“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” the Joker tells Batman in Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. “That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
Annie Clark has her Joker moment after suffering 25 minutes of little indignities, piled one on top of the other, in her new movie The Nowhere Inn, a mockumentary-cum-meta-doc set during her Fear the Future tour from 2017 to 2018. After putting in time on the road, and admittedly less with the press, she’s had enough of being Clark. Nobody’s actually interested in her, not even her best friend, Carrie Brownstein; they want St. Vincent, her alter ego, the indomitable indie-pop icon who has come to Earth from another time and place to glam up our soundscape.
It isn’t Brownstein who pushes her over the brink, though, but a mincing journalist (Rya Kihlstedt), who spends her time with Clark sucking up to and ignoring her—buttering her up for a guest pass to that evening’s performance, and, in the ghastliest violation of press-artist boundaries, beseeching Clark to record an apology for her jealous girlfriend.
Clark lets the moment slide.
At rehearsal, Clark overhears the journalist, sitting smug and pretty in her seat next to her plus-one, talking a barnyard of shit about her. The journalist’s guest asks if Clark is nice. “No. She’s a snob,” the journalist says, smirking. “She’s totally impenetrable and aloof.” They then rub salt in the wound with praise for her music and remarks about how boring she is as a person.
The movie cuts to Clark in her dressing room, staring first into the distance, then into a mirror, as the lighting turns blood red and she runs her fingers through her hair.
Here, The Nowhere Inn takes a hard turn from faux-reality into budding nightmare territory. Clark bleeds into St. Vincent, and St. Vincent into Clark, as the perspective shifts to Brownstein’s. As St. Vincent becomes the villain of her own story, Brownstein becomes the heroine desperately scrabbling to undo the damage she has caused her friend.
Like every meta doc before it—see F For Fake, Close-Up, The Act of Killing, Kate Plays Christine, and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, to name a handful—The Nowhere Inn scrubs away the line where fact parts ways with fiction. The audience gets to appreciate where truth ends and artifice begins. In most of these films, the distinction blurs but remains intact; others require strict observation to separate the two, Taxi being the zenith of that particular approach.
No one’s going to confuse The Nowhere Inn’s narrative with Clark’s real life. Together, she and Brownstein, who co-wrote the film, and director Bill Benz weave a clear web of “what if” about another line of scrimmage, the one that isolates the artist from who they are outside their art. Clark needs only a thin line. St. Vincent cuts such a towering figure (literally, in the case of the Fear the Future tour, where her image was projected on screens that dwarfed the audience like Allison Hayes in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) that it’s impossible to mistake her for anything other than a character expressing a piece of Clark but not Clark herself.
In the concert movie stretch of The Nowhere Inn, flipping between a sharp 2.35:1 presentation for the A-plot and fuzzed-up 16mm footage when we see the world through Brownstein’s camera, Clark is, well: Boring. Ordinary. Like us.
This is a disappointment to the journalist, or at least that’s her performative stance; here the movie doesn’t blur plot lines as much as demonstrate the ways people blur their own lines for the sake of the narrative they want to tell. The journalist wants to spin her guest a yarn where she’s the hard-nosed reporter who went toe to toe with a spoiled rockstar and won. It’s the kind of untruth Brownstein shoots for when directing Clark herself, not because she thinks Clark is boring but because she thinks her (fake) film will work better if Clark lets out a bit of St. Vincent, like a genie from a lamp, instead of being honest.
It’s an uncomfortable experiment from the start; Clark makes what she inadequately calls “subtle changes” for her first shot and bricks, introducing her band to Brownstein’s camera with all the grace of a tramp clown. Toko (playing herself), keyboardist, bassist, and guitarist for St. Vincent’s live shows, is Japanese, Clark tells us. Her cat was eaten by a coyote. Drummer Robert’s (Drew Connick) wife recently had a breech birth after a series of miscarriages. Neil (Chris Aquilino) is Neil; his goofy affected Australian accent is enough of an embarrassment.
Maybe Brownstein and the journalist are right. Maybe Clark isn’t the one people want to see. Clark eats radishes and happily plays Scrabble on her tablet. Off the stage and in street clothes, walking side by side with Brownstein, who she calls “CB” with a dorky affection, she’s astonishingly normal.
If anyone makes an actual concert film about Clark, that normalcy is a rich vein and they should mine it. In The Nowhere Inn, the very thought that a rockstar could be “normal” is anathema: to Brownstein, to the journalist, to her own bandmates. Entertainers can’t be normal. They can’t simply be human beings communicating emotion through sound, sight, canvases, the written word.
In some cases the real person is as compelling as their work: Let’s turn again to Panahi, who was banned from making movies for 20 years in his home country, Iran, but squeezed his way through loopholes to shoot Taxi in 2015, Three Faces in 2018, and a contribution to the omnibus film The Year of the Everlasting Storm earlier this year. In others, the person disappears into their work. Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee ‘17) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) let their subjects do the talking and shy away from playing a part in their movies.
Clark is The Nowhere Inn’s protagonist before she turns into its antagonist, passing the protagonist torch to Brownstein as she grows increasingly monstrous for the rest of the movie. She becomes the Saintliest of Vincents, the Uber-St., Elphaba made the Wicked Witch; Brownstein can’t do anything other than watch in horror at what she’s unleashed in her friend. (The Nowhere Inn does, at times, feel horror-ish, which just leaves us hungering for more of what Clark did in “The Birthday Party,” her segment for the 2017 anthology film XX.)
The Nowhere Inn has fun with Clark’s transformation into the cold, haughty diva the journalist says she is: Whether it’s Brownstein uncomfortably filming a homemade porno Clark puts on with her girlfriend, Dakota Johnson, or Clark taking an impromptu road trip to her childhood home on a Texas ranch, where she dons a fringe jacket and does target practice with a six-shooter, their unfailing, devilish sense of humor keeps the film humming to the end. But the journalist and her slanderous claim are the punchline, too: Clark’s shaky relationship with the press is both well-documented and, frankly, not entirely her doing, because even well-meaning journalists fumble and not all journalists are well-meaning. She is, after all, only human–and even when bending reality until it snaps, The Nowhere Inn never lets us forget.