In 2008, Roger Ebert wrote a piece for his SunTimes blog titled, “This is the dawning of the Age of Credulity”, in which he relates a conversation he had with Taxi Driver author Paul Schrader. “He told me that after Pulp Fiction, we were leaving an existential age and entering an age of irony. ‘The existential dilemma,’ he said, ‘is, 'should I live?' And the ironic answer is, 'does it matter?' Everything in the ironic world has quotation marks around it. You don't actually kill somebody; you 'kill' them. It doesn't really matter if you put the baby in front of the runaway car because it's only a 'baby' and it's only a 'car'.’ In other words, the scene isn't about the baby. The scene is about scenes about babies.”
Which I feel was more than adequately boiled down by Rene Magritte in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images, 1928–29), a painting of a pipe which he captions, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": “This is not a pipe.” And it isn’t. It’s a painting of a pipe. “The famous pipe,” Magritte lamented. “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I'd have been lying!” (Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)
Taking this all further, Ebert noted about the cinematic culture around him, “We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.”
Modern movies, from this point of view, are neither self-contained nor created in a vaccuum. Every movie is made of particles from other movies. “Homage” has moved beyond the in-joke, background detail or set-piece and into literal and thematic presentation. So much of this is personified by Quentin Tarantino and his contemporaries. They’re not making movies, they’re making their versions of movies that had come before. “I told Robert [Rodriguez], ‘You made your Fistful of Dollars with El Mariachi, now’s the time to make your epic, your Once Upon a Time in the West”, sez the world’s most successful fanboy on the audio commentary for Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s like the self-referential humor of The Family Guy: “That’s funny because I get it.” The Inglorious Basterds was neither a remake of The Inglorious Bastards nor simply a World War II adventure, but it was Tarantino’s WWII movie. Coming up is Tarantino’s spaghetti western, Django Unchained.
For better or worse, we’re slowly coming out of the age of irony and/or credulity because the most recent crop of movie-goers, including but not limited to the Twi-hards, are simply unaware of what came before, so every movie cliché is new to them. I remember a Twilight fan swooning over Edward because, “When he says cheesy stuff, it’s sincere because he doesn’t know it’s cheesy!” And thus we get Total Recall for this generation, Red Dawn for this generation. And this generation doesn’t know that they’re cheesy retreads, thus, they’re sincere.
All of this is a backhanded way of introducing Ward Roberts new film, Dust Up, because it lands somewhere between ironic and post-ironic. Produced through his Drexel Box production house, Dust Up at first glance is a loving send-up of ‘70s exploitation, the “grindhouse” genre that is all the rage. Ironic because it takes the market-driven selling points of gratuitous sex, violence and mayhem and embraces them. Post-Ironic because it takes the most ludicrous of these elements to their logical conclusion. And post-credulous because it does it with sincerity, honesty and a passion for all of the sources that came before it. And in the end, Dust Up is not “Ward Roberts’ exploitation movie”; Dust Up is Ward Roberts’ Dust Up. It takes all the other-movie particles and molds them into something from his point of view and his sensibilities, and those of his collaborators, and makes something that’s both familiar and outrageous at the same time, but never seems derivative. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and on either side of the tightrope lies disaster. Fortunately, Roberts and company manage the middle walk very well.
Dust Up is about the accidental—if not destined—collision of five people. New mom Ella and her junkie husband Herman, and two opposing forces: the stoic and enigmatic peaceful warrior Jack (Aaron Gaffney) and his Indian sidekick Mo (Devin Barry) on one end; the twisted and gleefully evil narcissistic personality Buzz on the other. Jack wears an eyepatch, a constant reminder of a tortured past as a violent soldier; Mo wears a Jay Silverheels outfit and yellow-striped tube socks, to both honor and mock his Native American forebears who have gotten rich and fat off of casino living. Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett) ingests chemicals, tortures people and declares everything to be his: “This is MY house. The House of Buzz. In the Land of Buzz. In the Time of Buzz.”
Ella (Amber Benson) is a young mother living in a house with severe plumbing problems. Her husband Herman (fellow filmmaker Travis Betz), a roadie for Hoobastank (of all things), went a little loopy after the birth of their daughter, Lucy, and is now holed up at Buzz’s in a drug-induced, debt-heavy sabattacal. In need of clean water, Ella picks Jack’s name out of the phone book—the way of this peaceful warrior is that of the handyman. This is before Ella learns of her deadbeat spouse’s debt to psychopath, Buzz. Actually, Buzz is much more than a psychopath, more than a sociopath. He’s a charismatic, amoral, self-affirming bar owner-cum-cult leader who promises those he doesn’t like—or happens to notice—with death via dismantling at the hands of his chief thug, Mr. Lizard. What’s more amoral than a sociopath? An anthropath, perhaps? Whatever, you don’t want to owe money to Buzz.
