Pleasurable Surfaces: The Films of Zachary Epcar

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, and 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 them in as much detail as possible, while focusing on the four major works Epcar has made to date.

Under the Heat Lamp an Opening (2014)

A boardwalk, and beyond that, the sea. These things are shown plainly, though wrong side up. The sound of gulls, percussive rumbling. The frame is split into quadrants by a metal cross, askance and in fairly severe perspective: it is filled by a reflection in the surface of some large mirrored structure. A figure enters the image field from, it seems, the space “beneath” the horizontal crossbeam; it is difficult to tell the difference between this figure and its shadow. A pan jerks right and leads into the abstract tail ends of a roll of 16mm as they flare out through yellow near to white. The gulls go on. 

One near-white surface meets another, bluer and darkening, on which the shadows of paired forks lengthen. The sound turns to lapping water as the image appears of a man, his head shaved and his shirt paisley, applying sunscreen in repulsive close-up. As he drinks wine, seen both directly and in the shadow thrown onto a restaurant table, the soundtrack’s percussive din returns, now more elaborate. Epcar transitions abruptly away from this man’s shadow to an overhead shot, a reflection, an “establishing shot,” confirming the space to be an outdoor restaurant. Suddenly, in a cut, the frame tilts slightly upward on the same scene: diners who were previously situated in its center are now truncated by its top edge. This type of rearticulation, of Soviet origin, recurs across Epcar’s work. 

Back to table level: a glass of water is filled; again, seen from two angles. A hand reaches in, retrieves the glass. A blond woman drinks: she is dressed in country-club style, seen first cropped from the nose to the collarbones. There is a quick cut into a tighter close-up before the camera jerks up to her sunglasses, as she begins to speak, “Oh my god! What did you say?” Her voice is dubbed in a manner that can only be called willfully unconvincing, worse than Italian. The frame jumps back, revealing her companion in quarter profile, her short dark hair and big hoops, around the same age, as she responds, “I said, ‘Listen you…’” A tomato is forcefully stabbed from a salad. She places the tomato in her mouth, chews. The scene concludes with two brief shots of the first woman drinking and beginning to speak, as if we were seeing further takes of her performance, before returning to one mirrored overhead view and then, as by now expected, another. 

From here, Epcar begins to work through variations on the pieces thus far introduced: he continues to play with scales as he moves between three general types of image: mirrored “establishing shots,” tightly cropped “performances,” and table-top “still life” images, which are activated by the play of light and shadow. Doublings do abound, from the paired forks to the film’s stuttered framings. Though this, perhaps, is misleading, as its mirrors do more than double, they collect this tourist-trap restaurant into odd gridded articulations, snap it to fit the shape of a curve defined by planes. These articulations are, in turn, doubled by the film: for as the mirrors, which are not contiguous, leave gaps in their image of this place, so Epcar’s film is full of incongruities in its articulation which imply mysterious space. 

Its oddest effect is its handling of performance. Beyond the exchange described above, two further instances of dialogue occur. In the first, which comes six-and-a-half minutes into its ten, a man dressed in black is introduced via a shot aimed directly at a joint in the surface—which creates a double image, stacking two frames of the same scene one atop another—as he sits near the edge of the restaurant, the water across the boardwalk behind him. What follows alternates between this doubled imaged and framings cropped as tightly as the previous exchange, as a waiter approaches the man, offers him wine to taste, and finally, having been assured the bottle is “perfect,” pours him a glass. As the waiter withdraws his hand, the man reaches out to stop him; a quick cut initiates rightward pan, the frame starting to left of the man’s face and stopping at his hand as it rests on the waiter’s forearm. There is time to notice that the customer’s fingernails are noticeably unkempt before another cut cycles back to a close up on his face, now distorted by the wine bottle, his eyes intent as he gazes up at his audience: “Please, this is very important.” 

As we did not hear what followed on from, “’Listen you…’,” neither do we hear what is “very important.” The truncation of the narratives we might imagine follow on from these beginnings—they would, like every other object here, assuredly be banal—tears openings in the surface of the film which resonate out in weird, rippling vibrations, registering in the trembling shadow of a man’s hand holding a fork bearing a piece of asparagus, or the jolt which shakes the camera and attracts the attention of two young men away from their apparently shared paella. The latter moment, a vérité cliché, winks in the direction of the film’s odd blend of performance and document, as well as its tweaking of the old trick for aping naturalism, the mirrored surface which fails to catch a camera’s reflection. This too is a sort of gap, one that has been called on by films since near to cinema’s beginning to offer evidence of the camera’s invisibility, its capacity to capture the world without succumbing to entanglement. It is a small, potent engine of illusion.

