Something in the Dirt
Dir. Justin Benson &
Before SOMETHING IN THE DIRT screening at the Sitges Film Festival, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead introduced their film, saying:
"When COVID put us all inside of our homes and we started thinking about making this project, I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t sure movie theatres would survive. I think we were all worried about that, and here we are."
It is hard to imagine what that feeling would have been like for filmmakers coming to the possible realisation that the true home of cinema, the movie theatre, might not survive the lockdowns. The drive and creativity that filmmakers possess is never surprising. The spirit of independent filmmaking is one of perseverance, creative and imaginative skill, and a desire to make movies. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have an incredible reputation as indie filmmakers (THE ENDLESS, SYNCHRONIC), and have a unique storytelling style that forms a lasting impression on their audiences. With a near two-hour run time, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT is a credit to the directors that their strange, humorous, and at times incredibly touching film maintains your focus.
Levi, Justin Benson, has just moved into a shabby, rundown apartment in LA, sight unseen. As he wakes up one morning, he realises he doesn’t have any cigarettes. Looking out his window, he notices John, Aaron Moorhead, a neighbour, down in the courtyard. After borrowing a smoke from John, they both get into a conversation, and we learn why Levi is there and why he's got no furniture. Being a friendly new neighbour, John tells Levi that he's got a bunch of extra stuff in storage that he's welcome to. After helping to move in some furniture to Levi's apartment, John declines a drink, telling Levi that he hasn't had a drink in years, and on opening the door to leave, John is attracted to a strange light that is coming from the window. As he turns from the door, he sees a strangely shaped ashtray floating, emitting this colourful light. Walking back into the apartment, he brings Levi out into the living room to show him, but the ‘phenomenon’ has stopped, and Levi is less than convinced. As John goes to leave, pulling open the door, the ashtray begins to float again, this time with Levi witnessing it, and thus starting their adventure.
It is only when one of the talking heads Levi and John interview asks why they are playing themselves in the re-enactments that you understand that it's a mock documentary rather than a straight fiction film. That is when you realise that you have not been watching the film you thought you were watching, but instead a re-enactment of the experiences these two characters went through that blurs the lines of documentary filmmaking. That penny should have dropped sooner, but it is a testimony to Benson and Moorhead's directing and performance that as an audience you are truly invested in their story. The use of the experts—former filmmaker colleagues, editors, etc.—as the talking heads helped to build the tension and offered a great insight into Benson and Moorhead's approach to their film. Once you realise that this is a re-enactment, one begins to understand that these two have been doing this for a much longer time, which explains why Levi seems somewhat distant towards John. As the story within the film/doc is explored, you get this sense that Levi's loss and isolation has only grown worse and making the doc of their experiences is reopening wounds. Levi was supposed to leave Los Angeles; this was only a stopover for him; but the phenomenon, combined with John's desire to make a documentary, has caused him to delay his departure. Trapping a free spirit can inevitably crush the soul, adding extra weight, disappointment, and sadness.
Both men are lost and there is a lonesomeness one feels that is inescapable. It is the type of loss that is hard to define, but it is a loss all the same. John, who has been living in his apartment for ten years, is an alcoholic, a great manipulator, and he lies, which have no real value other than causing pain to himself and those around him. It’s less of a defence mechanism and more of a self-destructive personality trait that he has resigned himself to keeping unchecked. Early on, John seems to gaslight Levi, and somewhat enjoys playing with him emotionally and mentally. As this grows, we understand that John’s alcoholism is pretty much to blame for most of this, but it still makes it hard for you to root for him. There is a connection that is forged between Levi and John that is instant, and the more they talk and share their lives, the more you begin to understand why this connection between them is so strong.
With the characters only sharing this sense of loss, the two couldn’t be any more different. We understand Levi and his past a little more than John's, as Levi really doesn't have much to hide, just some shameful past indiscretions, but his openness in discussing this history suggests that he is also freeing himself of this burden. For John, his story is slowly unpacked as the film progresses, and perhaps that is by design. A key to John’s character lies in his drinking. When Levi offers John a drink, he says he doesn’t drink, explaining that his ex was in AA and he really got into the 12 steps. But then we see him with a drink—and this will be a running theme throughout the film—the filmmakers will show something without explanation, but they will actually have previously explained it and just waited for you to see it. With John saying he doesn’t drink and his experience of living with an alcoholic, why does he have alcohol in his apartment? Only towards the end does John's veneer begin to tarnish, and yet the character remains resolute in his ‘purpose’ and in the documentary he’s been making.
