The American Dream of Middle Aged White Guys Making Bad Movies

Double Down Breen

Neil Breen

Writer/Director/Producer/Editor/Actor/Music Supervisor Neil Breen throws himself against the dry ground of the Nevada desert, articulating the existential climax of his dense, bewildering, remarkable film Double Down by screaming, “I’m an American. I’m an American! I love this country, my country!” Breen plays a mercenary computer hacker who abandoned his work as a military fighter pilot after somebody (?) shoots and kills his fiancée during a naked lounging session in his pool. Breen’s character’s dramatic outpouring of patriotic guilt promises a return to moral fortitude after serving whatever moneyed interests pay him the highest dollar – in this case, an unidentified foreign nation instructing him to singlehandedly shut down the Las Vegas strip for two months.

Double Down’s protagonist gives us some insight into the mind of its esoteric creator. The first third of the film features Breen’s character (named Aaron in the trailer and Eric in the film) listing his seemingly endless resumé, from his storied work as a fighter pilot honored by every military medal in existence to his (literally) incredible skills at digital espionage. Aaron/Eric is a self-sufficient one man industry, reliant on no one and requiring only canned tuna fish, his car, his three laptops, his three flip phones and his two satellite dishes (that he expertly attaches to his car’s bumper). Similarly, Breen himself is a multi-hyphenate and an ostensibly self-reliant individualist. A Las Vegas architect who has self-funded three bad movies thus far, Breen’s work represents something of a Baby Boomer’s fantasy come to life as he uses his accumulated wealth to manifest a cinematic universe with himself as its gravitational center.

And Breen isn’t alone.

Where the larger history of great “bad” movies constitute runaway productions (Ishtar) or independently made B movies assembled quickly enough not be overrun by their misguidedness (Troll 2, Ed Wood’s career), the early 21st century has borne out an impressive slate of best worst classics made available simply by virtue of the fact that several wealthy older men have used their considerable resources alongside today’s relatively inexpensive access to filmmaking equipment in order to realize pet projects that could never have been completed by established, institutional means.

The work of Neil Breen, Phil Pitzer, and Tommy Wiseau not only show an unanticipated outcome of the “democratization” of media, but their work – and all its blissful disregard for conventions of cinematic logic – gives us insight into the strange visions of America shared by a type of middle-aged white male who might actually go out and do something like this:

You’re Tearing Me Apart

The Room has become something of an ur-text for “bad” movies, an unintentional avant-garde parody of cogent cinematic storytelling and a passionate and earnest (if occasionally troubling) expression of its director’s idea of what makes a movie. The film is not, amongst its many intersecting themes, “about” America in an overt sense. But the story of its making – told in parts across live screenings and finally collected in Tom Bissel and Greg Sestero’s “The Disaster Artist” – has unspooled a complex character study of a man attempting to Americanize himself in the image of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Wiseau has been notoriously secretive about two things: 1) his precise European origins (he repeats that he hails from New Orleans) and 2) the source of his film’s financing, the latter allegedly being made available through less-than-legitimate business ventures. But two things are also clear: The Room was Wiseau’s attempt to realize a vision of himself as a Hollywood star, and he financed that vision entirely on his own. As “The Disaster Artist” attests, The Room was Wiseau’s attempt to achieve something that he could not through established means: big screen fame that put him on the same plane as his silver screen idols.

The Room was made, in short, to concretize Wiseau’s vision of himself. And because he was able to produce the film in a vacuum absent of accountability to producers or other superiors, what he ultimately produced was an inadvertent glimpse into his singular, contradictory vision of what he would like the world to be in terms of domesticity, sex, friendship and furniture construction. This is a vision in which Wiseau separates himself from his past, fully immersed in an iconic American city complete with legitimate success at a vaguely defined banking job, casual bouts of toss-the-football, and rented tuxedos. The Room is both a vision and product of mythical self-making, financed through individual capital and designed in full service of promoting its maker.

