Home Video Hell
Home Video Hell is where filmic outcasts—straight-to-video, straight-to-VOD, or barely released—spend eternity.
The condemned: When I’m A Moth (2019)
The plot: Are you a fan of Hillary Clinton? Or, just as relevant, do you hate her damn guts? Guess what: None of that will matter in the slightest while watching When I’m A Moth, despite the main character of this movie being the shoulda-been 45th President of the United States. Not that the film will cop to that, possibly for legal reasons: “What follows is a work of fiction. So is the United States political situation,” reads the opening title card. Before you can say, “Wait—what the hell do you mean by the U.S. political ‘situation’? That’s abstract to the point of meaninglessness,” the film is off and running, with very little in the way of a fuck to give about tossing out some faux-provocative nonsense like that as its first shot. Let’s watch a movie!
Based—in the absolute loosest sense of the word—on an anecdote Clinton has told about briefly working at a salmon cannery in Alaska in 1969, the summer after she graduated from college, When I’m A Moth follows the mysterious “Hillary” (Addison Timlin), whose last name is never mentioned, as she spends a summer planning to live alone in Valdez, Alaska while working at the aforementioned cannery. She’s shown to be bad at the job, yelled at by the Asian workers who surround her on the cannery floor, gutting the fish that slide along the disassembly line, entrails flying everywhere. (Don’t worry, she has a hairnet and pair of coveralls she dons before every shift.) After repeatedly passing a pair of Japanese men each day as she walks along the rocky ocean shoreline to and from her job, she finally introduces herself, and the three go get drinks together.
Mitsuru (Toshiji Takeshima) and Ryohei (TJ Kayama) are both enigmatic outsiders (when she asks what they’re waiting for, and what they do for a living, the answer is the same: “nothing”), the former being Ryohei’s uncle, a bit of a drunk. After inviting her back to his place for a night of drinking, Mitsuru is hostile and generally rude to her, until Ryohei and Hillary leave to go for a walk, eventually ending in a rainstorm. Ryohei invites her back to his place—an abandoned ship stuck on the rocks that he’s been living in for the past five years—and the two sleep together, beginning an awkward and uncertain relationship that lasts the rest of the movie.
She confesses that she was fired from her job at the cannery that morning, and the two spend the next few days hanging out, going out on Ryohei’s small boat, having sex, and generally killing time while having arty, elliptical conversations about the nature of reality and themselves. At one point, Mitsuru shows up drunk at Hillary’s apartment, crying and confessing that he can’t get a job; she gives him some money and sends him on his way, at which point he threatens to kill her if she tells anyone about the crying or the charity. Then, after watching the image of herself in a cracked mirror slowly fade from view (art!), Hillary goes and tells Ryohei that she’s leaving to pursue her plan of becoming a powerful politician. He’s sad about it. She isn’t. The end. Mad Max: Fury Road, this is not.
Over-the-top box copy: There aren’t any hard copies of the film for sale yet, so there’s no box copy to be found. The poster, however, features the line, “History. News. Fake news, fake history,” which is so tangential in relation to the actual film, it may as well just say, “Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV.”
The descent: What, are you going to see an ad for a movie about an alternate reality young Hillary Rodham where she hangs out in Alaska for awhile and not check it out? Apparently, this film was actually shot in 2016, then spent three years moldering in a drawer somewhere before making the rounds on the festival circuit, and then disappeared for another two years (to be fair, there was that whole “still-ongoing global pandemic” thing that messed with the film industry a bit), and is finally arriving digitally as of this past weekend. Part of its delayed rollout may have been that it didn’t get a chance at festivals until after the subsequent film from its directing team of Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak (the former of whom also penned the script) got some attention—The Wall Of Mexico, which received a SXSW premiere in 2016. Whatever the reason, it’s here now, and it sounded so odd that to let it pass by Home Video Hell felt like a wasted opportunity.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Some of the more eagle-eyed fans of Californication might recognize Timlin’s name from the fourth season of the show, where she played a young starlet sleeping with David Duchovny’s sentient state of California, named David California. (I have never seen Californication.) She was also one of the leads in the uneven horror-comedy Odd Thomas, as well as the star of the pretty damn good remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. That’s about it for notable names, unless you were particularly taken with TJ Koyama’s one-off appearance as “Heck Drogan” in one episode of the recent miniseries adaptation of The Stand.
