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Sundance Film Festival 2012: Shut Up and Play the Hits and V/H/S

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: <em>Shut Up and Play the Hits</em> and <em>V/H/S</em>

Shut Up and Play the Hits, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s documentary about the emotional toll that LCD Soundsytem’s final live show had on frontman James Murphy, dances around the fact that the band was essentially a solo act. (Though Murphy performed all of the instruments on LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut, a number of people, Nancy Whang and Pat Honey among them, became an integral part of the band’s sound after Murphy took the album on the road.) This is presumably the reason why Murphy is the only person associated with LCD Soundsystem who’s interviewed in the film and therefore gets to tell us what the end of the band signifies.

Since we know Murphy isn’t retiring from making music, why are we seriously mourning the death of what was originally a one-man band? The answer is we’re not really mourning, because Murphy isn’t completely serious about burying the band. The doc starts with a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek epitaph: “If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.” Still, there’s genuine sentiment behind that opening intertitle. This is shown in footage of Murphy dazedly walking around after the band’s final performance and later during a lunchtime interview conducted by Chuck Klosterman. He also tells the crowd at Madison Square Garden that he wears his father’s watch while performing for good luck, which suggests he’s sentimental about the prospect of ditching the band. But isn’t it enough that Murphy will just move on to his next project?

Apparently not, if Shut Up and Play the Hits is any indication. Klosterman’s interview with Murphy is nigh insufferable because unpolished interviews are never good substitutes for ones that have been transcribed and cleaned-up. He may ferret some interesting tidbits out of Murphy about how the band is bigger than him and no longer just about his unique anti-mystique rock-star image, but if the filmmakers believe that to be true, why not spend less time with Murphy and more with his bandmates?

Murphy, who at one point says that LCD Soundsystem was originally a “cover band,” corrects himself when he tells Klosterman that it’s not just him who’s a normal guy-cum-rock star, it’s “we,” the band—meaning the other people associated with the group. But after a point, can’t they just rejoin him in doing whatever he wants to do next? Does the end of LCD Soundsystem as a group really mark anything other than the end of a single period in Murphy’s career?

With that in mind, it’s strange to think that Murphy also cites musicians like Nick Cave, and his band the Birthday Party in particular, as examples of rock stars he once considered mythic, then later realized were comprised of mortal men. Cave went from being the frontman for the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds to Grinderman and back to the Seeds. Cave’s even scored movies with frequent collaborator Warren Ellis. This is striking since Murphy himself has already scored Greenberg on his own. So why mourn LCD Soundsystem? Murphy never says that his music will sound different after LCD Soundsystem disbands, so why fearfully anticipate a change that we don’t even know is coming?

Shut Up and Play the Hits revels in Murphy’s self-consciousness. Klosterman even hints at this key aspect to Murphy’s personality during their interview: it’s a mental block that Murphy has been grappling with in public over the course of LCD Soundsystem’s three studio albums. In a crucial scene, Murphy surveys the equipment from the final show after the concert has already ended. A photo montage plays out featuring images of the group’s members and Murphy performing and having a good time together. And the scene ends with Murphy crying. I’m not so cynical to think that Murphy’s tears are false, but considering that this scene is the big emotional release valve for the film and the climax of Murphy’s character arc in Shut Up and Play the Hits’s narrative, it feels cloying. He may sing, “All I want is your pity,” in “All I Want,” but that sentiment is not what LCD Soundsystem deserves to be remembered for.

V/H/SBy now, the found-footage trend in horror movies feels played-out. It was always a gimmick, but three years after the first entry in the money-making Paranormal Activity series, the trend is still very relevant, even if “relevance” in this case just means that the trend hasn’t stopped making money just yet. So leave it to a couple of the Glass Eye Pix directors, Joe Swanberg, and a couple other indie filmmakers to prove that the gimmick can at least be fun and played-out.

Executive produced by Brad Miska, Bloody Disgusting’s head writer and editor, V/H/S is a predictably adequate anthology horror film with a cute hook: What can you do in a horror movie told entirely from a first-person POV? The short answer seems to be: all sorts of instantly forgettable but clever things. V/H/S is too smart to be anything more than a footnote to the found-footage horror film’s still-unfolding history. But it’s a decent, albeit totally anomalous and hardly revolutionary, attempt to show what can be done within the subgenre’s self-limited parameters.

The predominant theme in V/H/S is predictably subverting the male gaze (Laura Mulvey would be proud). In David Bruckner’s well-rounded segment, a squeamish but horny nerd watches through glasses specially rigged with a tiny camera as his buddies get flayed alive by a vampiress with freakishly big eyes. In Ti West’s weak short, a couple’s road trip goes wrong when a female hitchhiker starts fucking with them, including one pointed sequence shot by the hitchhiker herself. In Swanberg’s funny sequence, a Skype conversation is revealed to be less about what a young woman haunted by ghosts is showing to her boyfriend and more about what he’s doing to her remotely. And in Glenn McQuaid’s clever contribution, a hot girl that only looks like a witless tease reveals herself to be a final girl now hunting for a killer that only shows up on videotape.

All of these moments create the growing impression that you, the voyeur, I mean viewer, are being punished for wanting what’s being freely presented. After all, when the vampiress is stripped by a horny jock in Bruckner’s short, the only thing that’s abnormal about her is her monstrous feet. In one quick pan, we’re sequentially shown what V/H/S’s filmmakers know that their ideal audience came to see: first, boobies, for a titillating but satisfying start; then a full frontal shot of the vampiress’s vagina, to give an immediate balm for viewers’ sexual frustration; and finally, a shot of the girl’s deformed feet, a nudge in the ribs to remind us that what we’re looking at is tainted spectacle. This shot is a good reminder that V/H/S is smarter than the average horror film concerned with the perils of looking as a form of fetishization. But not that much smarter.

It’s telling that the most satisfying segment in V/H/S was directed by a group called Radio Silence. There contribution doesn’t take itself seriously at all: A group of drunk guys dress up for Halloween and tramp through what they think is a fake haunted house but is in fact a real haunted house. Radio Silence has a blast limiting our perspectives without calling too much attention to the fact that they’re controlling everything we’re seeing. Bats come out of rooms, evoking a Scooby Doo chase scene, and disembodied hands emerge from walls, but only initially out of the corner of the camera’s eye. Even if it doesn’t break the horror mold, that short is a lot of fun. So while movies like The Devil Inside and Paranormal Activity 3 are juiceless variations on a concept that The Blair Witch Project pioneered and Paranormal Activity continued, V/H/S’s last segment proves that the found-footage subgenre is still perfectly viable.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.