MIFF69 – The Nowhere Inn (2020)

Musician Annie Clark – better known under her stage name St. Vincent – and comedian/musician Carrie Brownstein – who made her name as the co-creator/co-writer/co-star of sketch comedy series Portlandia (2011-18) – have been friends for 10 years. The Nowhere Inn (2020) brought them together to document St. Vincent’s I Am a Lot Like You! Tour (2018-19) – although what they came up with is far from a conventional tour record, merging the genres of documentary, mockumentary and psychological thriller to create a metafictional reflection on the nature of identity and the way the act of observation has an inherent tendency to distort what is observed.

This deviation from conventional documentary is apparent from the very first scene. St. Vincent is in the back of a stretch limousine transporting her through the desert, attempting to take some personal time while being constantly interrupted by a driver (Ezra Buzzington) who feels it’s very important to tell her that he’s never heard of her. No sooner has she put her headphones back on and returned to her book than he interrupts again to tell her that his son is on the phone and he’s never heard of her either. Reluctantly responding to their mutual demand for her to sing one of her songs, we’re pulled abruptly out of the song by their reaction to the word “motherfucker” – the driver abruptly ends the call and stops bothering her, allowing her to return to reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2012), a book examining the question of whether a focus on representations of cruelty has the potential to induce cruelty in others. Although the sight of the book’s cover might seem at first to be nothing more than a joking reference to the driver’s microaggressions, the book’s broader theme of artifice influencing reality becomes more relevant as the film unfolds.

“Why was the movie never completed?” St. Vincent’s rhetorical question spoken directly to camera provides the framework bracketing the rest of the film. It’s followed by Carrie’s first filmed footage as a more awkward Annie stares uncertainly into the camera and tries to work out what is expected of her. Annie is hoping for a film which shows her as she really is – and who better to make such a film than a close friend who knows her well? Echoes of their prior friendship are scattered through the film in the form of grainy home video footage, providing an anchor to simpler, more open and more natural times which will become increasingly distant. Carrie’s initial optimism for the project quickly fades when she realises that Annie’s natural behaviour behind the scenes involves chilling out with video games, going through her regular morning exercise routine, or getting excited about hitting the double word score in a post-gig game of Scrabble – not exactly the “traditional” rock lifestyle.

The first third of the film sees Carrie trying to force some sort of drama – something more like what she’s used to seeing in music documentaries. She brings up the fact that Annie’s father is in prison in an attempt to capture some raw emotion, but quickly dismisses this as insensitive. Later she tries to force a story onto the film by suggesting they work on a new song together, providing some sort of thread for the audience to follow which could also act as a commercial hook, insistent that the subject of the song should be Annie’s choice but shooting down all of her ideas. Woven in amongst this is a constant pressure for Annie to bring more of her St. Vincent persona to her backstage behaviour, with Carrie wilfully oblivious to the irony of attempting to make an audience connect with the real Annie by suppressing her natural personality.

The turning point hits when a doorman refuses to allow Annie access to her next performance venue because she doesn’t have a pass and he doesn’t recognise her – despite her face on the posters being visible all around him. Sneaking in through a back entrance, she overhears a reporter badmouthing her as arrogant and inaccessible – when in fact the reporter had barely paid attention to her and Annie had gone out of her way to be nice. The next time we see her backstage she’s begun starting to behave as she thinks people want to her to behave, and – sure enough – when she next sees the reporter and treats her with disdain, the reaction is awe at her “authentic” star behaviour. It’s not long before Annie slips a note under Carrie’s door inviting her into her hotel room, where Carrie is greeted by the sight of St. Vincent and her new girlfriend – actress Dakota Johnson – posing on a bed in their lingerie. St. Vincent demands that Carrie film them having sex, which Carrie tries to do as best she can without looking while begging (unsuccessfully) to be allowed to leave and find an intimacy coordinator.

As Annie disappears further into a consciously-constructed St. Vincent persona, Carrie becomes ever more desperate in her attempts to bring back the person she once knew. St. Vincent’s behaviour becomes ever more artificial and stylised, while the imagery becomes increasingly prone to rippling and disintegrating into burning celluloid. Carrie and St. Vincent’s scenes separate from each other continue to diverge stylistically, creating a widening contrast between naturalism and artifice, but the gravity of their shared creative project brings them inexorably back together until their trajectories finally collide.

Although it’s tempting to go into more detail about various little incidents, I don’t want to spoil the experience of coming to this movie fresh more than I already have (other than to note that you should keep watching all the way through the credits). Appearing as themselves – or at least versions of themselves – are St. Vincent and her band, Carrie Brownstein and Dakota Johnson. Everybody else in the film, including the main characters’ relatives, is an actor playing a role – and it’s probably worth mentioning that, as far as I could determine, Dakota Johnson has never been in a relationship with Annie Clark (although they do have chemistry). Carrie Brownstein is in fact a director, having worked on both short films and TV since 2016, but she’s not this film’s director – that real-life role is taken by Bill Benz, who has a long-term connection with Brownstein from Portlandia, starting the series as an editor and finishing as a director. Brownstein & Clark collaborated on the script, which contains a surprising amount of reality, such as the fact that Clark’s father really was in prison at the time (his subsequent release from incarceration providing inspiration for her next album). Both women fully commit to the illusion of reality that they are trying to build and clearly have a lot of confidence in their relationship to be willing to so brutally undermine themselves. And although I’ve barely mentioned it, there’s also plenty of skilfully filmed concert footage on display, so anybody coming to the film purely to see a St. Vincent performance can consider that box ticked.

Will you leave this film having learned more about the real St. Vincent? That’s difficult to say – but then, that’s part of the point of the film, which implicitly poses the counter-question: “Would you have learned any more about the real St. Vincent if this were a more conventional documentary?” Whatever your own answer might be, I think that Annie Clark chose the more interesting of the two options.

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