When I was working at Video Review magazine in the mid-1980s, I and most of the other staffers had multiple occasions to look at videos made by our readers. A colleague and I noted that many of the children in the videos "related" to the video camera in a way that we intuited was decidedly different from the way we might have related to having an 8mm camera trained on us in our youths. Film cameras, in "our" day, were not as ubiquitous as camcorders were then becoming; there was also a question of process. Video didn't need processing; once shooting finished, you could just plug your device in the back of your television, and, voila, there you were. "Seeing yourself on television used to be kind of a big deal," a colleague mused. "Now we're raising a generation of kids for whom seeing themselves on television is nothing special."
This proved true, I think, but not exactly in the way that we might have envisioned. There are different degrees of television, as you will learn by comparing how the mooks from Jersey Shore behave on the actual show that bears the name as opposed to how they behave sitting across from Billy Bush and the hilariously named (if you're British) Kit Hoover on a given episode of Access Hollywood Live. But people in their twenties today DO seem to negotiate the presence of a camera in their day-to-day lives in a way that's different from that of my own generation.
In the short, shot-on-video feature Scattered Junk, described in some venues as a "documentary collage," there's a section in which the camera and cameraman (who I presume is also the film's director, Timothy Morton, intrudes on Greg Cushing while he's taking a bath. Cushing and some of his mostly male friends are in the process of mourning Greg's brother Tim Cushing (shown above), a Louisville, Kentucky-based musician who killed himself in 2004 in the wake of a depression that was surely exacerbated, if not precipitated, by ear damage that had squelched his ability to continue playing. In the bath sequence, Cushing's getting razzed by another friend, and he's responding to the razzing in a normal, unaffected way; there's nothing like a "performance" in the way he's behaving. But, the whole while, even after the friend not holding the camera has left the room, Cushing's holding on to his privates, pretty protectively. He's clearly used to being seen/recorded, clearly doesn't mind being seen/recorded, but is going to control how much of himself is going to be seen/recorded in whatever way he can, albeit without making too much of an overt big deal about it.
I found this pretty fascinating, the most pointed such node in a work in which the people on screen often address the camera as if it is the actual person pointing the camera at them, which moments exist in very distinct contrast to those in which a subject actually "performs" for the camera. Most of the "performing" done for the camera is done by Tim, the suicide, in footage that is boxed and recessed into the larger (squareish) frame of the piece. He mugs, he narrates, he is goofily ebulliant and unkempt; his presences in this context, as it weaves in and out of the fragments showing Greg and friends dealing/not-dealing with his absence, cast him as, sort of, the overseeing visionary and/or slob—if you'll excuse the word. Tim is the absence that the slobs he's left behind—the ones who, in a suicide note of which portions are displayed on screen, he says he loves "beyond reason"—are obliged to reckon with.
I saw Scattered Junk on the site No Budge, which was conceived and is run by regional filmmaker Kentucker Audley and displays work by himself and his confreres. I was not particularly wowed by the last Audley work I saw, Open Five, which I found a relatively tired entry in the already too-well-worn ultra-indie subgenre of Semi-Lost-Weekends Of The Young, White, And Poorly Groomed. While the subjects of Scattered Junk, as personalities, display particular generational and regional idiosyncracies that are potentially beyond bordeline-irritating (taking pictures of themselves holding switchblades, saying things like "I want more art...immersing me," "relating" to African-American culture in the predictable patronizing way that says Gil Scott Heron=awesome while breakdancing=hilarious, and, most infuriatingly, using a toilet plunger to unclog a kitchen sink), Morton's approach does not privilege their personalities as such. And with canny editing, and a number of unexpected moments in which his camera takes a sort of flight in a way that's not what you'd call strictly "documentary" (I won't call it technique, because even when waxing lyrical the camera doesn't seem to be taxed; this is not, to say the least, what you would call a conventionally "beautiful" work), he acheives moments of near serene detachment. And it's through such moments that the film most effectively conveys its theme, which is the negotiation between the thoroughly quotidian and the nearly unimaginable that is, in a sense, a defining component of our existence. And the articulation of this theme, I would argue, successfully transcends (if you will) the rather squalid and sometimes seemingly silly circumstances of its subjects. Which isn't to say that the laughs in the film, and there are a few, are all at the subjects' expense. Yes, it's funny when the rather dreadful band Greg drums in (whose lead singer seems to envision himself as a cross between Damo Suzuki and Rasputin) set up at a dreaded "coffeshop gig" and about half a dozen people (who look to have been half of the assembled to begin with) get up and walk out. (And it's pretty effectively poignent when we put together that Tim once worked in that selfsame coffeshop.) On the other hand, another bit involving the location of a toothbrush undercuts I'm-gonna-hate-this-dude-too expectations by delivering actual comic payoff. So against a number of poor expectations, I found myself glad to have spent time with the film.
Which I came to, incidentally, through the recommendation of critic/filmmaker/DVD producer Craig Keller, whose writing on the film, I have to admit, I read as something of a dare. I don't think that the DIY tech utopians could have predicted the particular kind of fuck-you insularity/grandiosity that certain strains of no-budget filmmaking have engendered. It's odd to see such an open-hearted work praised in tones practically choking on spite ("your sick little poll;" "the revolution is not a craft-service table;" "Everyone will be cruel to this film—let's have no illusions that the critics are anything other than animals"). I myself am familiar with the critical posture of the guy hunched over at the end of the bar muttering in a stage whisper about what assholes all the other patrons are, and while I understand its attractions, I never really considered it to be actually persuasive.
UPDATE: On Twitter, Craig Keller has taken exception to my characterization of his piece on Scattered Junk, averring that I missed the post's "levity." I bring this up not to rally commenters to my side; rather, I'll take Keller at his word and allow that it's entirely possible I haven't kept up sufficiently with his writing to fully recognize where he's coming from, tonally. So I apologize for both the characterization and its attendant implications.