Epcar does not create an illusion; he works out from the inside of one. Though he foregoes offering any definitive context for the mirrors themselves, the architecture to which they are attached, two facts regarding this space are apparent enough. The first is that the actors, cropped and isolated, are not in it. The extent to which such tight compositions invariably draw one’s attention to what is being kept out is enough to make it hard to miss that the man in black is, after all, two men in black. Such radical disjunction is of course the norm for much of Hollywood’s work at the moment, which has master the art of suturing together scheduling conflicts of days or years; Epcar’s appropriation of its strategies places him in a fine and various heritage, one as old as his country’s avant-garde.

As with the disjunction between actors and restaurant, the other fact, that of the mirror’s convexity, is not insisted upon, it is simply presented for perception; it makes itself felt in the shifts in perspective which occur in what appear to be otherwise flat, gridded surfaces. Recognition of this convexity leads, unavoidably to my mind, to John Ashbery. I would not care to presume that Epcar is himself concerned with achieving Ashbery’s, or for that matter, Parmigianino’s, “inner calm,” but it does seem to me that his film, in its delight in deferring whatever might follow possibility, is near to Ashbery in its understanding of inside and out. “The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty/As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.” 

Under the Heat Lamp comes to its conclusion as the same tail ends which initially appeared fade in again, and a man’s voice enters the soundtrack, “I try and I try and I try”—a shot of a mouth which earlier was attached to the sound of gulls—“and I try and I try”—up to the man’s eyes—“and I just can’t”—a final rattle of percussion interrupts him. As he blinks, Epcar returns to the film’s initial framing, settling into it with a tiny rightward pan, completing an implied revolution.

Return to Forms (2016)

The film opens with a brief musical overture, in which the editing arranges clustered resonances—the unique tones produced by tapping, and finally rubbing, a range of surfaces—into homespun polyrhythms. The hand that produces these sounds enters from off-frame positions that all but confirm that this figure’s other hand is the one holding the camera. This comic take both visual music and the fetish of the artist’s hand quickly gives way to its formal opposite, the shrill mechanics of a long zoom up the trees and ivy lining the fence in front of a tall, beige building. The zoom continues past the fence and up the edifice before a hard tilt crashes down, landing back near street level, where leaves and branches burst through the fence’s grid. One of Epcar’s typical edits in these early films lands on another angle of the same space, and studies it briefly before the camera jerks up, initiating a cut to a pane of treated glass, as in a shower window—an image, glittering and opaque, which exquisitely condenses Return to Forms

Rhymed openings, window and door, the latter seen in shadow, set Leslie Gore singing her morbid ballad of reunion, “You’ve Come Back,” on the soundtrack. Bare feet sit on shag carpet; a close up on one foot’s unkempt nail rhymes, inscrutably, the hand in Under the Heat Lamp. These naked feet are, it seems, preparing to bathe: the same hand again emerges from behind the camera, turns a shower’s handle. The “falling water” that fills the screen looks, to my eyes, suspiciously like speeding blacktop, and it serves as the ground for a confrontation on the soundtrack between Gore and the shower’s pleasing rumble. It appears, for a time, that she will be drown out, when suddenly the water is gone, though its rushing “image” remains. This then modulates into a pair of crude CG animations: the first shows a river flowing without a bed; the second, tumbling over the edge of a narrow waterfall, surrounded by a dramatic, crystalline cliffside. On the soundtrack, as Gore sings the “I” of “I cried,” her voice catches (the image snags in unison) and the note drones for several seconds before being replaced by a pair of tones, acoustic and electronic. These drones continue across a transition back to direct 16mm footage of water falling, before dissolving into ambient sounds, birds and wind, as the camera reveals the built environment in which this water falls. 

