Sundance 2020, part 1: St. Vincent’s ‘The Nowhere Inn’ is fan-service, but who’s complaining?

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This is the first piece in the Daily’s 2020 Sundance Film Festival series by A&L writers Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp.

I remember reflecting on this film in line for the restroom in Park City, Utah, wondering what I had just witnessed, as other film-goers whispered about how strange and funny the film was. . . and how hot St. Vincent, also known as Annie Clark, is. As a long-time St. Vincent fan, I was excited to see one of her creative film projects, having heard rumors of horror film projects and her upcoming (?) directorial debut in a gender-bending adaptation of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” No stranger to crafting the aesthetic that is St. Vincent, Clark has been heavily involved in the creative directions of her music videos, especially those from “MASSEDUCTION” itself, which she’s described as “the intersection of sexy and ridiculous.” Well-aware of the film’s premise and narrative structure, I realized that this film was both for and about fans like me, goading us with the tempting prospect of finding out who the mysterious Clark, who has largely escaped the public eye, really is. Paired up with Carrie Brownstein (playing a fictionalized version herself), a long-time friend of Clark’s best known for her work with Sleater-Kinney and “Portlandia,” the duo embark on a journey under a seemingly simple premise: two best friends shooting a documentary concert film. 

Directed by Bill Benz (another “Portlandia” alum), “The Nowhere Inn” is a stunning mash-up of genre, interweaving queer/feminist docu-fiction, satire and concert footage, all to present a critique of fame and the near-constant performance expected of an artist after attaining celebrity. The film, co-written by Brownstein and Clark, originated from the duo playing around with the stark contrast between two scripted chracters: plain-jane Clark and the stone-cold sex icon that is St. Vincent. The film practically screams meta-meta critique, bringing the audience into a level of art about art criticism so deep it could be an English major’s thesis. As a fully scripted, documentary-style film, “The Nowhere Inn” has us questioning what of the profile of Clark, former lead guitarist for Sufjan Stevens and Grammy-award winner, we should believe. Think dark comedy and fan-service, splashed with an absurd, almost comedic level of self-awareness and self-reference. 

But who is the real St. Vincent? The film opens to a chauffeur trying to figure out who he’s driving in his limo, unaware of the identity of the mysterious, sunglass-donning St. Vincent, sitting in his backseat. After explaining who she is and what she does, he continues to press, saying that he has no idea who she is. The sketch goes on for a few minutes more, with the driver eventually phoning a friend (in this case, his child) to figure out the enigma. At the end, we’re left with a biding omen as the driver tells St. Vincent, “We’ll figure out who you really are soon enough.” 

Set during the “MASSEDUCTION” tours of 2017, the film introduces its protagonist: an incredibly bland Clark (as reinforced by reporters that snub her and bandmates who call her boring), with seemingly no personality outside her rockstar persona. On stage, we see the gorgeous, glam-tuned electric guitar, the thigh-high latex boots and bright-colored lingerie and the striking interplay of sex and sadboi. Off-stage, we are introduced to the Clark behind the mask: the remarkably unremarkable video-game geek who thinks an informative conversation about different varieties of turnips and her new work-out routine will make for interesting concert-film footage. Brownstein, pressured by family financial issues to create a well-received film, eventually realizes that, despite the love she has for her best friend, the behind-the-scenes footage of Clark is not going to cut it. When Brownstein asks Clark to be more like her stage persona, chaos ensues. And, just like that, the reliable, relatable, earth-sign Clark disappears, replaced by the fame-hungry, melodramatic egomaniac she feels the audience wants to see.

The contrast is as stark as an on-off switch, with St. Vincent shedding anything that remotely reminds us of the Clark to which we briefly were introduced. And those around her, especially Brownstein, notice as St. Vincent assumes (and replaces) the role of director in a documentary that leaves no traumatic incident unprocessed. When the camera is always on, we realize no moment is off-limits for the star, which becomes almost uncomfortable to watch at times. These particular scenes mark a significant shift in the mockumentary, as we lose faith in the “self” she performs for the camera. Some notable scenes in this act introduce us to her fake, pie-making country-bumpkin family in Texas that sings her records before dinner (like a pseudo prayer) to the “impromptu” staging of a sex-scene with Dakota Johnson, which Brownstein is called into and asked to film on a phone camera, much to her discomfort. We see St. Vincent comfort a fan who cries in her arms and, as an audience, experience a moment of uncertainty where we wonder if she actually feels any remorse or is just looking for a poignant PR stunt. We see St. Vincent approach the walls where her father is imprisoned, bringing the public eye into an incredibly intimate and deeply personal space. It is in this delusion and disingenuousness that we as an audience sit in wait while Clark negotiates her identity to a point of unrecognizability.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we talked about the expectation of human triumph in apocalypse movies as the norm. Though the world is ending and all the odds are stacked against our protagonists, still they triumph and live to see another day. It is in this interplay of expectation and resolution that “The Nowhere Inn” floats, reminding us that no documentary is objective and that any artistic narrative of authenticity, no matter how “true” it may seem, is nothing more than a social construct: a blend of artifice, self-projection and massaged narrative. Anyone who knows me will have heard me talk about “MASSEDUCTION” (and the even more over-the-top acoustic cover album “MassEducation,” which was the only album on my Spotify Unwrapped 2019), steeped in campy, almost histrionic self-awareness. The energy of a caricatured self that wears sunglasses indoors, speaks cryptic words in a sultry voice and does her best to stay apathetic is what St. Vincent brought to her interviews during her “MASSEDUCTION” tours, and is the energy she brings to this film.

Beyond the gimmick of audience vs. performer, the performance of authenticity vs. “truth,” the film flounders a bit. Throughout, I found myself thoroughly entertained by the music (including an original song penning the film’s title) and Clark’s performance in particular, so stoic it would put Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to shame, but struggled with what was my extremely subjective super-fandom and what was well-executed, novel film beyond its central characters. While perhaps an affirming, emotional film for any St. Vincent fan, oscillating between BDSM dream, emotional melodrama and backstage gems in the most mundane tourbus moments, I felt the film’s success was inherently too propped on its convoluted meta-narrative to make the non-fan “vibe” like I did. If you found out who St. Vincent was because of or during this film, the viewing experience would probably be much different. Perhaps your experience, perhaps intentionally so, would quickly devolve into a gimmicky, jumbled mess between the character caricatures, absurd easter eggs and jolts of guitar licks and music clips. De-contextualized from her music and what the audience is expected to know about her stage persona, I don’t think the execution does enough to sway an audience to fully see and appreciate all the effort behind-the-scenes and think the film, though ambitious in many ways, compromises on its identity as a concert film and its identity as a documentary a bit too much for my liking.

Contact Julie Fukunaga at juliefa ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Julie Fukunaga is a staff writer for A&L and a senior majoring in Sociology. In her free time, she enjoys talking about the Central Valley, making dishes with cabbage, and occasionally writing nonsense about video games. Contact her at juliefa 'at' stanford.edu