This week, after the documentary series The Chair—which I reviewed for The A.V. Club and covered with multiple interviews here at Cultural Learnings—reached the wrap of production on the two films based on the same script, Starz has made both Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg available on its Starz Play streaming site and On Demand. Viewers who watch both films can then register to vote for who wins The Chair’s $250,000 cash prize, with the results announced on November 8th.
While both films had brief runs in theaters in Los Angeles and New York—and Pittsburgh, where both were filmed—and have been available for digital download since late last month, this marks the best chance for those who have been watching the documentary series to see how the decisions made by Dawson and Martemucci actually influenced the final product. As much as one continues to presume that Dawson’s extensive fanbase will tip the scales in his favor in the end, the survey nonetheless raises a more interesting question of how our reception of these films is shaped by both the broad terms of the experiment—two versions of the same script—and by the behind-the-scenes knowledge we have about how these projects came together.
Accordingly, while the following are reviews of the films themselves, they are also inevitably reviews of how the films function as the “climax” of the “filmmaking experiment,” which is a distinct mode of evaluation that frames the films for better or for worse.
Dir. Shane Dawson
Not Cool bears the mark of its director and star. That was always Shane Dawson’s intention, and he has successfully created a film that feels like the product of a YouTube creator-turned-director who wants to communicate directly with his young audience.
The movie is terrible, unfortunately, although not because it’s speaking to a younger audience. As much as many of the film’s choices are woefully misguided, there is a core of this story that speaks to teenagers in ways that I understand. Whenever any of the central characters expresses their deepest anxieties—whether they have no one to talk to, or feel like they don’t have any real friends, or feel nostalgic for high school, or feel alienated from their hometown—it is as though Dawson is speaking directly to the teenagers who make up the majority of his audience. All teenagers—myself included, back in the day—have similar feelings, and every now and then Not Cool stops throwing jokes at the wall and has a character explicate a very rote, but also very true, sentiment of what it’s like to feel in some way put down by life.
There’s a movie in those characters, which is likely what drew The Chair executive producer Chris Moore to Dan Schoffer’s script in the first place. The problem is that Shane Dawson has failed to build that movie, struggling to piece together storylines and find a connective tissue that doesn’t involve bodily functions. The film’s clunky approach to issues of race and gender are par for the course for Dawson’s comedy, but they’re not nearly funny or clever enough to add any value to the film or its point of view. The tone issues are substantial enough that when the film does dial it back and attempt to get serious, you can’t take the film at its word, knowing that same storyline could get swallowed by scatological nonsense two scenes later.
I wasn’t surprised I felt this way—watching The Chair, and in checking out some of Dawson’s videos, I knew it wasn’t for me, and so I wasn’t shocked when I could sense the film continually pushing me away from it with each new over-the-top bit that added little to no value to the core of this story. In his first attempt at feature-length filmmaking, the fact is that Dawson was not able to find a thematic core to this piece that could ground the level of raunch that he felt was necessary to tell this story. There were too many supporting characters dialed up to 14, such that it seemed like the storylines that were more grounded—particularly the Scott and Tori relationship—were suffocating.
That relationship is the core of the film, and it contains the film’s best feature. Cherami Leigh is a real find, giving Tori and the film a sense of “reality” it sorely needs more of. Her character is the one that seems the most solidly defined, and her actions are consistently motivated and drive the story effectively. However, the relationship struggles more from Scott’s perspective, which is partly because Dawson never quite seems comfortable in the role (although he delivers in the emotional climax), and partly because it is very difficult to separate Scott the character from Shane the director in the context of the film.
Dawson’s visibility is a problem for Not Cool, as someone who is not necessarily a “fan” of Dawson’s work. I understand why he chose to cast himself in the film. I understand, particularly in said emotional climax, that this is in many ways a personal statement Dawson is making about his career and his own identity crises. It helps him relate to his audience, and yet also provides a meaningful point of distance from a previous identity on which his celebrity was based.
However, I kept wishing that I could engage with the character of Scott without also engaging with Shane. The experience watching The Chair was undoubtedly a big part of this—I found myself “seeing” the behind-the-scenes emerge in this film more given that Shane was actually onscreen, whether it was in certain performances, certain camera moves (they never nailed that quick pan to the father in the train station that was highlighted in an episode of the show), or just the general narrative of whether Shane should be starring in his own movie. That’s not entirely fair to the film, I’ll admit, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether his fans who paid for the film or attending a screening of the film with him would have seen it anyway even if he wasn’t in the starring role. It’s a hypothetical I don’t have an answer for, but one that I think could have helped the film find its own voice distinct from Shane’s existing creative identity.