The beginning of the film’s second movement is signaled by the appearance of another grid (white) with leaves (red), a sharp visual contrast to the dark tones of the opening fence and foliage. A series of fast tilts, moving both upward and downward within this space, rhyme the prior zoom up the building. Two brief shots of rephotographed digital footage of a tech-yuppie open house intrude, breaking up the heretofore uniform texture of its images before returning to the opening sequence’s building, seen in extreme vertical perspective. Images continue to repeat: atop a second white rug—this one fur, presumably faux—the feet of a figure as they put on Vibram FiveFinger shoes. This commences Epcar’s best joke to date, a parody of Wavelength (1967), in which, to the sound of increasingly laboured breathing, the cameraperson goes for a jog in these ludicrous shoes. The image remains fixed on the ground, more speeding concrete, as forward motion carries across cuts in location. As the breathing on the soundtrack grows laboured and then desperate, the montage begins to come apart, cutting quickly and falling in and out reverse motion. Gore returns amidst the gasping and wheezing on the soundtrack, as the jogger, clinching the parody, heads straight into the sea, “Oh! Happy day, you’ve come back…” We see only waves, gently rippling. 

As Gore winds up for her finale, we are thrown from the sea back to rephotographed real- estate images, now showing a virtual walkthrough of another yuppie apartment—maybe it’s the same one, who could tell? The closest is comically large; the walkthrough concludes in silence. The runner remains absent as we zoom first into the fur carpet, through to a blank white frame, and then, having landed in a new interior, into extreme close up on a window screen, the trees seen through its grid just so many pixels of minimally distinct green. Shaken percussion bridges this shot to the heavily rhythmic next sequence, which concludes this movement: a series of fast pans, more Snow, across the mirrored glass façade of a building, as it reflects enormous palm trees, which are also seen directly (i.e., they sit in between the camera and the reflecting building). 

Another sudden cut: in more rephotographed material, a hand with cherry-red nails holds a controller and points at its coloured buttons. A second hand, its nails black, points at a pile of powdered substance sitting on blue paper. A third, its wrist circled by an unfashionable watch, holds up a phone showing the interface of an application called Therapy, confirming its user has achieved 97% sleep quality over that day’s pair of sessions. Where are we?

The film’s answer is the same electronic and wind drone, which returns as the final movement commences: a series of products displayed on a homemade lazy Susan, a jury-rigged turntable surrounded by mirrors. We see a touch-based humidifier, or atomizer, in cherry wood; a pink plastic motorized skin brush, which is given a product demonstration; a screen-touch glove; a vaporizer, which is used offscreen and blown into the frame; a bottle of Philosophy skin cream (“we aspire to the practice of living grace”), pumped a single time; a small succulent terrarium; a second massage device, rotating beneath artificial fabric; and a small palm smashed through an iPad—this latter explored from as many angles as possible, rhyming its shards. A hand wearing the screen-touch glove enters the frame, touches a leaf, and withdraws. 

What unites this junk? Are these the remainders of some late-ironic QVC knock-off? The precipitate of comically vulgar misunderstandings of “self care” rushed to market by various grifters? Are we in the museum or the gift shop? The purgatory of those questions is indefinite, as Gore returns on the soundtrack, once again stuck in her looped cage, as water falls, eventually drawing the camera down, in a zoom, with it. 

Life after Love (2018)

It is possible that the form Epcar was returning to was, simply, surfaces—visual forms—after the turn toward imagined interiority enacted by the plant-directed therapy of Night Swells (2015). Life after Love seems, initially, to enact its own return to imagined interior life. To the sound of a karaoke version of the Cher song which gives the film its title, the image zooms out from an initial frame showing four rows of cars in a parking lot to an extreme wide shot, in which much more of this massive lot comes into view, including the San Francisco Metro station to which it is attached. The music cuts with the sound of a car turning off, or perhaps on, and a voiceover, delivered in the murmur of an ASMR video, begins, “ You can really feel this energy and excitement, it’s all about the torque.” 

As this voiceover goes on in an erotic reverie for those overly attached to their mufflers, Epcar’s camera explores the lot. After the noon-day clarity of Under the Heat Lamp and quilted quality of Forms—with its patchwork of uninflected outdoor 16mm footage, washed out rephotographed digital images, and product-lit final sequence—Life after Love fully embraces the cruel fact that the day’s magic hours correspond to the average commute. Its burnished images of paint jobs in long, golden light, like Dorsky in his darker moods (he, too, has a fondness for the smooth surfaces of cars), stand up well against the work of any of the Bay Area’s storied history of colourists in paint and film. 

