THE NOWHERE INN IS NOT STRICTLY-speaking a film about madness, but you could see how it might land you there. Along the way it may well be the most infuriating celluloid encounter you’ll have this year.
Which is no accident, as written by and starring musicians-and-actors Carrie Brownstein (who, when not in riot grrrl pioneers Sleater-Kinney or Wild Flag, co-created the dryly satirical nonsense of the TV series Portlandia) and Annie Clark (a.k.a. the musical shapeshifter, St Vincent).
It’s a film about a documentary about an artist, St Vincent, whose metier is creating personas but who now says she wants to tell the truth as Annie Clark. The documentary is being made by her friend, Brownstein, who finds truth and friendship dangerously nebulous ideas and personas the only thing concrete, before then losing her mind and her film as we watch on.
And that’s just the parts that can be explained.
Director Bill Benz knew Brownstein before making the film, but not Clark, though he says he had long been “a big fan” of St Vincent. So he knew that Clark was an artist who creates whole environments – visual, sonic and tone – with each project, and some of the first questions asked of her with each new project are what is real, what is not, what part of this is her and what part is made up?
He knew too that making a film about being exposed, where she says, ostensibly to the audience of the curious and the devoted, “I didn’t want to feel pressure to be somebody I’m not”, was itself a created, even false environment. So for Benz, did it matter to him what part of these characters and situations were real? Was it important to know the real before he created the false?
“No, I don’t think so. I think, like you’re saying, every time she releases an album it’s like a whole new version of herself,” he says from a very real home with a very real young child in his lap. “I think similarly with this movie, it was this is the version we are going to do now, and this is her take on, I think, all those different personas that she puts out.”
Knowing that, what was his role then? Was he there to present a through line of truth within the artifice, hyper-surreal and out of control?
“Yeah, I think the main role was to try to get on the wavelength of what Annie and Carrie wanted to make. Like the type of movie they wanted to make. My role was to not get in the way of the voice of the script,” says Benz. “I think we did treat it like less of a narrative, literal movie and more like maybe you would treat an album: so, here are the set pieces, here are these ideas that we want to get across, so how do we put that into film language?”
The contrast between the concert performances, taken from St Vincent's tour for 2017's Masseduction album, and the “behind-the-scenes” material required a delicate balancing of tones – comedic, story and visual – not to mention the meta element of the people within the film discussing how the film they were making would be perceived and received.
“[Getting the tones right] was definitely the main thing we talked about, before getting into it. We had the concert footage well before we shot the narrative part of the film so big fun part of it was to edit that concert together – I hope they release that full concert, because it’s great. I should leak it, now we are talking about it,” he says, with a laugh. “So we had on this hard drive over here, a full movie of that concert  and we have these pieces we had to fit narratively into the story.”
Is there a sense that the concert footage is meant to be the one true thing in this narrative of escalating psychological derangement?
“I never thought of it explicitly in those terms, but that is the case. It is the one true thing in there.”
Which is bizarre when you consider the highly stylised performances within any St Vincent concert. But then that becomes the hook for anyone watching the film that simultaneously seriously and comically examines creativity vs artificiality while embodying the scientific principle that the observed action is distorted by being observed, the observer too thrown off course by observing.
By the end you might well ask are we supposed to understand that everything is artifice? That truth is what you make of it? That creating an artifice of truth makes a genuine truthful life impossible?
“That was the main thing that I was taking away, as I was reading the script. My takeaway was that maybe they had been considering making a documentary because we are in the time of the music documentary but I think Annie can’t help herself but do ‘what’s the St Vincent take on it?’,” says Benz. “In my opinion, the St Vincent take would never be a straight documentary; it would be the commentary on such.”
As with any project where people resort to using the term “meta” to describe what they are seeing, but probably not understanding, how do you stop yourself just disappearing up your own arse though? How concerned was Benz about the three of them being so smart that they outsmarted themselves?
“Yeah. I think wanting to have fun with it, make it feel fun, is at least what I liked about it. It’s almost like how far up can you go and maybe come out the other side?”
(Annie Clark, Carrie Brownstein, and the business end of a cow)
One of the criticisms that the film has attracted since the film was released last year, was that it was too self-referential and self-satisfying. Add to that a danger when artists and filmmakers approach a project with that all knowing/laced with irony approach is removing the value of the connection the public makes with the artist and the artist, by mocking the way that we absorb this and the way we behave with the art and the artist and what we want to believe in. Are we, as fans, the real subject of the mockery?
“There is a temporal aspect of that, where that right now would be the thought, and years from now the sort of immediate ‘who is St Vincent?’ and ‘what is Annie Clark in this exact moment?’ gets lost and the movie just exists as an article,” Benz says. “We watched this movie, Performance, by Nicolas Roeg, with Mick Jagger, and it’s a very loose and freeing movie, and it’s the locus point. Once Carrie showed me that movie, it all sort of clicked as to what this could be. And I’m 40 years removed from Mick Jagger at that point.”
In its own way, Performance is a film about falseness and perception and the way our expectations distort performance and the way performance distorts truth so that eventually a “centre” is lost. Some other reference points, for this viewer at least, with Nowhere Inn, would be Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and the Fellini film which influenced it, 8 ½, as well as David Lynch in his red velvet curtain phase.
It’s worth noting that Stardust Memories was often criticised for its coldness and alienation for audiences, as much is the coldness and alienation within its central characters. But both Allen and Fellini nail the inability to hold your centre as an artist within the madness of fame and expectation and response, something Lynch often explores, particularly in the inside-Hollywood Mulholland Drive.
“I’ve definitely always had a fondness for, though we never explicitly talked about, David Lynch. With me it just seeps in. And anything New Wave,” says Benz. “I remember in film school, those with the movies that I really responded to because there was really no rules. There’s something I like about the overt fourth wall-breaking element.”
Ah, but viewers of The Nowhere Inn who struggle to make sense, or hold on to their sense, the further the film goes might well ask: do the other three walls hold up?
The Nowhere Inn is screening February 26 as part of Queer Screen's Mardi Gras' Film Festival, running until March 3 in Sydney. It will likely have a wider release soon.