JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Kid Icarus

Ott’s second feature is primarily about Leigh Harkrider, a student at the College of the Canyons, a community college in Valencia, another small town about 25 miles due north of Hollywood where Ott was teaching filmmaking. Leigh is a cocksure young man certain he’ll have a glittering career in filmmaking. He’s constantly referencing and borrowing production “tricks,” such as drinking sparkling wine at the beginning of a shoot, from Steven Spielberg as he sets about making Enslavence (Leigh Harkrider, 2009)—a short film about a troubled drug addict (Crystal Rivers) who is haunted by a small boy who could be a figment of her imagination. The production faces amusing problems, including a disorganized crew, refrigerator buzzing on location, an aggrieved screenwriter seeking an authorship credit, and Leigh’s generally inept social skills. In short, Leigh has no idea how to direct a film, and Enslavence suffers as a result. Kid Icarus, on the other hand, benefits enormously from these problems as it presents to us a catalog of filmmaking errors, such that we have a (problematically) comic documentary along the lines of Smith’s portrait of Borchardt and his sidekick Mike Schank in American Movie.

Camp on camera: Cory Zacharia (right) makes his first appearance in Kid Icarus at The Home Depot. Atsuko Okatsuka, production assistant, gets roped into doing the cinematography for Enslavence in Kid Icarus.
Disgruntled writer Carlo Chavez (left) and Sean Neff (right) discuss Leigh’s filmmaking skills in Kid Icarus. Leigh admonishes faithful boom operator Corey Rubin for not working hard enough in Kid Icarus.

Kid Icarus is problematic because it makes Leigh ridiculous as he fails to listen to the advice of others, including his instructor Ott, while his Enslavence shoot goes near-disastrously wrong (the film does get completed). As the film’s title implies, Leigh suffers from his arrogance, but Kid Icarus is also comic and tender, partly because of the actors with whom Leigh works—several of whom have gone on to feature in Ott’s subsequent films, including Cory Zacharia, a camp and exuberant man who here develops a crush on make-up artist Gianna Luisi, and Atsuko Okatsuka, a novice cinematographer whom Leigh drafts at the last minute. Also among the film’s subjects are disgruntled writer Carlo Chavez, who has the air of being permanently stoned; rejected boom operator Corey Rubin, whose fidelity to Leigh is spurned at every opportunity; and Paul Zeigler, a gruff 54-year old student who revels in telling Leigh how unprofessional he is, while at the same time smoking dope in his car during filming.

In some senses, the film might seem cruel, in that these characters often come across as stupid, as they don’t pay attention and make mistakes on set, make awkward conversation (Cory hitting on Gianna, for example), or talk authoritatively about matters with which they have little familiarity (e.g., Leigh knows little to nothing about heroin culture, even though it forms a central aspect of his film). At the same, Ott and co-director Carl Bird McLaughlin allow their characters also to express insecurity. Granted, some of these insecurities come across as disingenuous, in that Leigh and Cory often revel in self-pity (Leigh: “I’ve really been much of a loner and loser for quite a bit of my life”; Cory: “I guess I just get overly sad, or scared or… I feel like no one really wants me, I feel just so alone and so empty all the time”). However, since such self-pity is often typical of young adults, then the intimacy that Ott achieves with his subjects leads to remarkable results as Ott’s subjects open up about their own experiences, attitudes, and feelings.

For example, early on, Leigh says that “nobody wants to be nobody” as he stands in long shot on his phone in the dark outside the trailer park home where he lives. We learn later that this is his friend’s mother’s house. In other words, Leigh does not live with his family but in other, temporary lodging. Although he seems more invested in playing videogames and in watching Smallville (2001-2011) than in doing his school work, he repeatedly avows that education is important to him, since it might help him to get out of The Home Depot where he also works. In his own words: “I’m destined for greater things, I think, than pushing carts.” What those “greater things” are is not certain, although Leigh does want to work in the film industry. As he says at the start of the film, in a scene that is also repeated towards the end:

“I guess I’m trying to be something that I’m not, and I can’t face the fact that I’m not what I want to be. And truth is, I probably don’t know what I want to be. I know I want to be a filmmaker. But I don’t know what I personally want to be, like I guess I need to go on that life journey in order to find out who I really am, and, er, I guess I don’t want to take that journey, I just want to get straight to it.”