The tone changes abruptly with the appearance of man seen through the open window of his car eating noodles. His actions are perfectly unconvincing: the failed naturalism of his eating sits in the range of artifice James N. Kienetz Wilkins has spent the last several years exploring. The film’s second character is quickly introduced: a young woman in yoga wear sits with her eyes closed. The exploration of the lot continues with a series of upward tilts, each leading to a rearview-mirror hanging. Given Epcar’s facility with mirrors, their repression here—though the film does not want for reflections, all are in painted surfaces, not mirrors—is conspicuous. 

Another sudden change, a swerve in the reverie: “If there was something a little different in the shape of a line, then you can let the palm of your hand feel that.” Where did this train of thought come from? “The engine, its life force, like water filling a glass.” A young woman rolls her window down to vape, and the image dissolves in its haze to a different angle. Her reverie is bothered by blaring horns, perhaps the sound of a train arriving, a tone like you’ve left your lights on. We cut to a brief shot of the interior of a car in darkness, occasionally lit by a strobing or flashing light, and as quickly, back to the lot. The tone, a reminder, continues, against images of sharp, piercing reflections of hoods.

A scratching or rustling, which recalls the rubbed chair of Return to Forms, creeps onto the soundtrack, and is soon attached to a dog licking the window of a car. This plays as a comic note, but a dark one: though we might safely assume that this dog has not been left here for the day, the prospect is unnerving enough. Worry is stalled by a pleasing series of shots of windows opening and closing, each rising or falling bringing with it a new reflection. This vertical motion within fixed frames modulates into a tilt, which turns up from a downward-facing gaze on the hood of a car to settle, at a perpendicular angle, on the image of two sideview mirrors nearly meeting, intimate and conspiratorial (seen again, with their mirrors occluded). A train arrives, reflected in a roof. We return to the man with his noodles and fade into a close-up on him. Another swerve in the voiceover: “You were present when the drink orders were taken. You were gone when the appetizers arrived.” Sci-fi synth tones and the flashing sedan, again. “You stood, momentarily, to make a toast, and then sat back down to reserve your order in the queue. There were delicate greens on the table.” Continuing to examine the flashing car. “It was the special.” 

A hard cut, before “special” is finished, to clamoring canned audio and slowed, rephotographed images of stock footage of “people having a good time.” As the group raises a toast, tribal percussion grows on the soundtrack. Back in the lot, a young man, his neck ensconced in a travel pillow, wakes with a start. A longer shot confirms this as his banal nightmare: as the recurring tone re-enters the soundtrack, he grips his steering wheel in terror. A train departs—that is, it moves in what the grammar of the film tells us is the opposite direction from the one seen before—again reflected in a roof. Three more tilts, over cars and pavement, land on a woman, seen through her closed window, tapping at her phone screen as her whispered voice recites directions. After several quick downward tilts, another train departs—its reflection considerably more distorted than the others, to lesser effect. 

In tight, nearly abstracting close up, a glove compartment opens and the frame goes black, as the car tone returns: “Good. That’s good. Now that we’ve opened up the glove compartment, I want you to take a hand and, while remaining absolutely still, place it in inside.” At “inside,” Epcar returns to the yoga-goer, her eyes still closed. “Is your hand inside the glove compartment?” “Yes,” she answers (we can’t see if this is true.) “Good”—cut back to black—“Now I want you to continue reaching your hand out. Deep, so deep that you begin to feel it filling up the space of the glove compartment, like water filling a glass. Is your hand beginning to fill the glove compartment?” Back to the young woman, who says, “Yes.” “Like water filling a glass?” “Yes.” Another cut back to black, as the voiceover goes on, “Now continue reaching and continue filling.” We return to the strobing car. “Filling until the rest of your body begins to fill too. Until your body begins to fill and then merge. And repeat after me. I know that I’ll get through this, cause I know that I am strong”—as in Under the Heat Lamp, the film returns to the same framing as its first shot, now seen after dark, the lot nearly empty but for the flickering sedan. The opening’s zoom out and back in recurs as the voiceover continues—“I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore, I don’t need you anymore.” The car continues to strobe in silence. Soon enough, it’s true, our transportation won’t need us anymore. 

Billy (2019)

Billy continues Epcar’s direct engagement with the tenuous stuff of suburbia, and so it is appropriate that it rhymes the previous film’s flickering closing, 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 Heat Lamp) and continues, in conventional film grammar, to enter a frame where, in the same tight cropping, she knocks on a door, “Billy? Are you alright?” 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 houseplant 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 her 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, 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 (as in Forms) 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 her 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 these raspberries she has retrieved. Her demeanor 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. And 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 center. 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, 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. 

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