Zero Day (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Coccio's movie looks both chillingly insightful and despairingly naïve.

Zero Day

Director: Ben Coccio
Cast: Andre Keuck, Calvin Robertson, Gerhard Keuck, Johanne Keuck, Rachel Benichak, Christopher Coccio
Distributor: Home Vision
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Avatar
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-05
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Not to be too morbid here, but [Cal's] mom and dad have just put all this time, money, and effort into making his teeth look good, and later on, he's going to blow his teeth through his skull.
-- Ben Coccio, commentary, Zero Hour

It's gonna be unreal, it's gonna be beautiful.
-- Cal (Calvin Robertson), Zero Day

"This movie," says writer-director-editor Ben Coccio of his first feature, Zero Hour, "is like a frontloaded magic trick. You start off with everything as real as possible, so that when you get to that last scene when everything is fake, people accept it more readily as real." Made in the wake of the Columbine shootings and release now just after the shootings on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, Coccio's movie looks both chillingly insightful and despairingly naïve. And this contradiction is exactly right: the movie (any movie) can't begin to explain such horrors, but it might observe and consider the many elements that surround, influence, and distress the kids involved.

Structured as a series of tapes made by two killers, left in a safe deposit box to be discovered after their planned massacre and suicides, Zero Day emphasizes at once its amateurish seeming authenticity and, post-Blair Witch, its obvious contrivance. It's a smart movie but also a willfully blind one, frustrating and provocative. "This is our high school, located in our town. It is our worst enemy," says Cal at their project's start. The boys pose for the camera: "And we are the army of two: huhh!" While their self-imaging is chilling, it's also silly, a smart-ass reworking of the commercial catchphrases deployed by military recruiters.

For the Home Vision DVD, Coccio and Andre Keuck (who plays Andre), joined later by Calvin Robertson (Cal), note repeatedly the film's doubleness, the kids' self-awareness and the seeming intimacy they allow viewers, set against the boys' increasing distance, their inability or refusal to say what's troubling them. The boys remain somewhat circumspect regarding their future. "Zero Day" is the code name they give their "mission," and they're open about the "myriad of supply depots" where they keep bombs they've assembled, shotgun shells, bottle rockets, and fake IDs, as if they imagine the possibility of escape. But they don't. As the days count down, it's clear they have no intention of getting away with a fake passport -- they've seen these items in movies, and so they have them, too. They joke about previous shooters' lack of planning or the suggestion that they endure "anger management." They're not so much angry as undone. They have no hope for a better emotional life ahead, and so they obsess on revenge, on anyone who happens to be in their way. (Coccio notes here, "This pipe bomb scene is the nexus of the movie... like a microcosm of the rest of the movie. There's no whys, it's just how to... Whatever decision brought them to this point that they're ready to commit this horrible massacre, happened before the movie starts."

The absence of "whys" is at once deflective and unnerving. Looking into his own wide-angled "confessional" camera, Cal accuses you: "This is the machine's pupil. I'm staring right at you through the tape. We're gonna leave you all behind, just sticks in the mud that Andre and I have made. We see more than you do." The fear that you don't see, and the costs that this blindness generates, can hardly be missed, even as the film offers to let you off the hook.

On one level, this self-preservation is aesthetic. Coccio says in the commentary, "If you look through hundreds and hundreds of hours of anybody's home movies, most if it is going to be as boring as sin, but every now and then, you'll find a couple little shots that are beautiful in their own way or that say something really kind of interesting in their own way. Obviously this goes beyond that because these guys are planning this horrible high school massacre."

On another level, though, the distance is built into the narrative. Even if you feel close because of what Coccio calls "the whole first person kind of feel and the video and everything like that," eventually you realize "how far away you are from them, because they never tell you. They never tell you, really, anything." Keuck adds, "Because no matter how much they tell you, you don't know what they're not telling you."

Repeatedly, the film runs into moral dilemmas, including responsibility and voyeuristic interests. Coccio hasn't seemed to figure out his own interest, wanting to explore the kids' thinking but loathe even to look like he'd "sympathize" with boys who seem "monsters." He says, "Even though I don't propose any reason why and I am obviously coming from these guys', these two characters' perspective, and I am trying to make them watchable, I in no way want to make someone who would do something like this necessarily sympathetic. That's an impossible task anyway." It's probably not, but his problem is symptomatic: representing is not necessarily condoning, and articulating is not necessarily agreeing, but as anyone who has thought about fictionalizing recent events -- involving terrorists, for instance -- has run smack into the same wall. In the current climate, you need to maintain a moral, emotional, and absolute distance from such subjects. You cannot look like you've "identified."

Just so, the film maintains a visible distance from the boys even as it appears to provide their "perspective" (this is underlined at film's end, when Andre and Cal leave their camera running in the car while they scamper off to the high school, and the film overtakes them via the surveillance cameras -- harsh black and white footage, gazing down on the shooters from a distance and with counters running at the screen's bottom, clinicizing the event (and recalling the Columbine footage), down to the moment when they kneel and blast their heads off.

Throughout the film, they fantasize about their own deaths. Their night-vision cameras make them look ghastly pale green, like "ghosts." They visit graveyards, practice shooting with a cousin who has no idea what they're up to. As Coccio points out, this is a terrible betrayal of "the family who love them... I grew up in a rural area," he defends the cousin. "This is like hick pastime, you go out and shoot crap." And, he adds, he never shot anyone.

Cal and Andre, though, have a sense of mission in their shooting practice. They see their endeavor as a "military procedure"; unlike other shooters, they don't put up a website or try to be caught. Says Andre, "You might be thinking, well they're taping this, so of course they want it to be found, you're right we do want it to be found. We don't want it to be found until we're ready." They can only be "ready" in death, according to their scheme, and so the film adds a coda, after the boys' tapes and the surveillance tapes, where a group of kids tape themselves among the 14 crosses set up to memorialize the tragedy. Here again, the handheld imagery seems "authentic," but also judgmental, not just of the killers, but of those who are understandably outraged. The group sets Cal and Andre's crosses, already graffitied, on fire.

Coccio closes his commentary by trying to explain his own thinking here. Though the burning crosses "is so loaded, such a racist image," he says, but he's "putting it in a different context." As one of the cross-burners, identified by Coccio as "a Pakistani," yells, "Burn in hell motherfuckers," the filmmaker suggests that his "race" is part of this context switching. "It eliminates the race issue," Coccio says, "Because he's not white." Sadly and alarmingly, this description doesn't come close to what's going on here. Race, prejudice, pain, and fear: all these "issues" remain at a difficult distance.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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