In Charles Drazin's excellent new survey "French Cinema," the British academic argues that the tension between realism and spectacle in motion pictures goes all the way back to the beginnings of cinema in the 1890s. Thomas Edison's first Kinetoscope films were pretty much recordings of novelty acts -- sword-swallowers, magicians, Indian dancers from Buffalo Bill's touring variety show. In France, the Lumière brothers documented episodes from ordinary life: workers leaving their factory, a train pulling into a station. I'm not arguing that one approach is inherently superior to the other (although Drazin clearly is), but I would suggest that almost all narrative cinema made since then has involved a fusion of those two tendencies. Hollywood movies skew toward the sword-swallowers while indie and/or foreign flicks favor the factory workers.
I don't imagine that Evan Glodell, who wrote, directed, co-produced, co-edited and plays the lead in this summer's ultra-indie sensation "Bellflower," was thinking too much about cinema history when he made his deranged but irresistible movie. Nonetheless, "Bellflower" is another signal that filmmakers on the outermost indie fringes are moving away from ultra-realism -- or at least spicing it up with elements drawn from far more commercial realms, like science-fiction, horror or action movies. Sometimes that works well and sometimes it works poorly, but "Bellflower" is a genuine breakthrough, and after its own profoundly flawed fashion, a work of genius.
If you believe that "mumblecore" movies (generally meaning autobiographical films about young people's messed-up love lives) could use a bit more "Mad Max" and a bit more "Jackass" -- custom cars, flamethrowers, explosions and splatterific violence -- without quite abandoning their essential nature, then this is for you. A lot of Glodell's film, to be clear, fits perfectly within established indie conventions. "Bellflower" is a distinctively sweaty and intense relationship movie about four attractive but directionless young people on the northern suburban edges of Los Angeles. They make the kinds of bad decisions (largely involving alcohol and sex) that young people make routinely. Gawky but appealing Woodrow (Glodell) hooks up with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a tough-talking blond chick with apple cheeks who warns him that she's bad news. They take a road trip to Texas and come back with a motorcycle, whereupon Milly cheats on Woodrow with her sleazoid roommate Mike (co-producer and co-editor Vincent Grashaw). Woodrow gets badly hurt in an accident and seeks refuge with Milly's best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), with whom Woodrow's best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) is in love. Nobody gets what they want; the end.
And that's it -- or would be except for the fact that the brain-damaged DIY ethos of "Bellflower" also involves a custom-designed muscle car called the Medusa, with fuel-injected exhaust flamethrowers, an internal oxygen supply and surveillance cameras. Glodell and his companions actually built this car, which was 100 percent unregistered, uninsured and non-street-legal, along with a couple of fully functional diesel-fuel flamethrowers and a custom optical system used to lend "Bellflower's" digital images their rich, strange colors. Within the movie, Woodrow and Aiden are supposed to be gearhead geeks obsessed with "Mad Max" who've been preparing for some comic-book apocalypse by building all this stuff, but the gizmos are much more than just a bizarre plot element. They fundamentally change the kind of movie "Bellflower" is and what it's about; to go film-theory for a sec, they're both textual and contextual. You could even argue that the explosions and gunplay and ambiguous fantasy violence in "Bellflower" make it more psychologically realistic, rather than less, given that most young Americans live partly in the real world and partly in the imaginative or imaginary zone of pop culture, video games and the Internet.
Woodrow has supposedly suffered brain damage in his accident, and the later scenes of "Bellflower" melt into deliberate confusion where it's hard for him, or for us, to tell the difference between reality and his fantasies of taking ultraviolent revenge on Milly and Mike. Are the characters we see killed "really" dead? There are different ways to answer that question, but I don't think there's anything gimmicky or accidental about "Bellflower," which some critics appear to be treating as a purely technical demonstration of what you can accomplish with no budget and a lot of craziness. Early in the film, Glodell's character suggests to Milly that the brain damage was pre-existing and resulted from all those VHS viewings of "Mad Max." I don't think Glodell is delivering some moralistic treatise on the dangers of violent media, since he clearly loves it. But there may be a level of Michael Haneke or David Lynch-style commentary here, about the consciousness-altering power of narrative and the untrustworthiness of human perceptions.
More than anything, "Bellflower" is a work of tremendous passion and energy, wiling to risk appearing idiotic or self-indulgent in almost every scene. (I can guarantee that some viewers will respond that way, although I pretty much loved it.) Way out at the opposite extreme we find Mike Cahill's debut feature "Another Earth, a blend of science fiction and indie tragic romance that's tasteful to a fault. Structured around a nice performance by its willowy co-writer and star Brit Marling, "Another Earth" basically follows a tried-and-true weeper formula about a young woman who has caused a tragic accident and tries to make amends some years later, glomming that onto a Tarkovsky-meets-Ursula LeGuin subplot about the discovery of a duplicate Earth, a long-hidden nearby planet identical to ours where photocopy versions of you and me live out their/our lives. But what if we're the copies, and they're the originals, hmm?
There are plenty of intriguing moments in "Another Earth," notably a scene when a scientist makes radio contact with Earth 2 and finds herself talking to ... well, to herself. But very little of the movie rang true to me, and Cahill pitches the whole thing in the mournful, elegiac mode commonly reserved for the last acts of Extremely Serious Films About Grief. The film's gotten a lot of attention based on its entirely honorable level of ambition and effort, and that's fair enough. But see "Bellflower" first, and also second. Presumably, the structural similarities between "Another Earth" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (which will open this fall in the United States) are accidental, and in practice they're extremely different films. "Melancholia" is both beautiful and highly distressing, a planetary-apocalypse film as directed by Ingmar Bergman, while "Another Earth" is a wistful work, haunted by the ghosts of emotion rather than the real thing.
In fact, the invasion of a genre-movie sensibility into independent film is visible all over the map, from Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," in which South London ghetto kids battle alien invaders, to the trippy surrealism of Miranda July's exquisite infidelity drama "The Future" to Gareth Edwards' cruelly underappreciated "Monsters," a blend of doomed romance, political allegory and futuristic sci-fi. There's still no guarantee that the paying public is interested in these fusions: Michael Tully's Southern-gothic-flavored "Septien" and Aaron Katz's Portland hipster-noir "Cold Weather" did no better than did late 2000s titles like Andrew Bujalski's "Mutual Appreciation," Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and Lance Hammer's "Ballast," all of which sufficed to prove to Hollywood that the audience for no-budget minimalism ended with Sundance and SXSW festival-goers. Still, this new wave of indie hybrids is a healthy development, and a recognition of cinema's bastard nature. Even Lumière's factory workers probably wanted to see some dude swallow a sword.