JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Apocalypse as a theme is foregrounded in the film's poster.

Evan Glodellís Medusa car, centerpiece of both Bellflower (2011) and its promotional campaign.

Indie/mainstream crossover figurehead Zooey Deschanel hawks expensive technologies with hipster cachet in Apple commercial.

In Bellflower, the car is one of the stars.

Constructing flamethrowers for the car is a key plot device, involving issues of male bonding, nostalgia for the film Road Warrior, a DIY aesthetic, and the characters' ideas about authenticity and masculinity.

Examples of the downscale or outdated sartorial styles and cultural preferences of the contemporary indie/hipster figure.

Cheap drinks at a house party: Bellflowerís portrait of hipsters in repose.

A southern California beach scene, as similarly pictured (with selective focus, vignetting, and oversaturated colors) in Bellflower...

... and through the Hipstamatic lens.

 

“Propane is for pussies”:
Bellflower
’s bromance of retro technology and hip masculinity

by David Church

Inspired by their childhood love of The Road Warrior (a.k.a. Mad Max 2, 1981), two male friends build flamethrowers and a flame-spewing muscle car in preparation for a coming apocalypse. Yet, this apocalypse turns out to be a personal one when a woman comes between them. A surprise success upon its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director/star Evan Glodell’s feature film debut Bellflower quickly gained critical acclaim as an indie film wonder. It became promoted as much for its reported $17,000 budget and handcrafted aesthetic as its incendiary portrayal of masculinist fantasies among a particular stratum of disaffected young American men apparently including the filmmaker himself. Glodell had dropped out of a University of Wisconsin engineering program and moved to Los Angeles without a formal filmmaking education. He supported himself working behind the scenes on short films, commercials, and a low-budget horror movie. He eventually earned enough money to build a jerry-rigged hybrid analog/digital camera, along with the flamethrowers and custom cars that would appear in the film. Pooling his meager funds with a group of friends, Glodell and his crew shot in a piecemeal fashion over three years, resuming filming whenever enough money could be amassed. Upon its release, Bellflower became an aggressive announcement of Glodell’s arrival as a brash, young, self-made filmmaker who shared his onscreen counterpart’s eye-catching hobbies.[1][open endnotes in new window]

Critic James Rocchi astutely collapses these textual and extratextual elements in his assessment:

“Like Fight Club [1999], Bellflower is about the unspoken challenge facing American young men trying to make it into manhood—who do you have to explain to you how to be a man when your only models are the dads in the bad marriages who don’t stay and the actors in the bad movies that don’t stop? It is also a vigorous opening argument about the unspoken challenge facing American indie film, an increasingly tangled thicket of clichés where, shot on digital video, struggling novelists overtalk their way to a happy ending with Zooey Deschanel.”[2]

Rocchi here encapsulates much of the overlapping discourse circulating both within and about Glodell’s film, in which a rebelliously wayward and even self-destructive masculinity struggles toward heteronormative manhood. This struggle is inflected by a desire for (sub)cultural and technological cachet, in opposition to the cinematic mainstream and its ties to the pop-indie stardom represented by figures like Deschanel. Glodell and his characters ultimately forge an evaluative link between taste and gender by figuring the cultural mainstream as an inauthentic, feminized “other,” in contrast to their more hip, masculine “authenticity.”[3]

Descending from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Sarah Thornton, the gendering of cultural distinctions is a well-worn idea in scholarly treatises on taste politics and works of popular culture like Fight Club. Such distinctions especially arise during disputes over an individual’s perceived degree of “coolness.” These disputes construct what Thornton terms “subcultural capital” (i.e., a hip, privileged status among a taste-based social niche) within the relevant milieu. Socially, this quest for subcultural capital tends to equate masculinity with active connoisseurship and mastery, while femininity is denigrated through associations with passive and undiscerning consumerism.[4] As Sally Robinson argues, consumerism has long been

“coded as ‘feminizing’ not because women are phony, self-indulgent, dependent, or will-less, but because American ideologies of individualism have a deep and stubborn attachment to the idea that only the normative, unmarked citizen has a claim to individualism and the corollary idea that the individual can only emerge in contradistinction either to those citizens marked by gender and other differences or to a ‘society’ that is radically at odds with his needs.”[5]