In other words, Leigh does not know what he wants to be, but he wants to be successful, and his understanding of success is clearly associated with cinema and/or with becoming cinematic.

As Leigh says he is scared of being “nobody,” Ott and McLaughlin’s documentary takes on a poetic quality. We see Leigh shrouded in darkness outside his home, speaking into the glow of his cell phone. Outside of a home that is neither his nor permanent, Leigh is threatened by the invisibility of non-existence—the darkness that surrounds him—and he uses technology, his phone, to try to connect with others. His quasi-futile desire to make films affirms that cinema is his measure of reality, and that many people do not feel that their lives are real—even in the suburbs of Hollywood itself—unless those lives are indeed cinematic. Read psychoanalytically, Leigh’s Enslavence expresses his own addiction—not to drugs but to media (gaming, Smallville), and his own desire to resist enslavement to a system that might indeed see him “pushing carts” for the rest of his life.[12] [open endnotes in new window]

Leigh wants to be cinematic, but in a manner that recalls Vilém Flusser’s idea that it is “difficult to decipher [and by extension to produce meaningful] technical images, because they are apparently in no need of being deciphered.” He does not realize that making films is not as easy as seeing films, just as making money via work is not as easy or addictive as taking on debt.[13] We could blame Leigh for being lazy; but more subtly he is symptomatic of the powerlessness and the temptation of ease that characterize the image consumer and debt. In other words, Kid Icarus suggests that consuming images one does not create comes from and contributes to the stranglehold that neoliberal capital has on the contemporary world via debt. Images, like debt, are all-pervasive. And not to be seen is not to exist; to be seen, or to make images, one must either be rich or one must accrue debt.

Yet, while Enslavence is in many respects a terrible film—partly because Leigh seeks less to make a film than to “become cinematic” (i.e. rich and famous, the object of attention)—in other respects it is important in both Kid Icarus’ plot and themes. Although Leigh wants Enslavence to be a commercial success (he regularly compares it to David Fincher’s Fight Club, 1999), its use in Ott’s film lies in how poorly it mimics mainstream cinema; we are asked to pay attention to precisely its imperfections. The very title of Leigh’s film, a meaningless word not in the dictionary, suggests his linguistic ineptitude. More than that, it makes mainstream cinematic language “stutter” in a manner that recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s belief in the importance of the “minor” (or what Ott terms the “small form”). That is, the very ineptitude of the title Enslavence subverts the unthinking logic of the major “discourse,” in which rules and correctness (having a dictionary definition) are accepted as the limits of an exclusive reality. Reality is thus aesthetic as much as it is political: only words in the dictionary are accepted as real words, just as only “good” films (with high production values) are accepted as real films, and just as only cinematic humans are accepted as real humans. But why should this be so?

Clearly Leigh does not/will not become rich or famous—and indeed he tries to deprive his collaborators, especially Carlo, of any rights to any potential future success that Enslavence may or may not achieve. But almost in spite of himself, he makes friends where previously he had none. That is, if Leigh is someone without a family, by the end of the film he has a makeshift family that gathers and has fun at the wrap party; it’s a family forged through the very act of filmmaking itself. As Leigh himself puts it:

“I’ve really been much of a loner and loser for quite a bit of my life, and, er, this whole bunch of people, it’s like a really new experience, I mean I’ve never really had 15 people around me at one time.”

In other words, while he may not have produced a film worthy of cinema, the non-cinematic or “bad” aspects of Enslavence, explored in Kid Icarus, ironically also help to build authentic relationships. As a person, Leigh realizes that he is not a detached observer, or a consumer both of images and of other people, but an entangled participant in the world, a human being who can have friends and who thus is not alone. Perhaps his very failure to make a “real” film lets Leigh manage to create more real relationships.

