The (WW)World Viewed: Reflections on the Films of Michael M. Bilandic

The wild cinema of the New York independent filmmaker engages deliriously and directly with our precarious present existence.
Josh Heaps

Michael M. Bilandic's Project Space 13 is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries starting December 10, 2021 in the series The New Auteurs, as well as in the series Anarchy in NYC: Michael M. Bilandic's Streetwise Cinema.

Project Space 13

When it comes to contemporary cinema, there arises the question of how to depict the breakneck present—in particular, a volatile and fast-paced internet culture indebted to the techno-apocalyptic strides of the 21st century. Some films confront it obliquely with the occasional meme reference or on-screen text, while others avoid it entirely by setting themselves in a world free of automated contrivance. A third increasingly prevalent tactic is to augur the dangers of “the online.” Films concerned with social media, in particular, almost uniformly denounce such platforms as soulless and exploitative. 

The films of Michael M. Bilandic offer a worthwhile alternative to this nihilism by embracing the Internet—and even the Post-Pandemic—Age with open arms. In Bilandic's universe, YouTube, livestreams, and global lockdowns are less portentous harbingers than vital gateways to lighthearted narratives and happy endings. This simplicity, however, belies a revolving cast of oddball personalities, each with their own unique relationship to the rapidly hysterical and technology-driven present—for reference, think David DeCoteau and Alex Ross Perry co-directing an American Pie feature in 2021. Bilandic's imaginative portrayal of our hotfoot era purposely counters the naysayers bemoaning the death of cinema, culture, and New York City—Bilandic's preferred setting. More importantly, his lighthearted filmography —Happy Life (2011), Hellaware (2013), Jobe'z World (2019), and Project Space 13 (2021)—provides a breath of fresh air to the mainstream's stale attempts at screening modernity. 

Happy Life, Bilandic's first feature, follows Keith (Tom McCaffrey), a shlumpy DJ stuck in a not-so-distant past of rave culture and trance, a subgenre of techno. Keith's démodé setlist and record store, New York Tunez, are failing to excite a new generation of Manhattan youth. Yet, oblivious to his own obsolescence, Keith decides to put on one last party in an attempt to save both his career and vision for a cutting-edge trance scene. In the process, he encounters a series of Manhattan eccentrics and a potential love interest, and while the rave is not a success—financially or otherwise—Keith and company go out in a blast of searing neon. 

Happy Life

It is in Happy Life, Bilandic's coarsest offering, where he declares his lasting interest in, and acceptance of, the present. Released in 2011, just ahead of the smartphone revolution, the film anticipates a near future of impermanent trends and incessant Twitter feeds. Bilandic's debut may commemorate bygone eras—the film's postscript is a series of black and white photographs depicting foreclosed Manhattan establishments like the legendary Tribal Soundz—however, it distinguishes itself from nostalgia porn by leaning into this change. Where the washed-up DJ Liquidz (Gilles Decamps) is left with nothing but drug addictions and a rotation of horny memories, Keith and his punk girlfriend Lil Tina (Amanda Salane) accept the ephemerality of their respective milieus. New York Tunez's anti-climactic rave becomes a celebration of what was, but more importantly, it looks to a future long past the hipsters invading Keith's East Village neighborhood. Through Happy Life, shot on a shoestring by now-renowned cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Bilandic introduces himself as a director ready to meet the modern world head-on. All he had to do was wait for it to come.

Bilandic's next two features—released during the era of smartphones and rampant social networking—pivot around technology. In them, modern affordances lay the groundwork for strange and carefree narratives. Hellaware (2013), for instance, begins with a chance YouTube encounter. Nate (Keith Poulson), a down-and-out photographer with little to lose, stumbles across a rap-rock music video entitled "I'll Cut Yo Dick Off." Driven by the allure of the New York art scene, he treks to the boonies of Delaware to photograph the group responsible. As Nate discovers, Young Torture Killaz is made up of teenagers with nothing to do but drink 40s and impersonate Juggalos. They party together and, against all odds, Nate's gritty and non-consensual photos are given a solo show in an upscale Brooklyn gallery. When the group realizes that they have been exploited, however, Nate's big night does not go according to plan.

Hellaware

In Hellaware, Bilandic once again satirizes a self-aggrandizing culture unaware of its own transience. Nate's fifteen minutes in the en vogue art scene lose him the trust of his friends and photographic subjects, while Young Torture Killaz—indifferent to fleeting trends—come out on top. Their inflammatory YouTube video is ultimately aided by its very distance from political correctness and the highbrow. Compared with Nate’s self-important approach to art and culture, the rap-rock group presents an alternative as expansive, if not sketchy, as the Delaware woods over which they preside. In the face of modernity's ever-increasing clip, it seems the best one can do is be oneself—especially if this entails a love of face paint, codeine, and ICP-inspired Horrorcore. 

