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.