Saturday, January 21, 2023

Something in the Dirt

Weird that I'm just seeing this as part of the Brattle's 2023 in review series; the new Benson & Morehead usually plays Fantasia (with excellent post-film Q&As), but for whatever reason, it wasn't booked there. Then, when it got its brief theatrical release in the fall, it didn't make it to Boston despite the city showing up on some of the advertising, not even a weekend of 11:59pm shows at the Coolidge. I'm not sure why it hasn't gotten some traction, other than the fact that it kind of feels like something that would play BUFF or belongs on the internet. It didn't even come out on a busy, week, but when it seemed like theaters were struggling to find something to play before Wakanda Forever arrived. You'd think some of the places showing Skinamarink this week would have room!

Ah, well - it's at the Brattle for one more late show tonight (21 January), you can rent it online, and with any luck it will get some sort of American disc release.

Something in the Dirt

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2023 in the Brattle Theatre ((Some of) The Best of 2022, DCP)

Even before seeing/remembering the dedication at the end, I made little comments to myself while watching Something in the Dirt that it felt like the sort of movie my friends and I might have made when we were screwing around with somebody's new camcorder in high school, if we were any good at making movies, let alone possessing the level of skill at this sort of story as Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. Of all the love letters to the movies to come out in 2022, it's perhaps the most specific to its makers. It introduces Levi Danube (Benson), who has just moved into a new apartment near the airport, and John Daniels (Moorhead), who has been there ten years and is still staying in the place after his husband has recently left him. Both at loose ends, they befriend each other, and when moving some of John's old stuff into Levi's place, they see something otherworldly, and soon start to document it, with the hope of making the sort of documentary they can sell to Netflix for enough to set them up for life. As the project continues, they find it reflected more and more in the world around them, but also find themselves an odder pairing than they perhaps initially realized.

Benson & Moorhead have seemingly reversed the course of many filmmakers in that they spend more time in front of the camera than they used to, moving from being their own extras owing to a tight budget to sort-of-playing-themselves to playing (presumably) less self-inserted characters here, and it's not unwelcome; they're entertaining and charismatic folks who get across that Levi and John hit it off quickly while still coming across as having personalities that clash in certain ways. There's something initially engaging about both, and while they're smart enough to give themselves an excuse for the moments when they perhaps don't seem like natural performers, they don't need it too often. They handle a potentially tricky shift in perspective ("actually, this guy is maybe only eccentric compared to this one being weird") quite well and don't need to bring any ringers in to cover for what is, by and large, a two-person show.

It's that way because this seems to have been a pandemic project, done in such a way that they can work with a small crew of people they know and trust so that they don't get rusty. As such, it has them playing the hits to a certain extent - these are not the first times the pair has built a project around themselves investigating some sort of paranormal event, and longtime fans will likely smile and realize that they were unconsciously waiting for the moment when they find some old analog media and hardware when it comes. A bit in the end credits has the film dedicated to "making movies with your friends", and for fans, that likely becomes a comforting thought even as there are eerie events going on - a global pandemic is not going to materially stop them from making this sort of movie, even if they are smart enough to invert and rearrange it so that what's on-screen is a new experience. They're not over-reaching, often alternating smooth and understated effects work with abstract-collage editing of stock footage (real and created) to keep the audience grounded even as John's theories become more grandiose.

Which isn't to say they're putting in half an effort, if this is a simple story, it's one that they realize can be folded on top of itself to create multiple layers without the cleverness becoming too much the point. A tale about two guys seeing something weird and filming it becomes about how observing it can change it, but then about how deciding that you're shooting a movie rather than just filming what you see changes things further. It's a neat trick that revealing multiple different sorts of artifice and deception does not do much to distort the core story about John and Levi, while having interesting things to say about how people are able to use coincidences, distortions, and lies to shape not just others' world views but their own. For all that the film is built around not taking things at face value, Moorhead & Benson are at least canny enough to realize that too complete a rug-pull will leave the audience wondering why they should have cared about any of what happened before.

That they maintained that sort of focus for a movie that is sort of a lark is impressive; it gives the film a little heft and reminds one how good they are when playing close to the DIY end of independent sci-fi They're currently doing TV for Marvel, and they've done some more polished if not quite slick films as well, but it's good to see them return to this just because they want to make a movie.

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