You know what annoys Buzz more than being owed money? Owing money to someone else. In this case, the corrupt, racist Sherriff Haggler (The Hills Have Eyes remake’s Ezra Buzzington), who wants his payoff and demands it in a most demeaning fashion. The laws of physics dictate that shit rolls downhill, to Buzz calls in poor Herman’s marker, gives him 24 hours to get the money and then has Mr. Lizard eject him from the bar in a most unfriendly fashion.
Over the course of a few scenes, Jack becomes involved in Herman’s plight because it has become Ella’s plight. Jack is cut from the same cloth as most wayward heroes on the path of redemption—particularly Shane, according to an interview with Roberts at the Daily Grindhouse—so he isn’t likely to leave a damsel in distress. Before you jump to conclusions, he’s doing this out of pure spirit. Yes, Herman is a junkie, a bad husband, irresponsible, lazy, most likely unwashed and very much an ungrateful jerk, but these facts aren’t lost on anybody. The deeper he drags Jack (and Mo) into his pit of karmic despair, the more everyone—even Buzz!—questions why they’re bothering to help him out at all. The lesson to be taken away is if you’re going to be a selfish schlep of a person, you’d better have a pretty and capable wife and an adorable baby at home. Otherwise even Mother Theresa would be inclined to throw you to the wolves.
As can be expected, things spiral out of control, epically and apocalyptically. Jack attempts to make good on Herman’s debt by lending him half of the money he owes Buzz in a show of good faith, but Buzz isn’t one to focus on problem-solving. In a matter of minutes, the casual morning meeting results in Buzz accidentally blowing up his bar—it’s a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of cause and effect, but the end result is that Buzz accidentally shoots one of his meth chemists mid-cook and, as we all know, meth is a most volatile and tempermental chemical potion. Emotionally, it’s the fourteen-year-old-girl of drugs.
The rest of the film could be titled “Buzz’s Bad Day”, as he punishes everyone in his path for his own misfortune. He and reason aren’t even in the same time zone, and if you’re wondering if depravity has a baseline, as far as Buzz goes, the answer is ‘no’. He does know how to whip up a freak frenzy. Unfortunately, he doesn’t choose his followers wisely. Drug-addled desert-scum aren’t known for their stamina, no matter how many barbecued human bodies they’re fed. This is best demonstrated when Buzz declares, “It’s orgy time!” and receives the same dismayed reaction as if he’d announced a pop quiz.
Dust Up was obviously crafted to be a fun time for all, and it’s one of the rare movies, indie or otherwise, that is as much fun to watch as apparently it was to make. Behind it all are smart filmmakers who know which conventions to turn on their heads and which ones to embrace. As wacky as Dust Up is it never once tries to act like it’s better than either the genre or its audience. Unlike recent “grindhouse” movies like Hobo with a Shotgun, Dust Up wasn’t designed as a party tray of excess and nihilism. It asks you to care about its characters and then gives you characters to care about. Every one of the actors is pitch-perfect in their performances so it’s hard to single any one out. Gaffney’s a terrific hero archetype, violently opposed to violence lik Billy Jack, but with the smooth vocal tones of Joel McCrea. Barry brings just enough dry wit to Mo to comment on the insanity of things—even his own actions—without becoming hipster about it all. As Herman, Travis Betz—whose amazing allegorical demon cabaret, Lo (starring Birkett as the title character), introduced me to the majority of the versatile cast—gives the jerk of a catalyst an affability that earns a little bit of redemption at the end. Birkett doesn’t so much steal every scene he’s in as he attempts to corner the market on it. Buzz could all too easily be a cartoon villain, the word “Evil” given bushy eyebrows and pop eyeballs, but Birkett hints at a humanity buried deep beneath the viciousness and drug-induced paranoia. Both he and Jack project a loneliness and sense of loss, making them each other’s dark mirror. Perhaps the hardest job was placed on Benson’s shoulders. The filmmaker/author has the dubious honor of portraying the lone sane person in this sea of multi-colored insanity. Like Bob Newhart in all incarnations, she’s the only rational one in the room at any given time, and she does it with a sense of humor that anchors all the madness together.
Roberts, Betz and Benson not only love film but understand it as well, as they’ve proven through this movie and previous offerings like Betz’s Joshua and Benson’s Drones (which she co-wrote and directed with Adam Busch). They’re not into the popular mash-ups of movie iconography and theme so much as they are into creating new forms from previously-used clay. As far as Dust Up goes, Roberts has taken the history of movies he loves and built upon it, rather than attempt to reflect it in some mirror he fractured himself. The result is both familiar to those who know the territory and unique at the same time. A ‘70s sex ‘n death-fest with an altruistic attitude taken from Howard Hawks westerns. A salute to what came before even as it moves forward.
As the saying goes, “This is Dust Up. There are others like it, but this one is…” Roberts’, Drexel Box’s, and now ours.