ends in tales of self-reflection, reconciliation, and redemption. In the white world of Swingers, everyone gets along, and life goes on. Bellflower is also about a group of young white people who hang out and drink a lot, but it is set in the gritty unglamorous bleakness of Oxnard. Not a trace of hip can be found in within these bland apartments and smog filled skyline. There is no reconciliation; instead, the characters all betray each other, end up dead, permanently scarred, exiled or otherwise fucked. Bellflower is kind of like the anti-Swingers. It is a demystification of the L.A. hipster narrative that plays like a hallucinogenic L.A. noir with a serious dose of emotional grit. The movie is titled after the name of the street in Oxnard where Woodrow lives, so it is overtly situating its existential narrative in the unglamorous waste of the outskirts of Los Angeles. Admittedly, Oxnard is not “L.A. proper,” but the area has been the setting of many L.A. noirs (e.g. books by Ross McDonald), and it represents the bleak psycho-geography of Southern California sprawl.
I should note that the film’s small cast is amazingly effective. Not only does Evan Glodell pour his entire body into his performance as Woodrow (which is a somewhat autobiographical role and explains his total immersion into the character), but the other actors do a terrific job in small roles that are enormously human. Jessie Wiseman’s Milly explodes with conflicting energy –seeming both innocent and world-weary, butch and sexy, hard and soft. Tyler Dawson’s Aiden is totally believable as the loyal friend, the silly nice guy sidekick, the voice of reason (even when he’s shitfaced, which is frequent in the first part of the film). Sure, he’s a type, but he also plays the character with tremendous heart, sincerity and innocence, so when he snaps it’s very devastating. Finally, Rebekah Brandes plays Milly’s best friend Courtney, a cute L.A. girl with a heavy streak of “valley” and who is desperate for love and attention.
What is interesting and ultimately devastating about this cast of characters is that even though they all seem like types on the surface, those types are turned on their heads in a series of violent and tragic outcomes. Obviously the romance between Woodrow and Milly explodes, but the other characters have their explosive moments too. All the characters in the movie deliver moments of sincerity, when we find ourselves cheering for them and want them to “make it” even on whatever bleak terms the landscape of this movie can offer. All the relationships have little glimmers of potential hope – whether as best friends or as lovers –, but any chances for reconciliation or redemption are undone in little moments that build to a devastating sum total that explodes at the film’s ending. Courtney betrays Aiden by fucking Aiden’s best friend Woodrow. Seemingly wimpy and spineless, Courtney’s character becomes more complex when a heavy gun falls out of her purse and she handles it like a pro and in another scene when she furiously confronts Milly. I won’t say what happens to Courtney, but let me say that she and the gun also have a relationship that doesn’t turn out so well. Nice guy Aiden, in an attempt to defend the car Medusa (and thereby his best friend Woodrow who betrayed him), gets homicidal with a baseball bat and flees, abandoning his friend and leaving the scene with blood on his hands. Nothing holds fast in this film – neither the characters nor their relationships –, and Glodell’s filmmaking captures this instability with beautiful emotional intensity. Any little grains of hope that surface in Bellflower disintegrate into the existential nothingness where Woodrow eventually ends with his Buick and his flamethrower. But seriously, if you are going to have to end up at the emotional “End Of Things”, finding yourself with a muscle car and some high octane explosives isn’t so bad.
All of this may sound dire, and it is, but the movie is also completely captivating because Bellflower is such experiential cinema. It is totally immersive, intensely emotional and filmed with such beautifully hallucinogenic aesthetic agitation that we can’t help but give into its apocalyptic magic. The hand-crafted cameras add a unique, urgent and personal feel to the film, but cinematography is more than just using a camera, and Glodell pulls out all the stops to deliver a gorgeous film. Each shot is an amazing piece of cinematic craft on many levels. The mise-en-scène is astonishingly real and captures the everyday bleakness of Oxnard and the interior spaces of the film. In a sex scene with Milly and Woodrow, a cheap worn striped blanket shows the tenderness of their relationship, but it also evokes a tawdry fragility. Every nuance of the cinematography adds to the film’s visual and emotional effect: the attention to details in foreground and background; how the characters occupy the space of the frame; the use of focus, movement and proximity of the camera; lighting and sound; and the custom colorization. Glodell used a variety of light sources to give the film a hallucinatory feel and achieve a hyper-real surreal vision that accelerates as the film accelerates. In one scene toward the movie’s climax, Glodell stuffed every available light into the kitchen windows of Milly’s apartment and then covered the lights with t-shirts to make this scene of incredible sexual and heartbreaking violence look hyper-exposed and uncomfortable yet also like a dream. Jonathan Keevil’s soundtrack echoes through the film like an aural wasteland reverberating with both beauty and bleakness. It is music for the end of the world capturing the apocalyptically sublime through droning guitars and ambient sound.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its problems. Its run time of 106 minutes seems too long, and it could have stood another round of cuts. The frenetic emotional disintegration that propels the movie to its apocalyptic climax could have done with a few chops of the knife and some frames left on the floor of the editing room. The opening scenes in which the film goes in and out of focus to provide a dreamlike effect would have been better if the camera stayed in focus. The effect comes across as cheap, gimmicky and very hard on the eyes. Thankfully the rest of the film adheres to some sustained focus even as we are visually immersed in a very bad yet beautiful trip. Finally, at the core of the film is the narrative of a “whiny white guy” who has too much time on his hands to pick at his emotional scabs, and “whiny white guy” film are always a bit hard for me to swallow to some degree. Don’t these guys have other things to do with their lives, like work? Also, at first I thought its treatment of women was questionable (how dare these bitches fuck us over?!), but when reading the film as an update on the L.A. noir, the female characters make more sense, particularly Milly who certainly is a fresh take on the femme fatale.
Still, these flaws are minor compared to the enormous ambition and innovation of the film. When was the last time a D.I.Y. movie made for $17,000 and a ton of love, guts and ingenuity received such serious distribution? I can’t recall one single feature length film I’ve seen in which the director wrote the screenplay, built the camera equipment, customized the car, and starred in the film with such complete emotional immersion and sincerity. In the end, I love this movie. Life isn’t always about happy endings, but it can be about making something beautiful out of the wasteland that is given to us, and it is particularly awesome when the wasteland (e.g. salvaged equipment) becomes part of the creative process. Plus, you just can’t go wrong with at 1972 Buick Skylark named Medusa blowing flames through the bleak desert on the outskirts of the Los Angeles.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.