Aiden sources parts for the Medusa projects from a local surplus store.
Glodell’s “Coatwolf Model II” camera.
A digitally simulated veneer of celluloid degradation in Robert Rodriguez’s contributions to the omnibus film Grindhouse (2007).
In a cinematic precursor to the ersatz “grindhouse aesthetic,” part-time projectionist Tyler Durden self-reflexively points out the “cigarette burns” marking the 35mm reel’s approaching end. Fight Club thus predates Grindhouse and Bellflower in popularly associating the materiality of celluloid’s analog dilapidation with a rougher, dirtier, more “masculine” aesthetic style.
Examples of Hipstamatic photos sharing aesthetic traits with Bellflower’s cinematography.
Further examples of the faux-vintage influence on Bellflower’s overall visual style.
The Medusa car cruises down lonely Los Angeles streets. Analog synthesizer drones often accompany these stylized shots, evoking the 1980s vibe of The Road Warrior’s cinematic era.
Perhaps it is little surprise that we can see the film’s aesthetic and promotional strategies working against its ostensible critique of misogynistic fantasies. This is precisely because of the male filmmakers’ own unwillingness to sacrifice the masculine claims to indie “authenticity” that even an (imagined) apocalypse cannot seem to nullify. One of Bellflower’s major promotional hooks and claims to indie cachet was the fact that director Glodell, much like his onscreen role as Woodrow, participated in the same hobbies as his protagonists. Glodell and his friends built their own flamethrower, the customized Speed Biscuit and Medusa cars, and even their own movie camera to shoot the film. When Aiden fantasizes about rolling into towns across America and immediately impressing onlookers with the coolness of their flame-belching Medusa car, this is virtually what Glodell did when touring Bellflower to film festivals and repertory theaters, showing off his Medusa car at each stop. This car is even highlighted in its own bonus feature on the Bellflower DVD, which includes footage from such promotional appearances.
This archived footage thereby extends the car’s potential to generate subcultural capital as a unique, handmade analog artifact. In this sense, Glodell’s means of promoting his film further collapses the distinction between filmmaker and character. In doing so, he effectively endorses the masculinist ethos that I have described as implied by an aggressively asserted “coolness,” the DIY “authenticity” of analog material hacking, and non-mainstream individualism. Furthermore, he asserts this masculinism in a far more compelling manner through the promotional stunts than implied by the film itself. Showing audiences that his real-life car from the movie spews real flames, not just special effects, allowed Glodell to effectively blur the lines between cinematic fantasy and quotidian reality. This directly resembles how his onscreen counterpart, Woodrow, pursues the same blurred boundaries through his Road Warrior-inspired hobbies. Such distinctive promotional strategies thus allowed this supposed sense of “authenticity” to translate into subcultural capital within the indie film world.
This masculine showmanship extended to the film’s overall visual aesthetic as well, as provided by Glodell’s makeshift camera. Like the completed projects within the film, this camera was given a name (the “Coatwolf Model II”), and is prominently displayed on the website of Glodell’s company, Coatwolf Productions. Growing from his hobby of “camera hacking,” the Coatwolf Model II derived from a SI-2K digital cinema camera, but with a 4x5 large-format view camera mounted to the front as an extension lens. According to Glodell, this distinctive fusion of digital and analog camera technologies would provide capabilities unique to any other camera in the world. The hip sense of masculine “authenticity” represented by the hacked camera would thus extend to the images it could produce. [open endnotes in new window]
This veneer of “authenticity” is highlighted by the fact that many critics described the film’s intentionally dusty, grimy look as a “grindhouse aesthetic.” This critical shorthand alludes to the simulated veneer of celluloid degradation popularized in retro-styled exploitation movie pastiches like Grindhouse (2007) and its highly violent, deeply masculinist cinematic brethren. I have collectively dubbed these films “retrosploitation,” since they are intentionally designed to evoke the anachronistic thrills of outdated exploitation genres. Indeed, Glodell experimented with similarly making fake “grindhouse”-style trailers using his DIY technology while the ideas for Bellflower’s plot were gestating. Futhermore, this proliferation of an ersatz “grindhouse aesthetic” associated with outdated and well-used 35mm exploitation film prints evinces a nostalgia akin to that held by Aiden and Woodrow toward The Road Warrior. That is, an ironic awareness of the past (pre-digital) text’s material datedness combines with a deeply sincere celebration of the politically unreconstructed thrills that outdated films still offer fans. In my estimation, this mix of ironic distance and sincere longing has become internalized into the retrosploitation film’s overall feel. Unlike slick, clean digital imagery, this nostalgic aesthetic evokes a “rougher,” less easily palatable look. It implicitly casts gendered lines of distinction between the “rebellious” (masculine) indie film and the passive, feminized mainstream viewership supposedly lacking in subcultural capital. Whereas the dirt and smudges on Glodell’s view camera plates might be seen outside this context as flaws in craftsmanship, they are here recoded as subculturally valued signs of earthy, rough-and-tumble materiality.
