(Jefery Levy, USA, 1995)


I didn't imagine that so-called independent American movies could get any worse than Love and a .45 (C. M. Talkington, 1994), one of the many sub-Quentin Tarantino movies to spray blood and fancy cuss words across our theatres during the '90s. But here, beyond all belief, is an even worse film from the American independent set. S.F.W. is directed and co-written by Jefery Levy, who gained attention a few years ago with his second feature Inside Monkey Zetterland (1992).

S.F.W. stands for "so fucking what", and as you might expect, the film takes us straight to the heart of that greatest media cliché of the '90s, Generation X. Spab (played with shambling, sneering intensity by Stephen Dorff) is a typical representative of his no-future generation. He's apolitical, aggressive, lives to whine and get stoned, gives off a vague schooling in beat poetry and punk music nihilism, but above all, he doesn't give a damn about anything.

Like all certified Gen-X'ers, he cruises, unable and unwilling to focus on anything, unable to really feel anything. Life to him is like a television set with a hundred cable stations being flipped mindlessly with the remote. Every conceivable colour-supplement cliché about Generation X is here, perfectly preserved. In fact, if I had to shoot a time capsule into space preserving the most vivid example of media hype about so-called Generation X, it would be the absolutely execrable scene in this movie where Spab does a choice soliloquy explaining the title. Crouched nonchalantly on the floor, a Bud in his hand, he runs through a series of socially-conscious platitudes, and after each one, he asks, "so fuckin' what?" It's like an aria: he whispers it like he's Christian Slater, he screams it like he's Jack Nicholson, he mumbles it like he's Marlon Brando. It's a bad, bad scene.

Spab is meant to represent the typical modern teenager, but as the story begins we learn that he has been thrust into an atypical situation. He has been held hostage for weeks, along with a few other people including his best friend, in a convenience store. The bad guys are not common criminals but – you guessed it – terrorists, only this time they're Generation-X "media terrorists". What this means is that these faceless characters – who end up splattered over the supermarket walls like secondary characters in a sub-Tarantino film – seem to have no discernible political motive. What they do have is a well-stocked video camera, and they hold the commercial television stations to ransom by demanding that they broadcast the tapes made with the hostages. These tapes are something like the fantasy scenes in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994): gruesome send-ups on TV soap opera, TV current affairs shows, and so on.

This part of the story is dealt with at high speed, to be later revisited in lurid psychedelic flashbacks, which only show how far Levy is behind Oliver Stone and the stylistic risks he took in Natural Born Killers. The main thrust of S.F.W. depends on what follows: Spab's subsequent career as folk hero, or rather a media hero. His nihilistic message, broadcast night after night on television, becomes the latest consumer fad. Everywhere Spab runs into commodity-representations of himself: video compilations, department store cut-outs, T-shirts. In what is meant to be a biting comment on the sort of capitalist hype that surrounded the O. J. Simpson trial and the John Bobbit case, the film is padded out with lame parodies of TV talk show figures like Donohue and Larry King. Not a single speck of pop culture, as you and I live its daily obsessions, excesses and contradictions is granted the slightest respect or interest here.

At this point, the film truly comes unstuck. It is determined to simultaneously hold every possible opinion or point-of-view on its central topic. This kind of scattergun approach is common to many American films about rebellious youth culture (such as the similarly abysmal Airheads [Michael Lehmann, 1994]). These films about youth rebels start off by being on the side of the kids, and criticising the authoritarian institutions of the adult world. After beginning like this, however, they back off almost immediately from their social critique. They start to show up the teenagers as bunch of dim slackers, to rival the endless caricatured parade of corrupt, slimy adults. Even worse, they make the value system of every individual character – whether rebel or conservative – equally deluded and asinine. In some filmmakers' hands, this could be the ultimate nihilistic statement, and Levy may think this is what he is doing. But in S.F.W. this cynical stance merely neutralises everything.

This cop-out is particularly evident in the portrayal of Spab. Although he starts as a zoned-out, amoral rebel, Levy cannot resist making him very quickly into a weird kind of sensitive, ordinary guy. Spab stands back, suddenly alarmed at the media hype, the crazy fans and the social alienation all around him. It's as if Levy wanted to give us a more normal hero with whom we could identify in a conventional way; someone who has so-called normal, common sense responses to a mad world, and who spells these calm responses out to us in a reflective voice-over (here come The Wonder Years). This is all a quick, easy escape to a middle-ground.

S.F.W. goes completely off the rails at its end, when a ludicrous plot switcheroo intervenes, making even greater nonsense of all moral and political values, whether positive or negative. Incredibly, this film has been hailed by some reviewers as an intelligent riposte to Natural Born Killers. At least Stone had the courage of his own ambivalence and hysteria, while this film cynically and opportunistically exploits all sides of its argument.

© Adrian Martin July 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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