It’s California in the early ’90s on an outskirt north of Los Angeles dominated by decrepit strip malls, pawnshops, taco stands, and dirty coke dealers. Steve Hanft made a movie here, an ultra-low budget comedy about dead-end stock car racers called Kill the Moonlight.
Around the same time he befriended Beck. Hanft directed the video for “Loser.” It was his leaf blower that Beck ran around with on stage. He built the coffin that Beck emerged from like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. On a DVD interview he says, “He was so interested in the movie, I think it influenced him writing his first big hit.” I think he’s probably right. The screen is littered with the pop cultural detritus that made up Beck’s anti-folk sound. The line “I’m a driver, I’m a winner, things are gonna change I can feel it” is from the film. The film’s best image, of two men on the back of a truck putting on astronaut helmets, is also used in the video. Most importantly, Moonlight is about a loser who moves with the same stoned drawl as the song.
That loser, Chance (Thomas Hendrix), spends the entirety of the movie attempting to collect enough money to fix his car in time for an open race, in hopes of qualifying for a race that means something. The send-up of a standard monetary motivation for a protagonist gives the semblance of a plot to what is otherwise a series of aimless pursuits indicative of a hundred bad early ’90s indies — drinking 40s, driving, working menial jobs, and sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. That these aimless pursuits are a deadpan mocking of the idiot Chance helps to offset what would otherwise be an embarrassingly pessimistic look at young adult ennui, and at its best suggests what might have happened if the hero of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son picked up a camera.
The action is still pretty monotonous. Hanft is much more skilled as a photographer than a writer, and the film is better in its creation of a surreal lo-fi look influenced by ’70s B-films — what Hanft calls “something you’d see at night on a channel in between the other channels” — like the grainy over saturated sludge of a yellow-brown desert-suburb lined with florescent lights and dull colored driving-shot vistas. Static images of junk objects like a “Condor Oil” sign are held for so long they go from meaning nothing to possibly something then back to nothing again. This trashy alienated milieu is enhanced by a mistake due to poor sound recording–nearly all the dialogue had to be re-recorded and sloppily laid over the scenes so that the characters speak out of synch and sound like they’re talking to themselves in an echo chamber. However, there are too many careless shots for the film as a whole to be entirely successful as a full-realized visual approach.
Seemingly aware that there might not be a lot of interest in an ultra-low budget rarely screened film from the early ’90s, Plexifilm has packaged the DVD with an appealing soundtrack that includes a smattering of obscure L.A. garage rock, three Beck songs, and three songs by the director’s punk band Loser featuring Beck. Loser’s stuff isn’t that great, it sounds like a death metal spoof to me, but Hanft writes that “Beck’s grunge guitar work was awesome though, it wasn’t technically good but it had an amazing force to it.” This faith in the power of lo-fi may account for some of the film’s lazier faults.
But the most frustrating, potentially redeeming aspect of the film is the vagary of the director’s intentions. Is Chance a lost soul or just an idiot? What’s with the underdeveloped fish motif? Like Beck, Hanft is the kind of guy with a sense of humor so dry you’re not sure if he’s being glib or honest, but unlike Beck Hanft’s conceptions are too muddled to make the film really work. He ends the DVD liner notes with a fittingly deadpan description of its first screening, “Sofia Coppola was there and called me the next day to say she loved Kill the Moonlight and she was going to convince her father to distribute it. Unfortunately Francis never called.”