Something in the dirt

in “The X-Files,” the poster on Fox Mulder’s wall declares “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE”. The truth is “out there,” it cannot be understood. The conspiracy involved in covering it up would be massive. “The X-Files” is one of the most paranoid television series ever made and “Something in the Dirt”, a film written, directed, produced and edited (as well as starring) Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, gives “X-Files” a run for its money. Paranoia is a magnet that attracts more and more fluid and jetsam, accumulating “random” coincidences that point to hidden patterns, all of which swirls into a black hole that swallows clarity and judgment as well as reality. Paranoia is irresistible! “Something in the Dirt” has the gritty DIY feel of the no-budget world from which it sprung, and is both thought-provoking and insane, just like the mood it presents.

Two men—one more burned out than the other, though both struggling—find themselves neighbors in a low-rent apartment building in Laurel Canyon. There do not appear to be any other tenants. An apocalyptic mood hovers over the landscape: low-flying helicopters, plumes of smoke in the hills, coyotes roaming the streets. John (Aaron Moorhead) is a gay evangelical Christian, recently divorced and good at math, though he doesn’t seem to have a job. Levi (Justin Benson) is a bar-back with a sketchy criminal record and no family or friends. He’s on the sex offenders register, but he has a really good story about why he shouldn’t actually be there. They met by chance in the yard. Levi has just moved into an apartment that has been empty for as long as John can remember. John is sitting there with what looks like blood spatter on his shirt. This is not recognized.

Almost immediately, strange things begin to happen in Levi’s apartment. Mathematical equations cover the walls and door frames, presumably written by the previous tenant. A quartz crystal object floats by itself and emits prisms of light. There is a cabinet that emits some kind of electromagnetic radiation and/or low gravity. Things flow around. A random plant sprouts a hideous slimy little fruit that looks like it might shout “Feed me, Seymour” at any moment. Levi and John have been friends for all of ten minutes as they get sucked into trying to figure out what’s going on. They decide to document their experiences and maybe it could be a documentary and they can win awards and make money.

“You go your whole life thinking that certain things will always be a mystery,” says Levi. But what if there is a logical explanation and he and John can actually figure it out? This leads them down an infinite number of intersecting garden paths involving the Golden Ratio, MK-Ultra (of course), the “Jerusalem Syndrome”, Aldous Huxley, Morse code, a script with every line redacted except for five numbers, Pythagoras and Los Angeles city planning bizarre story. None of this makes even a tiny bit of sense, though the connections discovered are eerie and woo-woo in the extreme. At first I tried to follow every little bit of information and “evidence” that piled up in the quartz-encrusted corners, but I eventually gave up. But there’s a kind of insane sense to it all (if you don’t try to slow down and think things through). The conspiracies don’t connect (they never do) and there can be a letdown in how it all plays out (or doesn’t play out, depending).

What really works is the intimacy between John and Levi, that from the jump. They share cigarettes, exchange ideas, get inspired. It’s fun to see them think highly of each other. Darker things come into play as the investigation intensifies. John rules over Levi and considers himself intellectually superior. Levi gets annoyed. It could go south pretty quickly. “Experts” are brought in to comment on the unfolding events, experts presumably “hired” by John and Levi for the “talking heads” portion of their planned documentary. It gets even more “meta” when they include interviews with two of the documentary’s editors (one is shrouded in anonymity, with his name redacted). A mix of styles is at work here, although the majority of the film takes place in the creepy apartment where John and Levi wander around, seeing strange phenomena occur and looking at each other with wide shocked eyes. They are united in their sense of awe and wonder.

“Something in the Dirt” ends with a dedication I found unexpectedly moving: “Making movies with your friends.” It’s what you feel on screen.

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