The title Kid Icarus refers to the Greek myth, in which Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting the wax binding together the feathers on the prosthetic wings that his father Daedalus has made, thereby causing Icarus to plunge to his death as he tries to escape from Crete. The myth’s implied lesson is to warn against excessive ambition. Here, I should like to challenge that reading, not least because of the addition of the word “kid” to the title. For it’s normal that young people be (overly) ambitious, make mistakes, and fail; it is in sharing such experiences that real relationships are forged.

If Leigh denies his failures as a human (that to be human is to fail), then Kid Icarus the film conversely demonstrates that failure is okay, that it is in many respects good, and that we should not be afraid of it. In our society the cinematic is so bound up with success, that life becomes not something that one simply experiences but something that one either wins or loses. In this context, failure becomes non-cinematic but also profoundly human. While Enslavence might thus be rated by many as “bad” from an aesthetic perspective, Kid Icarus shows us how cinema can include its own rejections and failures.

A final consideration remains whether Kid Icarus is condescending to Leigh and thus perhaps unethical. However, while Ott personally criticizes Leigh at various points in the film, especially for not listening, Kid Icarus is itself a film that documents and plays a part in forming the kind of community that Leigh enjoys at his wrap party. Indeed, that Ott is Leigh’s instructor suggests the beneficial role that pedagogy can play in creating communities, or ersatz families, even if this runs counter to the supposedly cinematic-capitalist ethos of individualism. With Leigh and others often hooked up to a radio mic, it is clear that he has consented to be in Ott and McLaughlin’s film, and that the film is not so much detached observation as in many respects participatory and performative. Indeed, at times it seems as though the film must have been scripted, so unbelievable does it seem that someone would willingly look that silly (or like a failure) on camera. It is not the aim here to determine what is staged and what is not, but rather to argue that this very ambiguity between the two suggests an entanglement of subject and filmmaker.

The film is comic, in that one regularly laughs, but this is not a condescending laughter born out of a sense of superiority to the performers, but rather a laughter born out of a sense of kinship with the film’s subjects and their frail insecurities. That is, comedy here becomes a process of reaffirming with-ness (co-medy), not condescending separation; it is part of the process of community building. Leigh is not a buffoon that we laugh at; rather we all see bits of Leigh in ourselves, and we see ourselves in Leigh. In other words, Ott and McLaughlin do not just take part in building a community that we see in the film; Kid Icarus itself also invites us to join the community, with film thus functioning as a means for building communities itself. This community-building is confirmed when we understand that Zacharia and Okatsuka have both gone on to star in LiTTLEROCK and Pearblossom Hwy, with Zacharia then appearing in Lake Los Angeles (in a brief cameo), Lancaster, CA and California Dreams, and Okatsuka co-writing Lake Los Angeles. In other words, Ott does not just exploit a community college for his own purposes, but is involved in the building of precisely a community, such that he has continued to work with the same people since. While Leigh compares himself to Superman, Cory wears in the film a t-shirt with the logo “I’m like a superhero with no powers or motivation.”

Wishing he were a cinematic superhero: Leigh, as ever, in his Superman cap in Kid Icarus. Leigh’s Superman-themed checkbook in Kid Icarus.

While Leigh learns humbly to accept his humanity (via some humiliation), perhaps it is no surprise that Zacharia’s already human and specifically un-superhuman qualities make him of continuing interest to Ott in his subsequent work, as we shall now explore in relation to LiTTLEROCK, the first in the so-called Antelope Valley trilogy.

LiTTLEROCK

As mentioned, LiTTLEROCK tells the story of a Japanese brother and sister who get stranded in the titular town, again about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. Although she does not speak English, the sister Atsuko stays on in Littlerock after her brother Rintaro has left, mainly because of her interest in Jordan, although she is clearly also the object of Cory’s attention, with whom she eventually forms an unlikely friendship. Although in part about the lack of things to do in small-town California, and while referencing migrant labor, particularly through the character of kitchen worker Francisco (Roberto Sanchez), the film also culminates in a visit by Rintaro and Atsuko (now reunited) to the Manzanar Internment Camp, where the US government held captive roughly 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War Two. Using non-professional actors and made on a budget that Mike Hale of The New York Times describes as “out of pocket,” LiTTLEROCK is concerned with conveying a history of California that is seldom repeated and a present of California that lies beyond the typical purview of cinema.[14]

East meets West: Japanese visitors Atsuko and Rintaro enter a “Western” shop upon arriving in Littlerock.

