Of all the fattening cities across the globe, Los Angeles is the most in thrall to its suburbs. Seamed together by evocatively named trunk roads—the Golden State Freeway, the Mojave Freeway, and (rather less poignantly) the Ronald Reagan Freeway—Southern California is a frayed landscape of outlying conurbations that has spawned an entire genre of neo-gothic fantasies. Filmmakers, from Tim Burton to Tod Solondz and writers from Joan Didion to John Cheever, have found a map of sublimated and quashed desires within this landscape. Suburban sprawl is the subconscious of our civilisation and Los Angeles has the full Freudian psychic apparatus: there is a super-ego (Hollywood), an ego (Silicone Valley, the heart of the porn industry), and an id (the ghettos and ’burbs). The psychic node of Simi Valley lies on the furthest margins of Los Angeles; a low-density grid of splash pools, pizza joints and retail outlets. It is an unexciting place that simmers with teenage boredom and Gothic potential. This is where Charles Manson made his home in the late 1960s, listening to The Beatles’ White Album incessantly and prophesising an apocalyptic race war that would consume the nearby metropolis.
Artist Jason Underhill has been making homespun videos here since he was a teenager, kneading the clay of suburban mythology like Play-Doh. Art school training at CalArts and London’s Goldsmiths has thankfully failed to erase the very un-Hollywood intimacy of his acutely observed mini-dramas. Partly, this is due to the fact that he works in close collaboration with two friends he has known since childhood: co-scriptwriter and ‘muse’ Roxie Fuller and long-time friend and collaborator Ben Smith.
Underhill rejects the moralising clichés found in a swathe of mainstream movies: he names both Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia, 1996, and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, 1999, as tendentious and proselytising examples. In such films, Underhill observes, ‘suburbia doesn’t exist as a place, but as a lesson that we should learn from’. It is no surprise that Underhill is a fan of Solondz’s black comedy masterpiece Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995. He’s also a fan of artists Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s inspiringly oddball videos, notably ‘Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out’, 2006—its roaming camerawork traces a world of febrile nomads living on the fringes of an imploding society. Underhill’s work utilises a similarly intimate cinéma verité style, albeit mockumentary in tone, in which performer and cameraman orbit each other like planets; it’s the visual equivalent of a rapport.
Underhill’s longest work to date, ‘Howlin’’, 2009, is a 28-minute long suburban epic. The protagonists are Daniel who is a satanist, and Maria who wantsto be a model (‘it’s my dream!’), and the roles are performed by Smith and Fuller respectively. ‘Howlin’’ is a story about two bored teenagers shooting the breeze. The video begins with Daniel loafing in the corner of a car park, talking on his mobile phone and attempting to buy a Joy Division t-shirt. The salesperson says it’s not in stock, but Daniel doesn’t believe them: ‘it sounds like one big lie’. Turning to his uncommunicative friend Mike (played by Michael Patrick Carr)—a real Silent Bob character—Daniel delivers a soliloquy about a girl he grew up next to whose parents told her that ‘all plants cry because humans are so barbaric and cruel’, and how one day they did up the front yard by paving it and replacing the grass with cacti, ‘the only kind of plants that don’t feel pain’. Daniel takes this story and the saga with the t-shirt as further evidence (if any were needed) of the shitty nature of ‘fucking people man’. There’s no logic to his line of thought—but vacuums of comprehension are a recurring motif in Underhill’s work. Later, Daniel is reading a copy of Necronomicon, a publication which he believes is truly ancient and powerful: ‘only 666 copies were made’. Fans of HP Lovecraft will know it’s all a literary hoax, a fake book made by a pulp fiction author to con gullible teenage boys. But it is Maria’s response that is really funny: she calls it the ‘Necropotimus’ and, as a riposte to Daniel’s magic-obsessed sullenness, quotes lines from the Sandra Bullock romcom Practical Magic, 1998. Daniel is not amused.
Underhill’s videos are composed of set-piece dialogues and freeform monologues. Often, what appears to be entirely spontaneous is, in fact, scripted. A great deal of the credit for the verve of these stories must go to Roxie Fuller. Her tour de force is a starring role in Underhill’s ‘Jessie Lives’, 2006, in which Fuller plays a teenage Goth, desperate to fit in. Jessie, a wide-eyed greenhorn, longs for the type of friends who sneak out of their parent’s houses at five in the morning ‘just to give each other a hug!’. She is besotted with a boy who turned up at school donning a noose around his neck. Next, she attempts to go to a Goth party in a cemetery, but misses the whole point of the illicit venture by going in broad daylight, hours before the nocturnal party is due to kick off. The video closes with a bewigged Jessie strolling down a dark train tunnel looking for a homeless guy she’s arranged to meet. She returns looking delighted, and speaks directly at the camera to describe her encounter. Suddenly, exhilaratingly, a train passes by within a few feet of both Jessie and the camera, its horn blasting like a trumpet, Jessie’s clothes and wig billowing wildly. Blithely, she continues to mouth silent words that are drowned by the noise and commotion, waving her hands in a manner that communicates only mute eagerness. Once the train has passed, she becomes audible once more: ‘I’ve never felt like this before… it’s just, I don’t know where we’re going to get all these flash bulbs and coyote carcasses… it doesn’t seem to be a problem. So, I guess I’ll just go with it’.
Urban myths are the fabric of these narratives. In one memorable scene of ‘Howlin’’, Maria meets her friend Stacey (played by Lucy Griffin), who conspiratorially tells a story about a murderer who has been putting human body parts—bits of ear and brain—in the pic ‘n’ mix at the store in which Stacey works in. It all sounds like outlandish fiction. Underhill tells me, however, that it is a modified account of a real event that took place in Simi Valley. A paedophile had committed suicide on a train track, and remains of the body were picked up by a local teenager (a high school colleague of Underhill’s) who put them in the candy section of a shop for the delectation of small children. The attraction for Underhill in this story isn’t just the gore; it’s the way the story embodies misunderstandings as an example of a teenager’s deeply warped sense of poetic justice. Underhill’s characters frequently exhibit this disregard for the horrors lurking around them. In ‘B.Y.O.B.B.Q.’, 2009, Fuller plays a character who is nonchalant about being kidnapped by an archetypal psychopathic hillbilly murderer—she’s seen it all before in the movies—and is largely preoccupied by getting to a party on time.
Currently, Underhill is working on a new script for an as-yet-untitled video. This, too, will incorporate stories garnered from real life. In one scene a character called Lissa, who is somehow unaware that the movie United 93, 2006, was based on the real events of 9/11, asks her friend Nick if it was ‘any good’. Nick replies (thinking about the real catastrophe) that ‘it was horrible’. For Lissa, however, ‘the soundtrack is gorgeous’. Underhill continues to draw our attention to the interesting miscues and dramas that blooms when reality goes out of focus.