Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Benson & Moorhead’s Something in the Dirt

Maybe it is no accident Los Angeles is such an unlivable city. Maybe it was part of a deliberate conspiracy. That is a pretty sinister thought, but two down-on-their-luck losers are pretty are starting to believe it. Somehow, it all relates to the strange and potentially otherworldly force that manifests itself in their apartment building throughout Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s Something in the Dirt, which opens Friday in New York.

Levi Danube has just moved into John Daniels’ dingy little complex, occupying that one unit that has not been rented for years. While lending him some furniture, Daniels witnesses some kind of something—like a trick of the light, but more. Eventually, Danube sees it too, so they decide to start studying and recording it. The ultimate goal would be to release the ostensive documentary we’re now watching, but don’t worry. This is not found footage.

It also becomes clear from brief interviews with the various editors and technical advisors the two neighbors brought in, their collaboration process was not entirely smooth. For one thing, Daniels will be a bit disturbed to discover Danube’s sex offender record. Conversely, Danube becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his partner’s rapid descent into conspiracy theory mania. Daniels starts to suspect the phenomenon they witness in his sort-of-friend’s apartment is related to Pythagorean cults, which perhaps dictated the original design of the city of Los Angeles. It is hard to really explain the foxholes they dive into, but the visuals are pretty cool.

Benson and Moorhead are talented genre filmmakers, who also appear this time around as Danube and Daniels, respectively. Clearly, they have a firm grasp on conspiratorial paranoia. Based on
Something, the filmmaking duo would be the perfect candidates to direct an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. That is a short book for a reason, though. The nearly two-hour Something would have been much stronger if it had pared back some of the two neighbors’ bickering and kvetching.

Still, there is so much detail to their paranoid vision,
Something will have viewers diving into their own rabbit-holes out of curiosity. Good luck finding any info on Los Angeles city planner and Pythagorean cultist William Thomson. Regardless, it is clear they have absorbed a lot of conspiracy theories, because they understand the elements that hook people in.

Benson and Moorhead also create two very distinct but equally marginalized and alienated characters. However, they are a little too taken with what they think is the novelty of Daniels status as a gay Evangelical. Seriously, at this point, everyone must know some pretty conservative gays and lesbians. However, their humane performances clearly establish Daniels and Danube’s receptiveness to extreme and fanciful ideas as a byproduct of their vulnerability and social isolation.

Something in the Dirt
is an intriguing film, but it never matches the inventiveness of their previous releases, Spring, The Endless, and Synchronic. It is creepy and mysterious, but at this point, the fundamental situation feels somewhat familiar. Recommended for fans of Guy Maddin-esque secret histories and Robert Anton Wilson-style science fiction, Something in the Dirt opens this Friday (11/4) at the Regal Union Square.