Along the Edges
By Beatrice Loayza
Dir. Joe DeNardo, Paul Felten, U.S., Grasshopper Film
Midway through Joe DeNardo and Paul Felten’s micro-budget thriller Slow Machine, two actresses—Hitchcock blondes both—catch up over drinks at a back-patio joint somewhere in Brooklyn. Chloë Sevigny (playing herself in a substantial cameo) describes a condition that could double as the film’s tagline: “Banal foreboding nibbles at you all day everyday.” She then brushes off an intrusive fan girl before launching into a sort of campfire story about a bizarre, yet life-changing audition held by masked figures in an industrial middle-of-nowhere. Our jaded protagonist, Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), listens intently to her friend’s story—as we do here and throughout the film—compelled and incredulous.
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and shot sporadically over a period of two to three weeks on 16mm, Slow Machine has all the features of the rough-and-tumble New York indie, and it wears this vintage shabbiness as a badge of pride. The dream of making movies on a shoestring budget with a bunch of pals remains alive. The film’s lo-fi sensibility corresponds well to its world of thrumming, conspiratorial menace. Its grainy retro aesthetic privileges a certain gritty romanticism, conveying a mood of playful intrigue and prickly unease right outside the realm of reason. DeNardo and Felten discard big-city wonderment—that winking admiration of local landmarks, the thrills of the crowded sidewalk shuffle—for a world of dead zones and off-the-grid hangouts, cramped, often unadorned and windowless spaces that confound our grip on the narrative. It feels claustrophobic and empty all at once—not unlike the life of “hollow stasis” described by the Philip Larkin poem from which the film derives its title. For DeNardo and Felten, what Larkin describes as the “unbeatable slow machine that brings what you’ll get” takes the form of government string pulling and illuminati masterminding. The filmmakers ground these overt expressions of paranoia in a gentrified, outer-borough milieu of artsy types: narcissists and performers, storytellers and perpetual auditioners.
Slow Machine unfolds as a series of vignettes following Stephanie, an out-of-work actress, after her brief entanglement with a puckish NYPD intelligence agent. The “banal foreboding” that Sevigny describes is evident from the start. In a single shot we see Stephanie packing her things in a huff as a man snores, a dog barks, and a roommate-from-hell talks obnoxiously on the phone. Scenes of indecipherable violence flicker at random. The panic-inducing cacophony, the suggestion of danger, and the undercurrent of inanity and black humor are utterly Lynchian. For reasons yet unknown, Stephanie scampers off to an upstate commune of musicians, at which point DeNardo and Felten introduce what happened “some weeks earlier,” when Stephanie wakes up in a strange apartment after a boozy evening out on the town.
In this nondescript space, we meet Gerard (Scott Shepherd), an eerily upbeat cop who greets Stephanie with the assurance that she’s been “unviolated.” The agency-owned apartment is located in the most literal of dead zones, where phones don’t work and cabs don’t come. Gerard, who could easily be some sort of psycho killer, is eager to strike up a friendship with the actress despite his confidential line of work and his fiancée, “Lisette,” supposedly waiting at home. Stephanie remains skeptical, somewhere between amused and creeped out by the whimsical red-headed agent—also flattered, perhaps, by his admission that he’s seen her perform. She flat out rejects his proposal to meet again, but ultimately capitulates when he shows up unannounced at her AA meeting wanting to hang out. The two ease into a flirtation riddled with drollery and pretense. In one scene, Stephanie delivers a boozy, probing monologue in the guise of a single mother from Texas, irritating Gerard, who grows frustrated at his lack of control and her intrusive questioning. Gerard has a dark streak teased out in moments when Stephanie gets too comfortable; and a pivotal bout of rage turns into a fatal episode that leaves Stephanie reeling.
What the untrustworthy agent and the caustic actress have in common is an ability and desire to maintain an air of secrecy about themselves—Gerard with his trickster sensibility and his job-related excuses, Stephanie with her curious tendency to slip into character. The influence of Jacques Rivette (the film’s spiritual “godfather” according to an interview with Filmmaker) is apparent with these enigmatic characters. So too does the Rivettian penchant for secret societies come to bear in the feeling of an ungraspable conspiracy guiding each new development: Gerard warns Stephanie not to take the subway because there’s been a bomb threat, and at brunch, as Chloë relates her surreal experience of encountering some sort of acting-illuminati, the women are asked to evacuate. At the same time, each of these potential disasters is treated nonchalantly, even humorously. Gerard’s bomb threat may or may not be an excuse to convince Stephanie to catch a ride with him—the truth is shrouded behind a knowing grin. Chloë prefers to finish her drink and wait till the cops come to remove them. These laid-back attitudes seem absurdist extensions of a bohemian aplomb, as when Stephanie wards off a desperate suitor who offers her oral sex: “Am I allowed to stay if I don’t let you?”
Rivette was also a fan of observing rehearsals and dramatic stagings, which DeNardo and Felten employ to build out their commentary on the slippery nature of performance. (It’s an interest underscored by the film’s roots in New York’s downtown theater scene; Hayes was formerly involved with Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater troupe, while Shepherd has performed with the experimental theater company The Wooster Group.) Stephanie dons her Texan alter ego when she’s living upstate. At her AA meeting, we see her make a galvanizing speech, before Gerard appears and points out she’s just “doing this for research.” Stephanie explores the backyard of her temporary home while an indie rock band rehearses in the garage. “Just play better,” the bandleader grumbles. Indeed, there’s a basic yardstick held up to these performances time and again—believability, a skill that eludes precise instruction. Eleanor (Eleanor Friedberger), the singer and bandleader, responds to Stephanie’s anecdote about her Texan childhood with annoyance: “I don’t believe you,” she frowns before walking off. There’s a knowing phoniness to Stephanie’s Texan accent given her clear Swedish roots, yet she persists out of some playful impetus whose source DeNardo and Felten don’t exactly make clear. The evident fakery of Stephanie’s guise throws Gerard’s claims about Lisette and his employment, and Chloë’s bizarre audition, into question—it wouldn’t be surprising, after all, to find out these people simply find pleasure in lying and inventing interesting stories about themselves.
Despite the power of screenwriter DeNardo’s dialogue, a treasure trove of references and psychological insights, Slow Machine relies on the magic of monologuizing, and language, to ultimately interrogate and reappraise itself. In Stephanie’s last night with the commune, the same desperate suitor wiggles his way into her ear with banal remarks and statements of pure delusion. His words go in one ear and out the other; as an exhausted Stephanie spaces out, she locks eyes with Eleanor. The two women share a silent moment of mutual recognition: this guy is an asshole. They smile at each from across the room in what is perhaps the only moment of genuine human connection.
In the film’s entrancing final scene, DeNardo and Felten locate authenticity within improvisation. Some years after her (ultimately traumatizing) encounter with Gerard and her flight to the upstate commune, Stephanie is a successful actress, separated from her husband and living apart from her little girl. In a video call that we’re led to believe takes place nightly, Stephanie invents a bedtime story for her daughter on the spot—her talent for improvisation, formerly tested with Gerard and Eleanor, here put to practical use. In an uninterrupted close-up on Stephanie’s face, we watch as the actress spins a spooky tale of a young boy and his pet pig that grows increasingly uncanny and menacing. Hayes is bewitching, unfurling the story as if pulling out an endless rope of handkerchiefs from the dark recesses of her mind. Perhaps these inventions, however flighty, prankster-ish, and unbelievable, and the performative vessels in which they are delivered, are grounded in a sort of truth—a truth locked away in wordless recognition, or inscribed along the edges of fantasy.