Empathizing with the Native American: Atsuko and Rintaro learn about the USA’s Indian population as well as their grandfather’s internment at Manzanar in LiTTLEROCK.
Small-town California: first impressions of Littlerock. Cory introduces Rintaro to the joys of shotgunning beer in LiTTLEROCK.

After initial shots of passing desert landscape, the film opens with Atsuko and Rintaro getting off a bus and wondering whether they are in the right place, perhaps because where they are does not seem to be a place at all. As Atsuko explains in a voice over that narrates a letter written to her father, their car has broken down and they need to wait two days for it to be repaired. They visit a shop where they look at photos/postcards featuring Native Americans and Wild West trinkets, before checking into a motel, where, unable to sleep, first Rintaro and then Atsuko join a party taking place next door. Here they meet Cory, who welcomes them and who introduces them to “American” rituals such as shotgunning cans of beer, as well as to his friends, including Sean Tippy, whom viewers of Kid Icarus may recognize as Sean Neff from that film. The next day, Cory takes Atsuko and Rintaro to the Devil’s Punchbowl, a sandstone formation on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, where he explains that his mother is dead, before we then see them hanging out by the railroad. A freight train passes before Cory explains that he wants to be a model and an actor, performing a would-be runway walk as he does so.

The latter moment is important for a couple of reasons. In showing us the passing train, the scene recalls the Lumière brothers’ first film, Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat/Arrival of the Train (1896). Except that where the Lumières’ train stops and we see passengers disembarking, here the train just passes by. In other words, if the train signals cinema, this sequence suggests that cinema has bypassed Littlerock and Cory alike. Being outside of cinema or invisible, and also without a complete family, Cory here announces that he wants to be visible as a model or an actor, i.e. that he aspires to be cinematic. His failure to be so, however, is compounded in the next scene when we discover that Cory owes money to Brody, i.e. Cory is broke, with Brody, Garbo and Marques also marking Cory as outside of mainstream society by bullying him for being gay (even though Cory claims that he is not). Cory’s humiliation is finalized as it is here that Atsuko also meets Jordan, with the two demonstrating a mutual interest in each other.

Cory shows his model face in LiTTLEROCK. Atsuko, Cory and Jordan head out to the desert on hipster bikes in LiTTLEROCK.
Jordan, with his hipster satchel, flirts with Atsuko in LiTTLEROCK. Taken in by the hipster charm: Atsuko listens to Jordan’s retro “Limerence” cassette tape in LiTTLEROCK.

That night, Jordan hits on Atsuko at a party by Garbo’s trailer, which abuts a military weapons range, as Brody hassles Cory once again for not paying back his money. Jordan invites Atsuko, who only speaks Japanese, for a bike ride, with Cory joining them the next day as they head out to the desert and drink by an abandoned shack. Atsuko goes through Jordan’s satchel and begins to listen to a cassette that he has made entitled “Limerence,” before Cory leaves them together because of a shift that he must work at his father’s diner. In other words, Jordan seduces Atsuko through his hipster style (his easy good looks and brush-over hair, the satchel, the cassette tape and the bikes), while Cory cannot form such a “cinematic” relationship because he is in debt to Brody and because, unlike Jordan, he must work. If Atsuko, unlike Rintaro who claims not to trust their new friends, is taken in by the charm of the seemingly free-flowing alcohol and ukulele songs performed around an open fire at Garbo’s party, Cory is not really part of this world. If Atsuko and Rintaro are passing through, like the train and also like Jordan and his mobile friends (Jordan is planning on going to New York; Brody, Garbo and Marques, meanwhile, drive around in a car), then Cory is not—and notably it is by foot and not by “vintage” bike (with obligatory “chopper” handlebars) that he shows his Japanese guests around.