Billy (Zachary Epcar, US) — Wavelengths

By Phil Coldiron

If one were to enumerate the major trends in sophisticated American filmmaking in the last decade, it seems to me that Zachary Epcar’s films would provide an adequate summary of such a list. In their wit, their formal restlessness, their sharp conception of certain stickier corners of the American psyche, they continue the Nelson-Land tradition. Given the intense pleasures of their surfaces and textures, both visual and aural, I will simply attempt to describe his latest film, Billy, in as much detail as possible.

Billy continues Epcar’s direct engagement with the tenuous stuff of suburbia, and so it is appropriate that it rhymes the flickering closing of his previous film, Life After Love (2018), as it opens with the dance of a flame, its image doubled by the glass that holds it. This image of domestic tranquility draws forth the sounds of sideline encouragement: “Keep going Billy, that’s it, that’s it.” “There you go Billy, looking good!” The image of the fire’s source—a tabletop fire pit, a glass of red wine nearby—fades in as the voices descend from encouragement to terror: “No Billy! No!” The image cuts to black and we hear the sounds of waking in fright. A blond woman turns on the light of a modernist-style lamp and proceeds out of bed. She enters a doorway, cropped at the mouth and collarbones (a favoured framing, as in 2014’s Under the Heat Lamp an Opening) and continues, in conventional film grammar, to enter a frame where, in the same tight cropping, she knocks on a door, “Billy? Are you all right?” A reverse shot shows her enter the room, heavily backlit and still tightly framed. “Nightmare?” Billy, an overgrown child bathed in nightlight blue, responds, “The kind where you’re falling, and you’re about the hit the ground any second.” She turns on a light. “You know they say if you hit the ground in your dream”—cut to her, stoic, as she sits to face Billy—“you really die.” She does not smile; there is a reproduction of an abstract painting and a single houseplant behind her. 

As the frame draws slowly toward her, pulled by the grave erotic humour of her response, Epcar fades to a flashlit field at night, where a deer lurks just beyond the edge of the light. A doorbell rings; a house plant throws its shadow against red upholstery. She opens a door onto a green-screen world and receives an Amazon box from a hand covered in black latex. A blown-glass sculpture and a rubber plant: at exactly the moment she enters this frame to sit, a pair of Epcar’s Soviet-style shots intrude, showing a glass of red wine spilling. Another fade returns from newly wine-dark cloth to the woman opening the box, the sound of slicing tape recorded in exquisite detail. She lifts its flaps and raspberries roll across the table, the floor, and then a knife, a ball, and high-end reusable k-cups. 

The film plunges suddenly into darkness, broken only by a pair of headlights that, after several seconds, sprout the ears of a deer. On a different road, similarly suburban, similarly empty, she asks, “Billy, why are you doing this? I mean what do you have to prove?” Turning away from a white pickup, a handheld camera enters an open garage or storage unit, full of electronics. “I’m sorry Allison, OK?” A hand enters from off-frame and begins to indicate objects, televisions and monitors, Billy’s apologies syncopated with his pointing: “I am sorry. I am sorry.” “For what? Can I at least ask you that?” This question leads into the interior of some suburban home, its decoration that of the American Midwest; a hand enters again from behind the camera, illuminates the interior with a flashlight. Epcar throws cold water on the vaguely criminal sense of this shot with a hard cut to a mini-fridge full of Fiji water, lit like a Josh Klein sculpture. And then to Billy, drinking ravenously, crushing the bottle to get at its contents, drenching himself—or perhaps this is just his cold sweat. 

Back in the woman’s room, the light is still on, the fire is still burning. She opens another door: an iMac and a houseplant in strobing light, a wall of glass bricks. A vase slides across a table and shatters, its shards seen in a composition with raspberry accents, which gives way to two further tableaux of ruins.  Her hand reaches into the frame, not from behind the camera, and picks a raspberry from the latter of these. She sits behind the blown-glass sculpture, completing the action that was interrupted before. As with the man seen through the wine bottle in Under the Heat Lamp, this sculpture distorts her face as she snacks on this raspberry she has retrieved. Her demeanour is that of a woman who has found the precise dosage of wine and Xanax to tolerate the plain burden of her Billy. A beam of light enters the frame, shining into the hole in the sculpture; it is a projection, which crosses a cut to an outdoor scene, and remains in the air, expanding until it fills the frame: it is the deer whose ears earlier mingled with a car. 

Epcar returns to the earlier tableaux—shattered glass, leafy greens, and raspberries on tile floor—now in heavily shadowed blues, Billy’s lighting, as the soundtrack fills with soap dialogue: “What I want you to do is leave.” We depart to the exterior of a shipping facility, where a hand points about inscrutably from behind the camera. We return to the backyard to observe a bird, scared and still. The camera turns to catch sight of a bolting deer, then back to see the bird take flight, then back again to catch what is either its operator’s breath in the cold or a ghost. She is at the window, peering through the blinds. “What do you see, Allison? What’s out there?” Her name is Allison. She turns to her idiot, takes her hand from the blinds, crosses the room to sit beside him, raises a finger to his ear, and blows, “Shhhhhhhhh!” His face shows no sign of comprehension. 

The sound of her plea for quiet mingles with the industrial thrum of the conditioned air of a massive shipping centre. Epcar doubles this rephotographed image onto itself as it tracks down an aisle toward a figure at its far end, whom we never reach. Epcar’s grids descend again in this ordered proliferation of waiting goods: from the generative, spacious mirrored openings of Under the Heat Lamp, to the fences of Return to Forms (2016), failing to hold back flora, even offering it a stage, to the iterative isolation of the car park, to here, only the blunt form of indefinite toil.  The prior film’s bohemian nightmare of life as an indefinite dinner party of absolute banality curdles into the simpering fear of the American management class in the face of its own erotic longing for debasement in labour. That the isolation of life inside new developments opens onto paranoia, weird dependencies, overinvestment in the power of accumulated stuff, is hardly a revelation, though Epcar’s vision of this life is exemplary in its falsely lush brittleness. Billy’s nightmare is not so unique: the colour scheme of this inside narrative is, after all, red, white, and blue. 

A longer feature on Zachary Epcar will appear online in Cinema Scope #80.

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