At the same time, however, Bellflower’s aesthetic appears considerably beholden to the recent rise of faux-vintage photography applications for mobile phones, especially Instagram and Hipstamatic. As I noted earlier, these applications gained great popularity among indie/hipster milieus after premiering around 2010, because they digitally replicated the retro look of the antiquated vintage/analog past as a relative obscurity in the digital age. Yet, they also gained much broader cultural use, becoming a widespread trend among young technology users. As one critic remarked of Bellflower’s look,
In this respect, the discoloration, vignetting, and image grain seen in Bellflower might not be unambiguously read as unique signifiers of masculine “authenticity.” Instead, they might be seen as undesirable signifiers of the hipster as a trend follower constantly striving for a lo-fi/analog/retro cool always on the verge of mainstream cooptation.
In a much-discussed analysis of faux-vintage photography, Nathan Jurgenson argues that mobile apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic are all about trying to make the digital seem physical. They emulate the “authentic” by instantly overlaying present-day digital photos with the contingent photographic effects of a decades-old instant camera. In doing so, the ersatz archaism of the faux-vintage photo self-reflexively foregrounds the fact of its own documentation. That is, by evincing an analog look, it paradoxically signals its own status as a deliberate product of digital manipulation. The faux-vintage photo thus provides further proof of our own existence as actively engaged users during a period where smart phones are virtually always with us, always connected to social media platforms. For Jurgenson, then, faux-vintage photography evokes a nostalgia for the present, a desire to view one’s own everyday existence as potentially renderable into a lasting document. Indeed, as Andreas Huyssen argues, the digital age has meant that “many of the mass-marketed memories we consume are ‘imagined memories’ to begin with, and thus more easily forgotten than lived memories.” Consequently, “the more we are asked to remember in the wake of the information explosion and the marketing of memory, the more we seem to be in danger of forgetting.” Hence the emergence of a desire to document the potential pastness of one’s present moment through faux-vintage photographic trickery.
Yet, as Mary E. Lord observes, anyone can now make “cool” faux-vintage photos, without the need to even educate oneself in image manipulation software like Photoshop. This potential “mainstreaming” complicates the very sense of subcultural capital that spurred the faux-vintage photography boom within indie cultures. On one hand, these photos can amaze us by stylizing our present moments into looking “cooler” than we originally experienced them. On the other hand, the very name “Hipstamatic” implies that this novelty can evoke suspicion among some users that this is the technological equivalent of a hipster “trying too hard” to look cool. Furthermore, Lord concurs with Jurgenson that viewing the present as always translatable into ersatz “vintage” imagery might alter one’s ability to fully engage with the present on its own cultural and political terms. That is, always viewing the present as capable of being overlaid with a sense of pastness could imaginatively distance faux-vintage technology users from the political implications of their own present actions.
If there is no masculine sense of hacking skill or technological mastery required to create faux-vintage images, then this aesthetic choice seemingly undercuts its own ability to shore up a regressive masculinism which itself turns toward the past for inspiration. On one hand, it makes sense for Glodell’s film to display a faux-vintage aesthetic, since it is so clearly filtered through Woodrow’s nostalgia-fueled fantasies and fannish longings. Yet, the fact that the director is so difficult to separate from his starring role leads me to speculate that Glodell himself may see his present through a politically inflected faux-vintage lens of potential pastness. That is, Glodell himself may share his onscreen counterpart’s semi-earnest upholding of the archaic gender inequalities associated with a primal, violent masculinity. The use of nostalgia within Bellflower’s form and content suggests that Glodell’s aesthetic lens for nostalgically framing his contemporary indie milieu also coincides with politically regressive views about women. This is especially suggested by his admission that the film was his attempt to cinematically capture the feel of his personal experience with “a really brutal relationship and a break-up.”
In the end, the masculine ethos behind Glodell’s “rough” visual aesthetic cannot be wholly guaranteed, due to its possible associations with inauthentic hipster affectations and/or the mainstreaming of faux-vintage photography apps. Nevertheless, the masculine self-promotion surrounding his DIY projects like the Medusa car and the Coatwolf camera still represents a yearning in vain for an “authentically” masculine sense of low-tech individualism. This “authentic”/masculine individualism is valued in the indie/hipster habitus reflected both within the film itself and on the indie film circuits where Bellflower was promoted. Furthermore, the subcultural value of masculine “authenticity” is desired as more than a retributive bulwark against threats to one’s masculinity. It also attempts to defuse threats to one’s sense of identity within an indie/hipster habitus preoccupied with living in a digital age where the immaterial and ephemeral seem to increasingly impinge upon one’s ability to live “authentically” as an individual.
Like Woodrow and Aiden’s Mother Medusa fantasies, there is something tellingly overwrought and excessive about Glodell’s deliberate attempts to gain indie cachet. His aesthetic and self-promotional strategies as a young male filmmaker assert his DIY self-reliance against the ostensibly feminized mainstream, but without reflecting on the broader gendered implications of such distinctions. As I have noted, this very excessiveness proved to be alluring for some male viewers. However, this aggressive posturing also bespeaks nagging doubts about the ultimately fragile correlation between masculinity, individuality, and non-mainstream tastes invoked by the film and its promotion. As the film’s reception indicates, the film’s uses of nostalgia can be accused of misogyny, trendiness, and a lack of authenticity, not just desirable sources of cultural distinction. Consequently, Bellflower’s ambivalence about its hip sense of pastness is ultimately symptomatic of its place within a subcultural milieu undergirded by rather traditional gender disparities. Despite the indie/hipster habitus’ alleged rejection of mainstream values, regressive gender valuations underlie its aesthetic distinctions. These taste distinctions may be as socially constructed and historically contingent as masculinity itself, but they are no less open to contestation.