Things That Make You Go Boom
'Bellflower's broken hearts and homemade bombs
When boy meets girl in the movies, it's typically going to play out in one of two ways: together forever or busted up but good. That much is foregone. What keeps us watching are the endless variations, the tiny tweaks to formula, the embellishments and eccentricities that make this love story feel like no other story ever told before.
So what's the story with Bellflower? Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy goes a little off his rocker. Did I mention he's been building his own flamethrower?
Writer/director Evan Glodell – who also stars as the tormented twentysomething boy, aka Woodrow – pairs the familiar-feeling paces of a love affair turned sour with an electrifying vision of apocalypse now, elucidated in a sickly yellow colorscape, a bedeviling timeline, and blurred visual effects courtesy of a pair of Coatwolf cameras that Glodell doctored, Frankenstein-style. The flamethrower isn't there just for a pyrotechnic show, and neither is the Medusa, a custom-built hot rod that belches fire and epitomizes Woodrow's Mad Max obsession. Failed love feels like a catastrophe when it's happening. If Bellflower looks like end-times, that's entirely because for Woodrow it is end-times – the end to a relationship, the end to the sweet, uncomplicated guy he once was.
Bellflower generated much buzz (and some dissent) at this year's Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals. It's an audacious debut, gorgeous to look at in a distinctively unkempt way, and painfully romantic while also perfectly willing to put forth some transgressive ideas about gender relations. It's infuriating and invigorating in equal measure. Oh, and that glorious flamethrower: Even the most action-shy can't help but thrill at Bellflower's DIY pyrotechnics, all handcrafted on a shoestring budget by Glodell and his friends.
When I spoke with Glodell in advance of Bellflower's theatrical run at the Alamo Drafthouse, I mentioned that Drafthouse owner Tim League, an explosives enthusiast, was excitedly planning some kind of pyrotechnic show for Bellflower's premiere. "Yes!" Glodell replied. "I just wrote him back yesterday telling him everything I'd learned about blowing up propane tanks."
Austin Chronicle: Can you pinpoint the moment that triggered your love of pyrotechnics?
Evan Glodell: Huh. I've never even wondered about that. I know I've had an obsession with fire and blowing things up since I was a kid. I remember, after Christmas, my mom would let me take the Christmas tree out and burn it, because those trees burn for like a minute in giant flames because of all the dry pine needles. And when I was in middle school, I was learning how to make bombs and nonsense.
AC: Do you remember what your first homegrown invention was?
EG: I remember the first time I made a bomb that actually worked. 'Cause when you're a kid, you try to make a bomb with whatever's around – taking apart firecrackers or model rocket engines, or making something with your chemistry set – and usually it's just like a fireball. I just remember the first time I was actually trying to make a bomb and it actually blew up. That was ...
AC: A special day for any young bombmaker.
EG: It was a special day. It was a special day for a young boy. It was like, "Whoa, it actually worked." And then you have to learn about responsibility, because shortly after was the first time I hurt myself.
AC: In Bellflower, on the one hand, there's this business with the flamethrowers and the tricked-out cars, but on the other hand, there's this familiar-feeling story of boy meets girl, boy gets heart broken. In terms of story conception, what came first: the love stuff or the pyrotechnics?
EG: I went through this relationship that was kind of an extreme experience for me, and afterward, as I was trying to figure out what happened, all of a sudden, it was like, "You're going to make a movie about this." The idea that came to me was, oddly, at least in my mind, the exact movie I made, except without the apocalypse references and all that stuff. So that's where it started, and then from there, all the other ideas – the pyrotechnics – were built on top of it.
AC: One of the really interesting things about the film for me was its exploration of gender expectations. Was that something you were explicitly trying to examine?
EG: Definitely. Certainly very directly the different ideas of what it means to be a man.
AC: Woodrow starts out as this sweet, sensitive kid from Wisconsin, and when he gets burned by love, he goes to a really dark place. There's that monologue about Lord Humungus, from Mad Max 2: "Lord Humungus dominates his women, and they love him for it."
EG: It's funny: I've had quite a few girls come up to me and say, "That's actually an interesting monologue; there might be some truth in that." But then I've had guys come up to me and think that it wasn't OK. So far, at least from my perspective, it's only been guys who've heard that and been like, "You can't say that stuff." It's always been guys who say, "What do you think a feminist would say about this movie?" ...
It touches on strange ground. Every time I talk about it, I come to a different conclusion.
Bellflower opens in Austin on Friday, Aug. 12. See Film Listings for review.