Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad City?

By Isabel OrtizDecember 18, 2014

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad City?

THERE IS A SEQUENCE in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night where, in the earliest morning after a drug-saturated Halloween party that culminates in a near-death one-night stand between a mop-topped, plastic-fanged Dracula (Arash Marandi as ecstasy-dealing heartthrob Arash) and a bona fide vampire (Sheila Vand as The Girl), the camera cuts to a random guest from the night before — a drag queen, face caked in thick white makeup, wearing a fringed cowboy vest and a polka-dotted kerchief — dancing alone on a crumbling rooftop with his party favor from the night, a single black balloon.

As the camera revolves above him in a circular crane shot that twists and turns his image, viewers may recognize him as a distant relative of one of the white-faced band members from Fellini’s , a Kazuo Ohno–like figure, or a morning-after sad clown, a Pierrot. The shot’s placement just after Arash’s brush with death even quotes the famous murder sequence in Fritz Lang’s M where a silent close-up of a young child’s balloon spells her doom. Remembering M, we may wonder for a moment if Arash has just died. Yet the dancer moves with a quiet grace and private joy that can only be understood as utterly self-possessed and celebratory.

In the face of the many comparisons that he summons, the lonely dancer embodies a few of the referential currents that tug at the inhabitants of the film’s made-up world, Bad City. In this city, all characters are thrillingly hyper-stylized, cobbled together from disparate references to American, European, and Iranian pop culture. They are neither teenagers nor adults; neither predators nor prey. These characters speak only Farsi, but they make their homes among the abandoned factories and power plants of Bakersfield, California. They move through a space that is neither entirely Iranian nor American, but distinctly, insistently, informed by both places.

Within this pan-cultural landscape, Amirpour’s character of The Girl — the skateboarding vampire who wanders the streets of Bad City, alone — becomes the film’s avatar for the experience of encountering, following, and obsessively consuming American and European media as a marginalized Other. By aligning its gaze with that of the near-silent Girl, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night dramatizes the experience of the second-generation immigrant teen who draws her blood from different media designed by and for white audiences. She dances alone in her room to ’80s synth pop and papers her walls with a many-layered collage of rock band and movie posters. She wears a striped shirt swiped from Jean Seberg’s T-shirt in Breathless, but pairs it with a chador instead of a trench coat. When asked to name a song she likes, she answers “Hello” by Lionel Richie. In this way, The Girl is as much a vampire as she is a rabid culture geek, following, watching, and appropriating the most seductive targets of her obsession. In stalking the residents of Bad City, she shape-shifts, imitating their movements in order to enter their worlds for a moment, perhaps to kill them, perhaps to fuck them.

Born in the UK to Iranian parents, Ana Lily Amirpour moved to the US at a young age, and, in doing so, was immersed in the American pop culture that informs her work as a director, and this film in particular. “It’s undeniable to me,” she says in an interview with the Vilcek Foundation, “that if my parents hadn’t left [Iran] and come to America, I wouldn’t have made this movie.” In assembling a full cast of Iranian actors working in the United States and Europe, Amirpour describes the work of creating Bad City with them as a collaborative process of constructing a space that could be “as Iranian as [they] are.” A city that is a “mash-up” of their parents’ Iran, and of the American and European pop culture references that suffuse their work as artists. A space in which its creators’ liminal identities are not sources of isolation, but, rather, the main driving forces behind Bad City’s aching, oozing cool.

Like a proud daughter of at least a thousand cinematic parents, Amirpour wears her genealogy of cool proudly on her sleeve. She has been photographed at movie premieres in a T-shirt with Bruce Lee’s face on it, and in interviews she names herself a devotee of Jim Jarmusch, Rumble Fish–era Coppola, and F. W. Murnau. (She didn’t have to. We already knew.) Though A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ostensibly follows a budding romance between Arash and The Girl, its more powerful love story emerges as the one between Amirpour and the directors she cites as objects of her wild devotion. Bad City pulses with its references to old movies, which both constitute its foundation and are stripped of their lacquer, revealing the roots of their appeal.

Paradoxically, Bad City’s referentiality, the main source of its power, has also become one of the qualities most alienating to its mainstream audiences. Though critical responses to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night have been mostly positive, zombie critics have been quick to identify its style as its greatest liability. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis describes the film’s tendency to devolve into molasses-slow shots of “pretty people staring at other pretty people” and calls it an overlong game of “Name That Allusion.” Others accuse Amirpour of being not only shallow, but inauthentic — Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club writes that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is “best appreciated as a kind of cross-cultural papier-mâché sculpture, with a surface pasted with signifiers and quotations and a hollow interior shaped like Iran.”

Critics who cite the movie’s painfully meticulous stylization as a barrier to its capacity for emotional connection align themselves with dominant currents of film criticism that have often given “cool” a bad rap. Their criticisms echo what Richard Brody, in writing about vampire thriller Only Lovers Left Alive, termed “Jim Jarmusch’s petrified hipness,” or, the potential for an excess of sharp styling to render its characters cool to the point of gelidity. Revisiting Janet Maslin’s 1983 review of Rumble Fish in The New York Times, we can also note a similar undercurrent of frustration in a moment when she bemoans the fact that certain vivid images in Coppola’s film so arrest her attention that they threaten to overtake her impression of “the film […] as a whole.” Of one distractingly beautiful shot, Maslin writes with disappointment that:

When the two brothers stand outside Benny’s Billiards, and the glass door of that establishment reflects the most beautiful and dramatic cloud patterns racing by, it’s impossible not to be distracted by questions of just how the shot was achieved, and just why.

Like the young Coppola who drove Maslin crazy with his fixation on details as pretty as they were irrelevant to his narrative, Amirpour’s cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, revels in the sensual appeal of every dark shadow and dust particle encountered by his anamorphic lens. The film’s languorous editing keeps in all its darlings too beautiful to kill, often lingering on devastatingly lovely close-ups of eyes, shoulders, and swaying hips. As such, many of the film’s key tensions are based not in the forward motion of its barebones love story, but in the slowed down micro-movements of The Girl as she walks down an abandoned city block.

Perhaps because its main character wears a chador, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has and may continue to open itself up to a demand by Western viewers for more narrative fat, political oomph, or explicitly feminist subjectivities. But these viewers may be missing the point. In approaching Bad City, critics who draw binaries between narrative content and visual aesthetic ignore the way in which the film’s style ultimately becomes the very source of its substance. Here, “cool” can and must be appreciated not as a reductive category that imposes distance, but as a stretchy, sensual, haltingly political way of moving through unfamiliar spaces and dark shadows. Within her solitary quiet, The Girl becomes both a stand-in for the director as stalker-visionary-imitator and a character sympathetic to the hungry viewer’s own vampiric thirst for allusions. As the film progresses, she also comes to embody our frustration and loneliness when caught on the outer bounds of their understanding. It’s enough to make anyone a little world-weary, and by the end of the movie it seems that even The Girl is not immune to feeling adrift sometimes, stuck in a City made up entirely of the ghosts of other places. But in the end, what’s a teenage vampire to do? When things get raw, she’ll pick up her cat, get in her boyfriend’s ’57 Thunderbird convertible, and get out of town.


Isabel Ortiz is a writer and teacher living in Astoria, Queens.

LARB Contributor

Isabel Ortiz is a PhD student in American Studies at Yale University. 


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