Film

The New Weird

James Vaughan, Friends and Strangers, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 84 minutes.

“RUN ME OVER,” tremble the lips of a masochist to the woman who bullied him in high school. “Please . . . I want you to run me over with your car.” She doesn’t. Because only one thing sexually satisfies her these days: cooking mapo tofu.

A wildly aspirational genderqueer version of As You Like It, with all roles played by women, in Mandarin and set in a futuristic Taipei where a burgeoning countercultural resistance to social media has resulted in internet-free zones ornamented with anime sprites, Chinese opera, calligraphy, and divinatory paraphernalia—a cinematic parallel to hyperpop.

A successful fitness guru with more than six hundred thousand followers on Instagram catches a stalker parked outside her apartment building; she confronts him, he pulls out his cock and starts jerking off. Days later, after picking up some douchebag at a party out of desperation and loneliness, she asks him to go downstairs and talk to the stalker. Instead of speaking to him, the douchebag beats the stalker up. The douchebag returns to her apartment. Refused sex, he starts jerking off in front of her. Eventually, he leaves, and she drives her stalker to the hospital.

A woman on a road trip across Tibet, a rainbow lobster her sole companion. Sometimes, in her fantasies, the lobster comes alive in the form of a man, who may or may not have once actually existed in her life.

A veteran suffering from PTSD gangs up with three hacker geeks to avenge his wife’s death and winds up starting a new family with them.

Not a story, but a series of loosely connected vignettes, an evocation—like that of Austin in Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990)of a Corsican village and its denizens over the course of a single summer.

. . .And now, the closing credits: Sexual Drive (Yoshita Kota), As We Like It (Chen Hung-I, Muni Wei), Sweat (Magnus von Horn), Bipolar (Queena Li), , Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen), A Corsican Summer (Pascal Tagnati).

All of these filmmakers—who would likely have been ejected by security in Hollywood pitch meetings—were accepted into this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, the first part of which was held online over the first seven days of February owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. (A second part will take place in June, though it is uncertain whether the screenings will be live, online, or some combination thereof.) But they would appear to be part of a much larger tendency that has been underway in the world of independent film for the past year or so that I have started to think of as “the new weird.” (If you want more, just check out John Waters’s 2020 Artforum Top Ten.) The narrative thread of these films is often fabulistic and whimsical, following strange or unseemly impulses toward their unnatural conclusions in order to reveal a monolithic randomness that the virtual sphere, in which we are all otherwise ensnared, attempts to green-screen into coherency.

Is it that filmmakers have become so averse to cliché and universalism that they’re willing to jeopardize not only quality but comprehension in their pursuit of novelty and particularity? In fact, such exploits cohere remarkably well with the new world disorder—nothing really makes sense anymore, every day unspools a new web of absurdities. Rather than discard that material on the cutting room floor, why not make it the final cut?

The results are not always successful, even within the same film. Not all of the spaghetti sticks to the wall. Often, moments of unfathomable brilliance are followed by cringe-inducing catastrophes that nearly negate the memory of what came before—or vice versa. Watching James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers, I was at first bored by what I took to be a zombie resurrection of Mumblecore anti-theatrics, but somehow went along on the journey anyway with its aimless, privileged young protagonist and his awkward interactions with others, and was ultimately rewarded by the ending in which he arrives at the house of a Sydney art collector who engages him in a hilarious pseudo-philosophical dialogue. Rife with non sequiturs, it drifts into discourse on the meaning of the word “piddling,” which is perhaps simultaneously intended as Vaughan’s overall assessment of this exercise in self-deprecation.

Like Mumblecore, the New Weird might never amount to much, though I am hopeful that its more polished variants, with their crafty substitutions of fantastical improbabilities for rote narrative, will help spur a paradigm shift in the battle against Hollywood’s recycled platitudes and the more recent banalization of the medium witnessed in streaming platforms’ transformation of film into “content.” Add to that the even fresher upheavals wrought by a global pandemic and you get some very interesting times indeed, and some films suited to them.

The first part of the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam took place online from February 1 to February 2. Part two is slated for June.

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