‘I might be one of the first people in the universe to taste an interdimensional fruit. If I die doing that, I’m fine with that.’
This is what Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead did in lockdown. It also fits into the pattern of their career, alternating projects which put themselves onscreen and deal with intense male relationships in enclosed literal or physical spaces (the diptych of Resolution and The Endless) with bigger-budgeted, more crossovery genre pieces that are also relationship dramas (Spring, Synchronic). The model even continues in their TV work (Moon Knight, Archive 34, Twilight Zone). They’re among the most interesting contemporary genre creatives – Benson writes (perhaps shaping improv) and Moorhead photographs, and they co-direct – and their body of work is expanding intriguingly.
Slackerish Levi Danube (Benson) – a bartender with poorly coloured hair, stuck on the sex offender registry for public urination (while paradoxically being asexual) but with a more serious record for a darker incident in his youth – moves into a temporary apartment as part of a vague plan to quit Los Angeles. His new neighbour John Daniels (Moorhead), who has split from his husband (but it turns out is still supported by him), is kind of looking for a project. He’s also the sort of guy who’ll tell the fellow moving in that his apartment has been vacant because someone once jumped out of the window and splatted on concrete then almost instantly claims to have made up the story to fuck with the newcomer. The two guys happen to be in the apartment and witness the levitation of an ugly crystal glass ashtray, the first of several paraphenomena which take place at this location. Buzzing from the experience of the extraordinary, they decide to chronicle what’s going on as a documentary, hoping to sell it to Netflix and get rich. Snippets from this work-in-progress are included, along with interviews with people who’ve worked on the project, which sheds personnel regularly, and is unlikely ever to get finished. A few mentions of ‘re-enactments’ and special effects even hint that everything we are seeing is a contrivance intended to be part of a hoax – though that rational explanation eventually becomes even more unlikely than the weird science magic.
Something in the Dirt follows Under the Silver Lake in its detailing of LA lore – Dr Jack Parsons figures, as does a particular design found as an underlying principle of many blocks of real estate. The crux is the way these odd folk — who are unlike the brothers Benson and Moorhead played in The Endless, yet have a similarly testy codependence — change, bond and break apart as the weirdness gets weirder. It’s not quite a whole film about floating ashtrays, but does use something which would be one of the milder, commonplace superpowers of Carrie White or Jean Grey to show the different reactions of the observers. The actual apartment-dweller worries that a heavy ashtray will be dropped on his head by paranormal powers while he’s asleep while the neighbour sees wonder and magic and the opportunity to get rich chasing the light.
The team made films with a similar mood well before lockdown restrictions, but I think SitD shows some signs of the circumstances of its creation: it goes on a little too long, and its ending is a touch too oblique, as if the creators weren’t entirely free of the unfocused condition of their characters and (at that period) everyone else in the world.