You buy into this film because of Levi and John; their desire to find purpose and meaning, as well as their need to find a connection with someone. Los Angeles, like any big city, can be a very lonely place, and meeting someone, let alone having a conversation with them, can be almost impossible to do. During and after the pandemic, the lockdowns and the fear of what the future would actually hold have increased people's awareness of how lonely and isolated they really are. Before the pandemic, it was easier for people to always be "on the go," rushing from A to B and never stopping. The post-pandemic era has left Levi and John with nothing; no relationship, no real home for Levi, and no family. But the failure in their new relationship was a lack of trust and honesty on both sides. They possessed this need to keep part of themselves shielded, whether through general mistrust of one another or force of habit. This lack of openness, more from John’s side, led to the growing mistrust between them. But John’s ultimate cruelty is discounting Levi’s input because this phenomenon is his alone and Levi is just a human sounding board and nothing more. Midway through the film, during a stop at a shack in the dessert, Levi, having had his suggestions dismissed again by John, seems to come to this conclusion, and it’s in this moment that he’s given up on their shared adventure yet keeps getting pulled into it by the ever-persuasive John.
Although one can understand why Levi would be guarded with some of his history, it never feels like he’s being purposefully deceptive. In fact, he seems overly open and friendly towards John, even giving him a key to his apartment. But John’s deception is more purposeful; he seems more aware of what he’s saying and what he’s doing, as well as being aware that he has a drinking problem but refuses to open up to Levi. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if John had just been honest with Levi, as it seems Levi was really looking for a reason to stay, to be grounded, but he also seem suicidal. Through many missteps, accidents, and silly indiscretions, Levi set himself up for failure. There is a magnetism about him that is utterly captivating; he’s carefree but also someone that has substance to him. He’s like a guy you meet on a boardwalk who starts a conversation with you, and you end up talking to him for hours.
"The fantasy that they have made is believable, and you grow to trust the filmmakers, and this trust leads to falling deeper into the world they are creating."
Justin Benson has written a film that is a wild ride of unbelievable intrigue, conspiracy theories, mystery, and the beautiful dissection of friendship. One of the genius aspects of Benson’s script is the information he offers, and there is a lot. He's done a lot of research, and it shows. Pardon the pun, but everything lines up and makes sense the more you think about it. This pseudo-documentary-film is not only trying to convince its leads that what they are seeing and what they are experiencing is real, but Benson is also trying to convince the audience of its truth. The deluge of information is so great and so convincing that at some points you genuinely believe it’s a documentary. This is perhaps because you want Levi and John to succeed; you want them to have dedicated all this time and effort to be vindicated. So we accept the Pythagorean theorem, Los Angeles city planners, secret societies, and symbols John seems to see everywhere. The conspiracy theories are never challenged too much, or at all, by Levi, as he too wants to believe that this is something. The injection of home movies by the filmmakers gave Levi and John a truly inspired sense of realism. It is in this youth, we see hope, happiness, and a world of possibilities. We also wonder what happened. How did these two kids end up in a rundown apartment complex on a flight path surrounded by highly flammable foliage?
There is a quality to the way Benson and Moorhead have filmed SOMETHING IN THE DIRT that can only be achieved by having a real passion for filmmaking. One never feels cheapened by the experience as their amazing editing, cinematography, and sound uplift their film in such a unique way. The fantasy that they have made is believable, and you grow to trust the filmmakers, and this trust leads to falling deeper into the world they are creating. This is most powerfully captured by the directors during Levi and John's argument. Some painful home truths are shared, but the filmmakers chose to reverse it and had neither of their characters scream, shout, or get physical with each other. The calmness expressed their real feelings for one another and how much this connection has been broken, and it is here that we understand Levi was never heard by John. This is a moment of heartbreaking beauty that allows you to accept that for John, this journey is perhaps the only thing he has to hold on to that is keeping him together.
However, by the end, the filmmakers chose to leave it open for their audiences to decide; was it all just Levi’s dream, or was it that feeling we all got during the height of the pandemic, this forced repetition of life with no end in sight?