In Blondes in the Jungle—a delightfully askew 48-minute, 16mm film by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn—three prepped-out, clueless teenagers venture into the Honduran jungle in search of the Fountain of Youth. It's 1987. They trade barbs and tell stories: about buying drugs in New York, about run-ins with Bill Murray, and about their absent writer friend Bret, a Jay McInerney-Brett Easton Ellis amalgam who they all hold in great esteem. Along the way, they meet a coke dealer named Armani and a Mayan "jaguar god" with a crudely attached tail.
"I tend to talk more about our style before I talk about what the movie's about," Kalman said in his home office in Sunset Park. Kalman, twenty-seven, is tall and thin, a dead ringer for Adrien Brody. "If I say that our films are about teenagers enjoying themselves, people might imagine an entirely different thing."
"Like The OC," said Horn, her voice sneaking into the room via Skype through the 80s-era gray Panasonic boombox Kalman uses as a speaker. She let Kalman do most of the talking, admitting that she avoids "public situations." Horn, who's twenty-six, left New York for San Francisco in 2007; the two arrange daily online meetings to work on projects.
Blondes, which is screening Wednesday, November 11 at Santos Party House, features long periods of ominous silence, extended visual ruminations on the jungle landscape, and an animated sequence starring vampire bats, to name just a few of its alluring eccentricities. Not one, but two monkeys are hacked to death. Daily Candy described the movie, which won the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in September, as "Saved By the Bell meets Werner Herzog," a description that the filmmakers relish.
"As cinema fans, and TV fans, we are interested in an aesthetic of badness, of awkwardness, and of amateur-ness," Kalman said.
Making a bad movie is harder than it looks, especially if you are doing it on purpose. In his 1980 essay "Bad Movies," J. Hoberman wrote that, "the best bad movies add nutty ambition and auteurist signatures to their already-heady atmosphere of free-floating mishigas." That's a good way to think about Blondes. It combines outsized aspirations (shot on location in Honduras over fifteen days in 2007) with self-conscious notes (non sequitur dialogue, an aggressively anti-linear narrative), all the time indulging in its own craziness. Blondes has many of Hoberman's bad movie touchstones—single takes, the use of stock or mismatched footage (monkeys from the Brooklyn Zoo double as Honduran tree dwellers), crude editing, and jarring narrative shifts.
Yet Hoberman was writing about unintentionally bad movies, those unfortunate failures that in their perfect atrociousness approach high art. Kalman and Horn, who began collaborating during their senior year at Columbia, know what they're doing.
"What other people see as fake-ness, we see as realism," Kalman said. What's missing from "good" movies, which he characterizes as "naturalist" is "the artifice and irony that's in our own lives. Actors should seem like they're acting, for example, because when I've been in the most dramatic times of my life I felt like I was on TV."
Other than Ingrid Schram, a professional model and actress built to live dangerously in the turquoise Lacoste tennis dress she wears throughout the movie, the performers are all the directors' non-actor friends, a choice Kalman and Horn said they made not of necessity but philosophy.
"We were really interested in mixing professionals and non-professionals," Kalman said. "Whether it's low budget teen shows or Andy Warhol's short films, we like the way that amateur actors come off."
Hoberman quotes the underground filmmaker Jack Smith as saying, "A bad actor is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing." Which is another way of saying that bad acting is honest. In Blondes, the players earnestly read the lines past each other, eschewing conversation for what amounts to a series of surreal monologues. The line readings are stilted, almost autistic. When the dealer Armani meets the blondes, he riffs: "Hunter College on the 4,5,6! Good school. Coke's for shit, though. Who's your dealer? Arm and Hammer? May as well just go to the supermarket. Bake yourself a cake." He's a overplayed, self-conscious Zach Morris, talking prep-school jive.
"Where other people might say a stagey or caricatured performance makes the story less believable, we say it makes it more realistic," Kalman said.
The directors have been shaped by eclectic group of influences. They cite Eric Rohmer for his characters' meandering conversations, and Whit Stillman for his mannered, slightly anachronistic dialogue. And there's Herzog, too, specifically his jungle-exploration film White Diamond (2004). Yet there are patently low-brow influences as well, mostly from television. Kalman loves Miami Vice and the current ABC Family show Greek. And he and Horn both adore the Degrassi series, a love they share, oddly, with the director Kevin Smith, who has made several guest appearances on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Kalman and Horn plan to send Smith a copy of their film.
"He's really helpful with all the kids," Horn says. "It made me affectionate about him."
Since 2004, Kalman and Horn have made music videos for the likes of Books on Tape and Aa and shorts with the goofy titles "O, Nurse!" "Jazz Christmas," and "Fun's Over." They started making movies together after Horn's uncle gave her a 16mm camera. Neither have studied film, and both still have day jobs, though Horn slyly said: "I don't know what I do for a living."
The production in Honduras contained moments that might have been outtakes from the movie itself. Horn shot the movie while Kalman held the mike; when he was busy elsewhere, sturdy overhanging trees stood in as sound men. Deep in the jungle, the crew's young Honduran guides got to mark the scenes with a clapperboard, much to their delight. Horn's diligence with the equipment couldn't stop an inquisitive spider from getting into the camera.
Still, this is a long way from the screwball set of an Ed Wood movie. Despite the directors' "anti-professional" credo, the shoot felt, well, professional.
"It was really like working on a movie," Kalman remembered. "Not that we had PAs running around or anything, but just that this is what we'd always wanted to do. Even though it wasn't a Hollywood experience, there was a little bit of it. We ate dinner with the cast every night, everyone going over lines." He paused a moment, then smiled. "I love playing director."
Blondes in the Jungle screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 11 at Santos Party House, followed by live music from John Atkinson (Brooklyn's Aa) and Julianna Barwick, who collaborated with others on movie's excellent "1987 Wold Beat" soundtrack under the name El Jefe and the Executive Look.