In other words, men are typically coded in discourse as the “normative, unmarked citizen[s]” in a male-dominated society. Their cultural prerogative toward individualism marks actively “masculine” forms of cultural production and consumption as supposedly more “authentic” than those associated with the ostensibly easy consumerism of a “feminized” cultural mainstream. Individuality, authenticity, and masculinity all become intertwined values that “mainstream” culture seemingly cannot deliver men. Each value ideologically reinforces the others, thereby making their interrelation seem less historically constructed and contingent than it really is. Following this logic, Bellflower may present what Rocchi calls “one of the most strong and stylish critiques of the idiocy and confusion in young manhood since Fight Club”[6] (a pull quote prominently reproduced, and thereby endorsed, in the film’s trailer). Yet, I will argue that other elements of Bellflower’s appeals to cultural distinction complicate its intended gender critique. These complications particularly arise around the filmmakers’ own embodiment and implicit endorsement of a “masculine” physicality associated with the material hacking and lo-fi aesthetic practices (explained in more detail below) championed by their characters.

Bourdieu uses the term “habitus” to describe the varied cultural preferences, dispositions, and values that circulate between and socialize members into a certain lifestyle. Through a given habitus, people share and mutually reinforce some common expectations, feelings, and ideologies as an element of social cohesion. However, they may not consciously know the cultural roots of these valuations, including the politically regressive implications of a niche cultural elitism that rejects mainstream consumerism. That is, class biases often inflect attempts at distinguishing a niche habitus from whatever denigrated objects of cultural production (and their insufficiently “hip” consumers) the cultural elitists associate with “mainstream” or “middlebrow” forms.

The terms “indie” and “hipster” have mutually constructed one another through attempts at cultural distinction in popular discourse since the late 1990s. These terms describe a particular habitus in contemporary American culture, overtly concerned with consuming forms of “independent” (i.e., “non-mainstream,” or not currently corporatized) cultural production. As Zeynep Arsel and Craig Thompson argue, hipsters became caricatured as trendy bourgeois consumers circulating around the developing field of “indie” cultural production (e.g., music, fashion, film, art, etc.). Hipsters endlessly compete to find the non-mainstream “authentic.” Yet, they are seemingly incapable of producing or consuming any cultural good without a thick dose of irony. Consequently, their ironic stance winkingly undermines the stakes of their consumption choices (except, of course, the all-important posture of asserting hip taste distinctions). Because the cultural stereotype of the hipster impinges upon indie culture, the indie consumer resists identifying as (but does not deny the existence of) that bad object. In reciprocal fashion, the supposed tastes of the stereotypical hipster have provided convenient cultural shorthand for what has popularly become branded as indie culture.[7]

Through its off-market aesthetic, the present-day image of the hipster evokes ironic forms of cultural slumming as “hip” sources of subcultural capital. These include the consumption of downscale goods like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and trucker hats, or stylistically outdated goods like large-framed eyeglasses, vintage T-shirts, cardigan sweaters, and fixed-gear bicycles. Nostalgia for lo-fi or analog technologies (including vinyl records, magnetic tape cassettes, and Polaroid instant cameras) also exists among indie/hipster predilections for reappropriating the culturally downscale or outdated as ironic sources of “coolness.”

Set in a downscale urban area with virtually no smart phones or computers in sight, Bellflower and its denizens similarly occupy an indie/hipster milieu filled with analog technologies. Their neighborhood is a seemingly barren landscape amid the high-tech California metropolis. This setting evokes both scarcity and the film’s own status as a low-budget product of that same indie culture. The film’s indie milieu is further evoked by its white bohemian characters spending most of their screen time hanging out, seemingly never going to work at actual jobs (though there is some talk of struggling to pay the rent). Furthermore, as I will elaborate below, their conversations typically combine an ironic tone and an underlying concern with coolness. As Arsel and Thompson’s argument would suggest, a simple web search reveals that the term “hipster” is virtually ubiquitous in negative reviews of Bellflower and its characters. Jeffrey Sconce likewise wonders if Bellflower’s representation of a hipster milieu where guys can spend their days blowing up propane tanks represents “a lifestyle fantasy or a generational lament.”[8]