The execution: This is a strange one, because while the film’s 90 minutes passed by fairly quickly, and I generally enjoyed watching it, I can also say with 100% certainty that When I’m A Moth is pretentious twaddle. In other words, it’s one of those movies where your enjoyment of it will largely by determined by your tolerance for the sort of groaning wannabe-profound hogwash of student films and bad efforts to emulate arthouse auteurs of yesteryear. The main touchstones for Cotler and Zyzak seem to be Aleksandr Sokurov’s tetralogy of hallucinatory reimaginings of the lives of famous leaders; but script-wise, there’s more than a touch of early Jim Jarmusch, along with a dose of Hal Hartley’s flat-affect stylizations. Those are all things I very much enjoy, so seeing a weird impression of them, blended together, was kind of fascinating. Still, your mileage will vary greatly, depending on how insufferable you find exchanges like this:
Mitsuru: “Why do you drink with us?”
Hillary: “Do you want an honest answer?”
Hillary: “Because I’m interested in you. I’m interested in what Japanese men in Alaska think.”
Hillary: “Because I’m going to be a politician… I’m on a predetermined path.”
Ryohei: “Like a moth.”
And that’s far from the worst culprit. Ryohei says things like, “Maybe it’s already the future. Maybe you already don’t have private thoughts.” Hillary offers up one-liners such as, “I feel like someone’s using me. Putting words in my mouth… manipulating me like I’m a puppet. [Pause.] Or maybe it’s just adulthood.” After she sleeps with Ryohei for the first time, she says, “That was so nice; it’s like it didn’t even happen.” A lot of the dialogue is like that—lines better suited to a black-box theater production of a show that airs after midnight on the weekends, once the money-making play has ended.
And yet, there’s a glassy-eyed appeal to all the stilted pontificating, aided in large part by the lovely cinematography from Lyn Moncrief, who clearly had his hands full trying to focus on still imagery and natural scenery of the Alaskan wilderness. Credit should also go to the actors—especially Timlin and Koyama, which, given this movie is basically a two-hander for the entire last hour, certainly helps the time pass. But even with all that, there is one moment that beggars belief: Nobody, especially not a young Hillary Rodham, would be reading an old copy of Remembrance Of Things Past (i.e. Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, as it’s now known in English) while eating a hot dog, spill mustard on the pages, and not immediately stop everything to try and clean it up:
But mostly, if you sit down to watch When I’m A Moth, you’re going to get scenes of Hillary and Ryohei—mostly Hillary—holding court on the nature of the self. She spends an inordinate amount of time wondering about her internal authenticity, to the degree that even an extremely stoned college sophomore majoring in philosophy would be like, “Whoa, easy there, Schopenhauer.” Honestly, here’s a good snapshot of the entire movie in a nutshell:
I wish the movie had spent more time playing with the weird metafictional conceit on which its based, instead of using it as mostly trite window dressing. Early on, there’s a voiceover monologue in which Hillary is writing a letter to her parents, and she brings up a strange episode she had, in which she suddenly felt like maybe she was ripped out of time, or was actually 70 years old—a clear nod to the idea that this could be the unreliable memory of the contemporary politician. The script keeps circling back to this concept with little asides (“I’m just stuck in someone’s memory, or I’m stuck in someone else’s dream,” she says at another point), but, frustratingly, never does a damn thing with it. It’s too bad; you get all these little glimpses of a more interesting movie hovering around the edges of this one.
Still, there are some great scenes, solid acting, and the time goes by pleasantly enough, if you’re okay with overtly pretentious claptrap. Plus, you get some funny exchanges from this thinly sketched, occasionally obnoxious screenplay (one gets the feeling Colter is not a big fan of Clinton): At one point, Mitsuru mentions that Hillary wields language like “a small sword.” Short pause from Hillary: “I should practice not doing that.”
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Minimal at best. Most people don’t care for pseudo-intellectual posturing, I’ve found! But I would consider watching it again, if only for Timlin’s performance.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Nothing yet. Let’s give it a few months and see if there’s a Blu-ray release. I would be all-in on hearing the writer-director team hold court on exactly what went down here.