Film & Reviews

55 Points: Shoplifting from American Apparel

Jordan Castro and Noah Cicero in "Shoplifting from American Apparel" (2012).

Jordan Castro and Noah Cicero in “Shoplifting from American Apparel” (2012).

1. This is a review of the recent film adaptation, not the book, although I’ll also say a few things about the book.

2. I saw the film on 14 March at the Logan Theatre in Logan Square, Chicago. It was a special event. About 70 people were in attendance.

3. The director, Pirooz Kalayeh, was there, and I spoke with him before and after the screening. Brad Warner, who plays Tao Lin (or “‘Movie’ Tao Lin”), was also in attendance.

4. Pirooz gave me a poster and a button and a DVD copy of the film. Thank you, Pirooz!

5. I’ve read Shoplifting maybe half a dozen times. I’ve also taught it twice. It’s my favorite of Tao’s books and I consider it something of a masterpiece.

6. Some people persist in thinking Tao isn’t a stylist, but I think he’s a brilliant stylist. Although maybe people are nowadays more convinced of this? I don’t know.

7. As Tao himself has pointed out (see here for instance), all of his books are written in different styles, something that I think obvious when one really looks at them.

8. I suspect some people really aren’t looking at them.

9. More than a few have told me that they can’t see those different styles, or any style. To them it seems as though Tao is simply transcribing what happens to him, churning out texts without editing them, producing writing that “really isn’t” fiction (or poetry).

10. Certainly Tao is writing autobiographically, but he is always filtering it through aesthetic devices.

11. For instance, there’s a great deal of elision in Shoplifting, both between sentences and between sections. Here’s but one example, from the very first paragraph:

Sam woke around 3:30 p.m. and saw no emails from Sheila. He made a smoothie. He lay on his bed and stared at his computer screen. He showered and put on clothes and opened the Microsoft Word file of his poetry. He looked at his email. About an hour later it was dark outside. Sam ate cereal with soymilk. He put things on eBay then tried to guess the password to Sheila’s email account, not thinking he would be successful, and not being successful. He did fifty jumping jacks. “God, I felt fucked lying on the bed,” he said to Luis a few hours later on Gmail chat. “I wanted to fall asleep immediately but that is impossible. I need to fall asleep. Any second now. Just fall down asleep.”

Several hours are compressed into these fourteen sentences. These elisions contribute significantly to the book’s fast pace, and the overall sense it creates that Sam is caught up in a time and place and that time is constantly hurtling forward and that there is nothing he (or the reader) can do about that.

12. To be fair, part of what’s happening here is that Tao is masterful at disguising his investments in style and form. I wrote about this some last year, here, here, and here, in those posts on the New Sincerity.

13. The movie version of Shoplifting does not capture this aspect of the book. In this way, it’s not all that good an adaptation.

14. Another way of putting it: the aesthetic of the movie version of Shoplifting has little to do with the aesthetic of the book version.

15. The movie claims to be concerned with questions of what is real and what is mediated, which seems relevant, since many people have had precisely that problem with Tao’s writing.

16. A cinema that feels unmediated, or largely unmediated, can certainly be imagined. What kind of movie footage do you consider to look or feel “documentary” or “unplanned”?

17. One thing that comes to my mind is CCTV (security camera) footage. Or home movie footage.

18. The whole movie, or parts of it, could have been shot to look more like that.

19. However, the movie never did find an aesthetic that looked more like “real life.” Instead, it always appeared scripted, and at all times contrived (artifice). I never believed that I was looking at “reality.”

20. It looked more like things that I currently see on TV, when I am working out at the gym.

21. The Office has a more unscripted/unplanned look to me than the film did. As does Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which used a lot of the same devices (restless cinematography, sudden zooms, confessions to the camera).

22. So I don’t think the film really succeeded in dramatizing that difference, or was innovative the way that Tao’s writing is innovative.

23. This isn’t to say that the movie was bad. There are a lot of good things in this movie.

24. Jordan Castro is, simply put, amazing in this film. I’ve never met Jordan in real life, although I’m of course aware of him from the small press / indie lit blogosphere. I also understand that some people would rather see my genitals than see his.

25. People should see this movie for Jordan Castro’s performance if nothing else, because every second that he’s onscreen, he’s wonderful.

26. Brad Warner is also good. Before this movie I was vaguely aware of him, and 0DFx. Nearly every second that he’s onscreen is good (though he’s given some difficult scenes toward the end that he can’t quite pull off).

27. I especially liked the scenes that paired him with Jordan Castro, like the reading at the library in Ohio, where they both stood in front of the audience and answered questions. That scene might be the best one in the movie.

28. Noah Cicero is also in this and comes across as very likeable. His scenes seemed less essential to me, but that certainly wasn’t his fault.

29. So all those things are good, and reasons to see this movie.

30. The problem with the film, simply put, is everything else. It’s not that the rest of the film is bad, mind you. But it isn’t compelling.

31. As I’ve already said, part of that is due to a mismatch of aesthetics. The non-Jordan/Brad/Noah parts of the film mostly present a fictionalized version of the “making of” the film, and since they never convinced me that they were real (their primary concern), they felt more like filler. Nothing seemed at stake in those scenes.

