Usually, when someone talks about a film being “challenging,” they’re referring to a slow-burn drama that’s about a family who hates each other languishing in a crumbling villa, but really it’s about the resurgence of European fascism or whatever. And I like those types of movies just fine. Some of them really are as profound as they’re made out to be! But, for whatever reason, I was having trouble concentrating on the title I had selected on the TIFF virtual screening platform, one that caught my attention thanks to its gorgeous cinematography and art-house pedigree.
I won’t name the film here, as the portion of it that I was able to absorb was well shot and intriguingly complex, and I don’t want to give the impression here that it sucked. No, at that moment, it is I who sucked. Or, to be more charitable to myself, my brain was just tired and needed a break. And what better break than a documentary about Kenny G, father of smooth jazz, a genre designed specifically to soothe the addled mind? I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Kenny G’s music—like most people, I had simply absorbed it by osmosis over a lifetime’s worth of shopping trips and dentist appointments. But I do have a longstanding grudge against jazz snobs, thanks to a former coworker who openly declared anyone who wasn’t well-versed in bebop an uncultured idiot. And the director of Listening To Kenny G had previously made another documentary I had reviewed and enjoyed, 2019’s Hail Satan?.
Well, here’s the thing. Listening To Kenny G isn’t just a documentary about the best-selling instrumental artist of all time, and the people who hate him. It’s also a documentary about the concept of “let people enjoy things,” a panel in a 2016 webcomic by Adam Ellis that’s since become both a populist rallying cry and fodder for think pieces by people whose job is to critique the things that other people enjoy. (Like me!) Using Kenny G as the subject for such an exploration is a brilliant choice, given that—serious concerns about whitewashing aside—he’s a harmless force that nevertheless makes a certain type of music lover go blind with rage.
Listening To Kenny G could use more of this analysis, which is confined to a single segment towards the end of the film. Director Penny Lane seems to be on the side of the fans, proposing that a visceral dislike of any artist says more about the hater than what they hate. On the one hand, the rise of poptimism, and the “let people enjoy things” mantra itself, would seem to indicate that such a sentiment would be welcome in 2021. But that’s why Kenny G is such a good subject for this doc. When it comes to, say, Taylor Swift, I can agree that, as one interview subject puts it, “it can’t be that millions of people are just stupid.” But with Kenny G?
Lane also complicates this narrative by letting the haters articulate just what they dislike about Kenny G, and they bring up some valid points. She also weaves in a more standard biographical documentary about Kenny G’s rise to fame and perfectionist personality, as well as some interesting side notes like the fact that Kenny G’s “Going Home” is played in millions of shops and offices across China every evening to indicate the end of the work day. In the end, no easy answers are provided, and the audience is left to decide for themselves if he’s just a well-adjusted, financially successful guy in a field of tortured, starving artists, or if he’s a blasphemer tearing up sacred ground with aural wallpaper for rubes.
But while Listening To Kenny G challenges its audience by questioning preconceived notions about the difference between “good” or “bad” art, Dashcam, the new film from Host director Rob Savage, challenges its audience by presenting them with one of the most toxic protagonists in horror-movie history. The Annie in the film is an anti-mask COVID denier who livestreams herself driving around improvising raps based on viewer suggestions in a show called Band Car. Band Car is a real show, and Annie Hardy is a real person who rose to moderate indie-rock fame in the ’00s performing with the band Giant Drag, experienced profound loss in the ‘10s, and now tweets anti-vaxxer talking points in between promoting her music. I was not aware of her until now, and all I can say is that I hope, for her sake at least, that the obnoxious, entitled, belligerent, MAGA-hat-wearing troll she plays in this movie is a caricature.
Something that I think about a lot are cultural cycles. The 2010s were, of course, the decade when the word “woke” entered the public consciousness, and I often wonder if we’re in for a reactionary decade in the 2020s not unlike the pushback against ’90s-style “political correctness” in the more vulgar ’00s. If that is indeed the case, then Dashcam may end up being the herald of a new wave of horror movies that reflect the heightened vitriol of our divided age, much like ’00s “torture porn” did for the Abu Ghraib era. On this note, Savage—who’s British—does put Annie through her paces in Dashcam, not unlike what Eli Roth did with his ugly Americans in the original Hostel.
The first 15 minutes or so of Dashcam are hard to sit through, as Annie flies from L.A. to London under the mistaken impression that she’ll be free from “COVID tyranny” in the U.K. She barges in on her old friend Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel) and Stretch’s new girlfriend, who refuses to take off her mask in front of this absolute tornado of a person. Annie reacts by sabotaging Stretch’s food delivery job and stealing his car—a move that, through some machinations that are never really explained, ends up with her transporting a mute, elderly woman with a face mask across town. But if Annie thinks she’s the alpha in this situation, she’s wrong, as her mysterious passenger has X-Men-like powers far more chaotic than Annie’s own.
This is a vicious movie that takes every chance it can get to up the nihilistic stakes. Savage doesn’t just have his characters crash into a another car when theirs careens out of control. He has them kill a newlywed bride and groom, still in their wedding clothes in a car that says “Just Married,” in the process. It’s disgusting, shocking, bloody, and extremely intense, careening between jaw-dropping moments of callous black comedy and breathless sequences of abject terror and panic. All this is presented in shaky, pixelated found-footage style, as Annie’s vlogging helmet continues to roll through indescribable horrors. And “indescribable” is the best word for it: You can’t tell what’s happening throughout much of the last half, which both heightens the anxiety and makes this 66-minute movie feel longer than it actually is. This is already proving to be an extremely divisive film, but you have to give it one thing: It does not play safe.
Much of the discourse in recent years around American culture at the turn of the millennium has been mea culpas about how we were a crueler culture back then. And, in their own ways, both Listening To Kenny G and Dashcam have something to say about this regretful impulse, and how it reflects on our current moment. Listening To Kenny G takes the argument that snark and snobbery are bad for the soul and pushes it to its limit, by applying it to an artist that even the most open-minded music lover may struggle to appreciate. Dashcam, on the other hand, refutes the idea that we’re more enlightened now with a movie that’s mean and nasty in ways that are difficult to accept, but also very in keeping with a regular day on the internet in 2021.