Bellflower – 2011 – dir. Evan Glodell
Yes, Bellflower is a tragic romance. And yes, its protagonist is a certain brand of hipster. Some people will be scared away by these facts, but they shouldn’t be. The film is both psychological and sociological, and it’s the rare movie that is both so effectively.
First, about the psychological: The drama centers around the relationship between Woodrow, a shy charmer, and Milly, the kind of person who is melodramatic enough to warn Woodrow on their first date that she will hurt him. And, sure enough, she does, in that kind of gratuitous, self-defeating fashion that suggests she’s working out issues she doesn’t even understand.
An indie romance about two people with unkempt hair might be just as cloyingly sentimental as the more Hollywood version. But early flash forwards suggest that this romance is headed for worse than a breakup, and even without those narrative maneuvers, there are already intimations on Woodrow and Milly’s first date that there are more than teenage histrionics on the horizon. After Milly is harassed by a thug, Woodrow takes a moment to consider his response, and then willfully decides to throw himself into a fist fight with the creep. He doesn’t do it out of anger or even quite bravado; it’s almost purely violence for violence’s sake, part of a devil-may-care attitude that forms Woodrow’s innocence and charm.
And this is one way that the film seems to be about more than a blighted relationship: Woodrow’s relationship to violence is just as or even more important than his relationship to Milly. He’ll end up paying for it, as the consequences become severe, and so it becomes a metaphor for love, its dangers commensurate with its passion.
Another way that Bellflower exceeds its basic premise is in its characters, who feel like real people partly because they seem so native to a particular time and place, specifically urban lower-to-middle class white America of the late aughts. Woodrow and his friend Aiden are the kind of hipsters who nurse a possibly unhealthy fixation on pop-culture icons from childhood — in this case, the main baddie from Mad Max. Their life goals are in the romantic tradition insofar they serve no obvious purpose other than to advance their own fantasies: build a flamethrower and a car, then start a bad-ass gang to prepare for the apocalypse. Aiden is the kind of guy who shoots a propane tank to watch it explode while wearing goofy neon sunglasses that might be from Urban Outfitters. These idiosyncrasies make the them seem like people you might actually know, instead of vague impersonal sketches, and for that the characters feel immediate and plausible.
The way the film hints at themes also transcends the average breakup film. A simple example is Woodrow’s beard, which appears halfway through the film, at a point where he has transformed into a despondent, angrier version of himself. Eventually, he shaves it off, but the beard returns later, albeit in different form. The reappearance of the beard doesn’t announce anything in grand fashion — nobody comments on it and it only comes back briefly — but, just as in our dreams, it acknowledges a loose link between the facial hair and Woodrow’s dark side. There’s no inherent reason a beard is evil, but we come to understand that in the universe of Bellflower, it signifies Woodrow’s shadowy edge. And, also as in dreams, that link is reconfigured into a new form, altered but still recognizable.
The triumph on the film rests, though, on a much larger theme, one that lends Bellflower the aforementioned sociological heft that is normally difficult to invoke in a drama about romance. Machines, like violence, will become signposts on Woodrow’s descent into hell. At the beginning of the film, he can take joy in a flamethrower or a car that dispenses whiskey from the dashboard. But by the end of Woodrow’s first date with Milly, he will have swapped the car for a motorcycle, unaware that the car will be the last thing with working parts that doesn’t figure into his tragic decline.
As Woodrow’s romance with Milly goes south and their sniping at each other escalates from fights to vandalism to flames, integral to the mess there’s always something mechanical that carries his fascination, whether it be a simple gun, a homemade flamethrower, or a muscular vehicle. Bellflower is the rare movie where the cinematography actually seems to have a clear thematic link to the subject, as the images often have visible grit and distortions, which seem perfectly appropriate to what is happening in front of the camera. (Director Evan Glodell actually built and altered a lot of the cameras used, reflecting the DIY scrap-metal engineering of the characters. This might be the only movie I’ve ever heard of where the form of the production was thematically linked to the story.)
The payoff from the parallels that arise between Woodrow’s deterioration and the role of machines is, in part, through the car that Woodrow and Aiden build. Possibly the world’s single coolest muscle car, it’s a black number that shoots flames and bears the name of their gang. It’s significance or the reason it’s even there are never really articulated, which makes it more effective at the role it takes up as another machine pushing Woodrow to a bitter end. Like Frank, the figure in a bunny costume that haunts Donnie Darko, the car is so particular in its details that it could only be the product of Aiden and Woodrow’s imaginations, and no one else’s. With this car, we know we are seeing something incredibly personal.
The choice of machines as thematic material seems at first a little arbitrary. You could take out everything with a moving part in this movie and replace it with a reference to sports, and maybe you’d still have an interesting theme developing along the movie. But this business of machines being agents first of joy and later of destruction suggests a greater sociological kind of subtext underlying the movie. Where at first Aiden and Woodrow innocently delight in exploding canisters and setting scarecrows on fire, the decline that machines later facilitate suggests that these tools of the military-industrial complex are actually mechanisms of death. It wouldn’t be a terribly original idea, but it doesn’t need to be. It succeeds by merely bringing a greater sociological weight to what could have been a trifling movie.