I Blame Society (2020)

I Blame Society enjoyed its World Première Tues 28 January 2020 at the Rotterdam Film Festival

Meet Gillian – an unfulfilled amateur filmmaker in LA. She has an MA but is unemployed, and the slew of ‘disturbing’ short films to her name have so far not helped her move on to anything bigger. When her plan to make a feature falls through because its setting in Israel is too controversial and its female lead not ‘likeable’ enough, Gillian decides to take matters into her own hands and go underground as a guerrilla filmmaker. So she resurrects a documentary project she had abandoned three years earlier, entitled I, Murderer, in which she would show herself walking through how to “commit the perfect murder”. The genesis for this idea was a ‘compliment’ from some friends that she would ‘make a pretty good murderer’ – and desperate to grasp at any kind of validation, Gillian decides to pursue this idea as far as she can, targeting as her ‘theoretical’ victim her long-term bête noire, nicknamed ‘Stalin’ (Alexia Rasmussen), who is the girlfriend of her friend Chase. 

Gillian is played by Gillian Wallace Horvat, who also directed I Blame Society and co-wrote it with her friend Chase Williamson (who plays Chase). It is unclear (at least at first) whether Gillian’s documentary is staging ‘hypothetical’ murder or showing the actual thing, even as we are unsure to what degree Gillian’s autobiopic is also Horvat’s. In other words, I Blame Society, confined to the footage shot by the character Gillian, constantly blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, even as it provides an ongoing commentary on its own making. Naturally, Gillian’s discussion of jump cuts with her editor boyfriend Keith (Keith Poulson) is punctuated by a visible jump cut in the film. “Everything that you make has to do with sex,” Keith reminds Gillian (the real Horvat previously directed the shorts Kiss Kiss Fingerbang, 2015, and Whiskey Fist, 2017) – and sure enough, Gillian will capture a lot of nudity and sex in her latest film, albeit always on her own terms and for her own gratification. As she goes about shooting “the whole arc of a murderer’s career, the whole criminal escalation, but condensed into the length of a feature film,” she will herself graduate from acts of petty theft to breaking-and-entering to serial killing, all to lend her own film the ‘authenticity’ that she so craves – even if I Blame Society itself piles on one quirky absurdity after another.

So, on the one hand I Blame Society is a dark killer comedy in the mould of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) – Gillian even, like that film’s murderous heroine, fakes hilariously close-fitting suicide notes for her victims. On the other it is a deep slice of metacinema, satirising the LA indie scene, and more particularly the dismissive way in which women are overlooked, sidelined or exploited within that culture. Having failed to achieve success or recognition through the conventional channels, Gillian decides to go it alone and make her own low-budget film, while embodying the kind of ‘unlikeable’ lead for which her previous screenplay was rejected: a strange, single-minded, uncompromising woman who is neither fetish object nor male foil nor love interest nor any of the other reductive templates for femininity that dominate cinema. Gillian represents, in her character, a rejoinder to these stereotypes, and in the end she will execute a more straightforward act of vengeance upon the kind of mealy-mouthed male producers who talk the talk of inclusion and even feminism while repeatedly keeping creative women like her out of proper work. 

“Wow, I think I know her,” Gillian says when she first spots Teresa (Jennifer Kim) – whom she will soon be stalking. “She’s an actress. She dresses like an actress. I’ve definitely seen her in something.” Perhaps Teresa had seen Kim in Jiyoung Lee’s Female Pervert (2015), another indie about a misfit woman who resists received patriarchal paradigms. Gillian’s I, Murderer – a similarly female-directed labour of love with ‘a strong female lead’ – is brushed aside by its audience of two men as “weird Frances Ha“. If only they had watched more closely, they might have discerned the real, vindictive rage encoded in it against such sneering male attitudes. We too get to see I, Murderer, and the genuine rancour that it records – for Gillian’s film constitutes, after all, most of I Blame Society. And while the latter might document its protagonist’s descent into, or at least performance of, madness and murder, Horvat blames a male-oriented society for her namesake’s artistic unraveling, even as she celebrates her character’s individuality, spirit and drive. Horvat also, of course, does indeed walk us through how easy it would be to kill – and kill creatively – if you have the determination, purpose and crazy dedication of, well, an independent filmmaker. 

The results, falling somewhere between Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992), Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer (1997) and Adrian Tofei’s Be My Cat: A Film For Anne (2015), are a funhinged document of lethal self-expression – and, as a comic autobiopic of an artist in crisis,  this raises a new aspirational bar for the line, “I’m living my best life.” 

strap: Gillian Wallace Horvat’s (f)unhinged metacinematic satire I Blame Society serially skewers an indie film scene that marginalises creative women.

© Anton Bitel