We Blew It

The story of Phil Pitzer and Easy Rider 2: The Ride Back (co-written, produced by, and starring himself) takes this circular logic of self-promotional, highly individualized filmmaking one step further: it was not only produced to serve its maker’s ego, but did so by legitimizing itself in association with a canonized cinematic property. Pitzer is a successful Ohio-based attorney who litigated for the sequel/remake rights to Easy Rider and, by 2009, made another chapter to the “Easy Rider saga” that is official only in legal terms. Or, as Nathan Rabin puts it, Easy Rider 2 is best understood as “fan fiction, inexplicably rendered official and legitimate by a fluke of the legal system.”

Though Pitzer has described himself as “apolitical,” his film – which chronicles the apparently very boring history of Peter Fonda’s character’s family through Pitzer’s role as his wandering brother – is deeply and incoherently steeped in politics. The opening voice-over, barely audible over a blaring score that sounds like a canned guitar riff from GarageBand put on loop, makes a casual reference to clear skies that look “just like 9/11.” And the film is so stocked with celebratory references to the military (and even some jingoistic hippy-bashing) that it made this viewer seriously question whether anyone involved with Easy Rider 2 actually saw the film they were expanding from.

But Easy Rider 2’s most telling political moment came in its attempt to update the “we blew it” scene. As Pitzer hangs out by a campfire next to the film’s Dennis Hopper stand-in Wes Coast (Jeff Fahey), he reminisces on an unspecified time in the past “when things were freer.” This coming from the mouth of a one-man production company who was able to bend the law to his benefit so that he could acquire the intellectual property rights to a beloved movie made by other people.

Where Anything Goes

Neil Breen’s work is something of a convergence of the defining aspects of Wiseau and Pitzer’s filmmaking.

As with Wiseau, Breen’s films echo the uncanny appeal of The Room in their mystifying yet entrancing style of storytelling. However, I slightly disagree with Alan Jones’ contention that Breen’s work occasionally alludes to “the big-budget Hollywood techno-thriller Breen thinks he’s replicating,” for Breen’s filmmaking is somehow even more bizarre and harder to pin down than Wiseau’s peculiar approach to melodrama.

Like The Room (and unlike the legitimately execrable Easy Rider 2), Double Down is a “bad” movie only on the surface, as its amateur qualities produce something extraordinary that transcends established cinematic lexicon and would be impossible by any orthodox regard for cinema’s “rules.” Double Down reads like an asynchronous marriage of Michael Mann and King Lear-era Godard, both inspiring and infuriating in its indifference to cinematic convention in order to portray nebulous global and individual crises against the backdrop of the information age.

Double Down shares Pitzer’s interest in the American military and American life after 9/11. But the conservative streams in Breen’s work don’t cater to any party lines. His laissez faire approach to filmmaking is matched in his representation of himself onscreen, always embodying an exceptional individual with the power to redeem humanity against a vision of globalized moral bankruptcy and shadow governments (see the trailers for his other films, I Am Here….Now and Fateful Findings). Yet there is, in turn, a dark side of individualism in Breen’s protagonists’ equally superhuman capacities to destroy the world. The moral logic informing Breen’s strange, paranoid, dreamlike universe runs the pendulum between two types of individuals, good and bad, often embodied in the same person.

Resembling his individualized means of film production, Breen’s films see power in the form of 21st century technology as residing solely within exceptional individuals more formidable than entire governments or organizations.

Where they are each singular exceptions to any traditional approach to filmmaking, The Room, Easy Rider 2: The Ride Back, and Breen’s oeuvre show remarkable overlaps evident in their star-making visions of exceptional individualism that play out in their themes, the stories of their making via individual fortunes, their odd and sometimes troubling representations of women opposite prodigious men, and even their shared priorities in displaying their makers’ naked bodies in front of the camera.

We were told that the new, accessible means of filmmaking in the digital era could turn anyone into a filmmaker, but these three films tell us a great deal about who that “anyone” sometimes is. While each of these films exhibit considerably distinct aspects of their makers’ unique personalities, the American Dream shared between these “bad” movies ultimately boils down to the dream of filmmaking itself – namely, a feature film as supposed evidence of individual accomplishment.