It’s very rare that we are happy with what we have.
—Unai (Unai Fresnedo)
“I feel like a fucking gerbil,” sighs Tara (Tara Jane O’Neil). “My little cage, my little breathing hole, water straw.” She sits in a booth at the movie theater where she works, looking out at an empty sidewalk. As she’s logging her thoughts on a Sony microcassette recorder and the camera tips up toward her face, the space looks especially tight. She ignores the increasingly loud knocking on the door behind her: “Hello! Focus, please. Can we have a little focus, please? What the hell!” She slurps what’s left of her giant concession stand soda, ice cubes clacking.
Here Half-Cocked cuts to another scene, back at the house where Tara’s living. The camera pans slowly over her roommates, sitting on chairs or the floor, smoking cigarettes, reading magazines and album covers. Tara’s already complained about this arrangement, that she’s working to pay the rent on a place where friends and a few “freaks” she doesn’t quite know come to crash. True, she acknowledges, it’s “really good to be out of my parents’ house,” but still, her future isn’t turning out like she imagined it would.
If Tara’s dilemma sounds familiar, it doesn’t always look that way. In part, its appeal has to do with the grainy black and white imagery of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s first feature, made in 1994, a look that makes even the dreariest Louisville storefronts look like art, more or less emulating the DIY aesthetic of the bands who become the subject and supply the cast: O’Neil was in Rodan at the time of filming, along with costars Jon Cook, Jeff Mueller, and Jason Noble. And this is another part of the film’s appeal, the not wholly clear crossing over between the cast members’ so-called real lives and the parts they’re playing.
Such crossing over, as a concept, is revisited in Hawley and Galinsky’s second film, Radiation, made in 1999, which follows the adventures of an indie band promoter named Unai, played by a promoter named Unai Fresnedo. Both films are currently part of Rumur Retrospective, showing Hawley and Galinsky’s films on Thursdays throughout May, in Brooklyn, Arlington, Virginia, and Perth, Australia. As both Half-Cocked and Radiation sort through how documentary and fiction might overlap, they raise questions about performance more broadly, how identities are forged and adjusted in and as relationships. Both films look at how this happens in bands, where distinctions between intimacy and isolation can be especially difficult to parse.
When, in Half-Cocked, Tara sits in that ticket booth, her boredom and frustrations are both obvious and elusive. She’s tired of following rules, of her duller than dull job, her older brother’s derision (he’s played by Nation of Ulysses’ Ian Svenonius), and the close quarters of Louisville (“It’s fucked,” she says, “I go to the store and the cashier thinks she knows everything about me just ‘cause he knows m mom put pure grain in my baby formula”). And so she takes off, stealing her brother’s van and driving off with her band to Tennessee, where they think their options will be different.
It’s not long before they’re short on money and hungry, stealing snacks from convenience stores and looking for places to sleep that aren’t the van. They get a couple of gigs, they’re loud and not exactly skilled, and the film provides plenty of performance footage, but they’re not going anywhere. Eventually they find themselves in a diner, confronted by a waitress (Corky) with her own performance to give. “Why are y’all so depressed?” she asks, the camera tipped up at her over Jason’s shoulder. “Y’all look like somebody died or something.” She’s wearing a flower-print apron, her voice is lilty in the worst way, and at last Jason sums up: “Look,” he says, “We’re totally burned. We’ve been driving all night, we don’t even know where. We don’t even like each other.”
The scene is weird and distressing: the waitress is too noisy, the band too dejected, the resolution too distant. The scene is also exemplary of Half-Cocked‘s storytelling, its slipping between what’s familiar and strange, what’s awkward and persuasive. Such slipping recalls other indie band movies like Smithereens (1980) or Border Radio (1987), and like them, considers the ineluctable intertwinings of life and fiction.
This focus is more acute in Radiation, because Unai provides a fairly transparent (but never wholly revealing) voiceover account of what he thinks he’s doing, but also because his role as a promoter has him imagining daily how acts are sold as real. It helps too that Unai is a singularly difficult character, sometimes apparently self-aware (“I tried to escape it all through music,” he says of his routine as a young man in Bilbao, “But the problem was that I was drawn to music that was about problems”) and sometimes vividly pompous (capitalism “is not just about economics, it affects how people deal with each other, they need to dominate they need to humiliate”).
Unai’s inability to figure out his own fictions may be the point, but Radiation is trickier than that. Unai isn’t just a guy with a set of “problems,” he’s a symptom and a product. Most obviously, he’s a salesman, promoting someone else’s act, first, the band Come (playing themselves), until they leave him. Then he’s traveling with a performance artist named Mary (Katy Petty) and his buddy Ignacio (Ignacio Fernández). As Unai pretends for a living, seduces and cajoles, lies and exploits, he’s on an obvious track even as the film begins.
Still, Radiation doesn’t only condemn him, but instead follows his efforts to sell himself, as a character in a film if nothing else. His philosophizing is lightweight, but it’s not clear whether he knows that. He may believe the stories he’s been told, the acts he emulates, the successes he thinks he sees. He can’t always tell what’s real or not. But the movie doesn’t tell you either.