This theme is brought to a head in Jobe'z World, Bilandic's third feature. Released in the interminably online culture of 2019, the film ironically revolves around an anachronistic drug dealer (Jason Grisell) with a penchant for old school in-line skates, print comic books, and Manhattan's midnight hours. Before picking his mom up from the airport, the titular Jobe delivers a powerful mixture of pharmaceuticals to famed actor Royce David Leslie (Theodore Bouloukos), a Wellesian personality whose livestreamed overdose implicates Jobe and sends him skating for his life through the moonlit streets of Manhattan. The film plays out like a demented After Hours (1985), if that film’s straight man, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), were replaced by a rollerblading molly vendor and aficionado.

Jobe'z World's careful attention to sound, editing, and mise-en-scène—due in no small part to Bilandic's ride-or-die DP Williams—distinguishes it from the notably amateur quality of its crunchier predecessors. Similarly, the film's up-to-date references—to smart technology, face tattoos, and vaping—firmly cement it within a culture largely undeveloped in Happy Life and Hellaware. As expected, Bilandic treats these modern touchstones with blithe humor. Amidst outpourings from Royce's many sycophants—a satirical indictment of internet-driven celebrity fetishism—it is only Jobe, our on-screen counterpart, who wonders whether the viral death-video may in fact be clickbait. His hunch is vindicated when Royce's livestream is revealed to have been staged—the actor's greatest performance yet. Jobe'z World ends at the crack of dawn, and as its relieved hero hurries off-screen to meet his mom for breakfast, so too do the trends and trendings of the previous day dissipate to make room for a new day's drama. As Jobe's friend Zane (Owen Kline) astutely remarks, "at the end of the road, none of this nonsense even matters."

Jobe'z World

But then the pandemic struck, and with it, a slew of pressing concerns over its cinematic portrayal. Some films—like Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World (2021)—acknowledged COVID with passing reference to masks, while others—such as Ben Wheatley's In the Earth (2021)—relied on desultory metaphor and art-house horror to evoke the doom of global contagion. The majority of post-pandemic features, however, took evasive action, finding refuge from “the new normal” in either outer space, the past, or an alternate virus-free modernity. Unsurprisingly, Bilandic did the opposite. Charging into the belly of strange contemporaneity, his new film—Project Space 13—is set firmly in our world in March of 2020.

On the one hand, PS13 evokes Bilandic's previous features; like Jobe'z World, it takes place over one surrealistic night in lower Manhattan, and like Hellaware, it follows hack photographer Nate as he pursues his latest endeavor—in this case, a Joseph Beuys-esque performance piece involving a dirt-filled cage, a robot dominatrix named Zebos, and a strict diet of dried bugs and soy beverages. Bilandic's usual investment in technology is likewise engaged through strange metallic art pieces, an electronic soundscape best described in onomatopoeia (“bleep bloop”), and persistent iPhone warnings from Nate's introspective and histrionic manager, played by Jobe'z'svery own Grisell. Still, PS13's emphasis on a single location opposes the peripatetic nature of its predecessors and signals a new direction for Bilandic's ever-adaptive career.

Project Space 13

As the streets of Soho erupt into pandemic-fueled riots, Nate is joined by two incompetent security guards (Hunter Zimny and Bilandic-favorite Bouloukos), and over the course of the night, the trio embark on a journey of quasi-self-discovery. Their interactions—and nearly the entirety of Bilandic's film—occur within Nate's claustrophobic and single-roomed art show, which fast-becomes the stage for a number of inane conversations reminiscent of Clerks (1994) or Waiting for Godot. Like Beckett's play, time takes on a strange and plodding rhythm that belies PS13's modest runtime of 66 minutes, and by the film's end both audience and characters are shocked—and slightly disappointed—to see sunlight pouring beneath the crack of the gallery's steel shutter. In his newest film, Bilandic subverts the monotony of lockdown by channeling his usual oddball chaos into one location. A COVID world need not be a joyless one, and PS13 takes great pleasure in its spatial constraints by making the best of our increasingly dystopian 21st century. Bilandic once again demonstrates an uncanny ability to adapt, and though one hopes for a safe and blemish-free future, it is hard not to wish for apocalypse—if only to see another of Mike's cinematic innovations.

In a well-circulated YouTube video, David Lynch remarked that "if you're playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film." Bilandic's films, however, are perhaps best described as “movies to watch on your iPhone”—if only to emphasize their director's refusal to let modernity preclude the cinematic experience. Bilandic, raised on a steady diet of Troma and B-films, works towards the playful appeal of low-budget genre pictures without sacrificing his own stake in the present. This unusual acceptance of contemporaneity in fact allows for a fresh take on the psychotronic features of Bilandic's youth. Just as I—alongside a small army of ardent mouth breathers—scour the web for a fuzzy copy of whatever forgotten exploitation classic, so too will the next generation be digging for Bilandic gold—films that are not only weird and magical, but authentic time capsules for the periods in which they were released. To avoid beating around the bush, Michael M. Bilandic deserves more recognition—though I can't help but wonder if much of his ingenuity is owed to a low-profile do-it-yourself attitude. Either way, while I do not think he actually wants his movies viewed on the iPhone's 6.1-inch screen, I have full confidence that Bilandic supports a cult legacy in which viewing his work risks either a computer virus or a series of scandalous pop-ups. At the very least, he'll have me—wading through a wave of uninvited Hentai ads to watch his next offering.

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