32. That said, there was one very funny moment, when a man catches himself mispronouncing Pirooz’s name.

33. A movie that does a much better job of muddying the line between reality and mediation is William Greaves’s experimental late 60s “documentary,” Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. I wrote a little about that film here:

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is an experimental meta-documentary by William Greaves, a documentary filmmaker and actor. The premise is very simple: Greaves auditions couples in Central Park, repeatedly running them through the same inane dialogue. Meanwhile, his crew films him filming, increasingly turning the camera on themselves to express their growing unease with Greaves’s (deliberate) lack of direction. From this cascades a loosely controlled experiment in dissolution, which quickly becomes intensely dramatic and absorbing.

34. You can watch the whole thing here. I highly recommend doing that.

35. The challenge for the film version of Shoplifting was to find out how to do accomplish something like that in the year 2013. What worked in 1968 will not necessarily work now.

36. Another peculiar thing about the movie is that it comes across as something made by a group of young men. On the one hand that makes sense, since it really was made by a group of young men, and Pirooz dramatizes the conflicts inherent in the process.

37. But Tao’s book isn’t about conflict—it’s about avoiding conflict. And it feels much more solitary, and asocial, than that. His Sam is a very lonely character, despite his constant efforts to fill his life with various things: gmail chats, hook-ups, writing, shoplifting & getting arrested.

38. Indeed Sam, when he gets arrested, seems practically relieved:

Around 10 a.m. Sam was called into a very small room where he sat opposite a public attorney. “You have no prior arrests, you’ll get one day community service with a fine,” said the public attorney through bars.
“I have a prior arrest,” said Sam.
The public attorney stared at Sam.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Don’t tell me that.”
“Oh,” said Sam. “Okay. Thank you.”

39. When Sam is in prison or in court, when he is doing community service, he no longer has to worry about the fact that he has no idea at all what to do with his life.

40. The movie also has something of an aggressive feel to it. I don’t mean that it’s brutal or anything—rather, it’s a kind and generous movie, eager to entertain its viewers. Which is does by adopting an anxious, frenetic tone, crafted by means of rapid editing, close-up camerawork, non-stop music, and a heightened, performed anxiety: “We’re trying to make a movie here!” “Will we be able to make this movie?”

41. The book, by way of contrast, has a much more passive feel—the style, while methodically paced, is at the same time deliberately flat, neutral, dispassionately describing the places and people amidst which Sam keeps drifting.

42. The book’s loneliness and the passivity and the neutrality all come to a head in the beautiful conclusion, where we clearly see Sam’s inability to connect with Audrey, as well as to control his own life:

There was a thing on the table and Sam touched it.
“What is this,” he said.
They touched the thing and looked at it.
“So you’re going back tomorrow?” said Audrey.
“Yeah,” said Sam. “My plane is at seven.”
“Am I ever going to see you again?”
“I don’t know,” said Sam after a few seconds.
“I want to go to New York City,” said Audrey.
“When?” said Sam.
“Soon,” said Audrey.
“What would you go for?”
“A better life,” said Audrey.
“Oh, you want to move there.” Sam looked at his cell phone and opened and closed it a few times. He laid his head on his arms facing away from Audrey. People in the house were talking and playing acoustic guitar.
“Well, I’ll probably just head back soon,” said Audrey.
“Okay,” said Sam and put his elbows on the table. “A mosquito bit my face last night,” he said. “When I was sleeping on the bus.” He touched his cheek and turned toward Audrey. He looked at her face as she looked at his cheek. He looked down at his cell phone in his lap.
“My cell phone is almost out of batteries,” he said.
“That sucks. You’ll probably need it tomorrow.”
They sat quietly for about ten seconds. There were faraway sounds of people doing things in other parts of the town.
“What did you want to be when you grew up?” said Audrey.
“Marine biologist,” said Sam.

43. The movie includes a version of this scene, but it has nowhere near the same impact. Partly that’s because Brad Warner comes across as being totally hip and with it, not disaffected the way that Sam is. The dialogue in that scene is also rushed through, and not given the poetic weight it deserves.

And it is poetic. Tao’s writing is always poetic.

44. The movie never feels lonely. It feels social. It feels driven. It feels ambitious.

45. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s an obvious place where the book and the movie are in totally separate places.

46. Perhaps something more like Taxi Driver might have worked? Or something more mumblecore, a la Andrew Bujalski‘s films?

47. I still haven’t seen Tao’s own film Mumblecore. I should use this occasion to check it out.

48. One crucial aspect of Shoplifting is that the book is smarter than Sam: the narration possesses a confidence Sam does not. And so the book is also, in its own way, critiquing Sam’s aimless lifestyle.

49. This is to say that the book is also self-critical. Which is a very powerful and beautiful aspect of the book.

50. Whenever I teach it, I find that people sometimes aren’t interested in the book until they can see this aspect of it.

51. All of this being said, I enjoyed watching the movie, and found it pleasant and memorable.

52. Weeks later I can still remember most of it, and have a favorable attitude toward it.

53. I also give Pirooz Kalayeh a lot of credit for simply making this movie in the first place.

54. Thanks once again, Pirooz!

55. I would recommend seeing Shoplifting from American Apparel at least once, especially if you’re a fan of Tao Lin.

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