On a formal level, the film’s visual style is deeply indebted to the concurrent phenomenon of digitally created faux-vintage photography, which I will discuss at length later. Commonly associated with the mobile phone applications Instagram and Hipstamatic, this photographic style immediately overlays simulated aging effects upon new digital photos, making them look decades old. Since premiering around 2010, these means of simulating old Polaroid instant photos have become quickly adopted by the indie/hipster habitus' nostalgia for outdated analog media. At the same time, however, these applications’ ease of use and trendy ubiquity also complicate what I will describe as indie culture’s underlying preoccupation with an implicitly “masculine” ethos of outsider “authenticity.”

On the level of both its production context and narrative concerns, then, the film emerges from and depicts a bohemian indie/hipster culture animated by nostalgia for the analog past. Rooted in a temporal disparity between past and present, this nostalgia can foster both sincere longing for and ironic distance from mediated visions of an aggressively asserted masculinity. In other words, Bellflower evinces a sincere desire to privilege masculine discernment and physical mastery over technology through a hip, lo-fi aesthetic wielded by both the filmmakers and characters alike. Yet, the film’s characters also display a defensively ironic self-consciousness about how indie culture is skeptical of the regressive gender traditionalism inadvertently evoked by such hip cultural distinctions. It becomes very difficult to separate the film’s characters from its creators, especially (as I note below) through the promotional strategies the latter undertook on the indie film circuit. The characters’ highly aestheticized fantasies of a barren, post-apocalyptic world without women thus implicate both the characters and filmmakers themselves. Ultimately, they all belong to a milieu where the supposed threat of cultural feminization signals a feared loss of both the analog “real” and the “authentic” (masculine) individual. 

In this sense, Bellflower provides a notable cinematic case study of how different but overlapping masculinities are mobilized within niche taste cultures that implicitly privilege a correlation between masculinity and authenticity. Yet, this correlation is inevitably compromised by an inability to make taste valuations and gender valuations map cleanly onto each other. That is, the film’s characters and creators tend to rely on an assumed opposition between the linked terms authentic/masculine/analog/hip and inauthentic/feminine/ digital/mainstream. However, these idealized evaluative oppositions do not neatly correspond with the film’s style, narrative, politics, or reception. The film’s resulting ideological instability thus highlights wider contradictions within a contemporary indie/hipster habitus that fundamentally celebrates a sense of personal coolness over the importance of broader gender equality. In other words, Bellflower demonstrates how male gender privilege still finds ways to assert itself, even within niche taste cultures that value non-hegemonic or alternative masculinities. It particularly does so through bids for subcultural capital that can earnestly recall elements of hegemonic masculinity (i.e., the most socially sanctioned masculine ideals, such as aggression and domination) as a reactionary source of power, even under the cover of irony.

To unfold this argument, I will begin with an overview of the film’s narrative, focusing on how sexual tensions structure the gendered relationships between major characters. As I note below, the cinematic “bromance” is a useful point of comparison in exploring how male bonding has been commonly figured in recent cinema. After exploring why some critics viewed the film as misogynistic, I then turn to the film’s two most cited cinematic touchstones, The Road Warrior and Fight Club. These two films offer particular fantasies of violent but homoerotic male bonding, while also helping explain the gendered relevance of Bellflower’s post-apocalyptic preoccupations. Next, I take up the gendered connotations of hacking to explain the importance of handcrafted material goods within indie cultures. These connotations help illuminate the filmmakers’ aggressively gendered promotional strategies, even as these same strategies failed to assuage critical ambivalence over the film’s “trendy” faux-vintage cinematography. Because the film’s “hip” look echoes the hip posturing of the characters and filmmakers alike, it is ultimately difficult to separate filmic style from the characters’ personal style. Consequently, reflections on taste politics, gender politics, and aesthetics are interwoven across my argument, while viewer responses drawn from the film’s reception are peppered throughout as evidence of my larger claims about Bellflower’s taste and gender appeals.

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