The larger issue, though, is that I found it impossible to take Scott seriously when Dawson was also playing the two characters in drag. Those characters probably work as quick throwaways in the context of short videos, but they undermine the ability to connect with Scott when you are so often reminded of Dawson’s comic identity. It was said repeatedly on The Chair that Dawson was moving outside of his comfort zone by playing Scott, but that loses its value when he’s also completely in his comic comfort zone in a dress in the following scene. The mixed message keeps the character of Scott from connecting, and keeps the film from ever shaking the sense that it’s Dawson struggling to mature instead of fully embracing the opportunity in front of him.
When I read the reviews of Not Cool, some of which crossed a line into vitriol, I wasn’t surprised, not did I think I would ultimately disagree with their opinion of the film. However, there was also an effort to define Dawson by his audience, and use the failures of Not Cool as a film to make a broader judgment on the people who subscribe to his channels, and of online creators more broadly. That strikes me as an empty and baseless criticism, and I have no interest in judging Dawson’s audience, divergent as their taste cultures might be from my own based on the content of his videos.
At the same time, however, watching Not Cool made me wish that Dawson had been more willing to challenge those viewers by creating something that did more to work against his image. These are young viewers who are still discovering their taste cultures, and as a successful content creator Dawson has to understand that appealing to the 12-17 year olds on YouTube is appealing to a demographic that will likely “age out” of this kind of content at a certain point. And while there will always be 12-17 year olds, he went into this project emphasizing his desire to move beyond that group and broaden his perspective, and I want to believe that his audience would be willing to go there with him if Not Cool were willing to be so bold as to dial back on the aggressive stereotypes and raunch for the sake of raunch.
Not Cool ends up an alienating film that too often reverts to a mode of comedy and filmmaking that felt at odds with the themes of the piece, but the most frustrating thing is that it didn’t have to be. The Chair made visible the decisions that led to this, making it all too easy to imagine a different set of decisions that kept Dawson in the director’s chair and let him execute a vision of his creative future independent of his divisive creative identity.
Dir. Anna Martemucci
True to the experiment at hand, you can see how Hollidaysburg shares DNA with Not Cool. Even looking beyond direct similarities like character names or particular scenes that are shared between the two films, the theme of struggling with your identity in the first Thanksgiving after going off to college is at the core of each film.
The difference is that Hollidaysburg finds that core consistently, and develops characters that compliment both the theme and each other. Although it retains a romantic relationship between Scott (Tobin Mittnick) and Tori (Rachel Keller) as its central narrative, it reframes Scott’s ex-girlfriend Heather (Claire Chapelli) as a third major character whose struggles with depression are productively developed. It develops supporting characters—like Heather’s white trash, ex-con stepfather—who undoubtedly play more broadly than the central characters, but they nonetheless feel like they’re in the same universe as the other characters, and don’t exist solely to be singled out as an embarrassment. Even when the characters run into a naked woman in a dressing gown with a baseball bat after parking in a bad neighborhood, she departs the scene with a moment of dignity, as though she is a real human being as opposed to a walking punch line.
Hollidaysburg benefits considerably from the context offered by The Chair. Some of this has to do with the comparison, in that the film is just leagues ahead of Not Cool in terms of storytelling, performances, and the level of professionalism and detail in the craft side of filmmaking. The film feels like it has meaningful production design, with tableaus that carry meaning for the characters (particularly in Scott and his brother’s packed-up home, a useful device that keeps his particular existential crisis present at all times), and its expanded use of exteriors and location shooting give it a much more articulate sense of place that gives the “hometown” theme more grounding; we can extend this to the choice to film driving scenes on location, and using curtains to “hide” the studio as opposed to relying on green screen when they’re in the van (which became a visual effects nightmare for Not Cool). The cinematography is more purposeful and consistent, comfortably within existing independent film aesthetics but constructive for this story and these characters. When “competing” against a film that so often reads as amateur, the professionalism of Hollidaysburg stands out more by comparison.
It also helps that all of the conflict that The Chair found within Martemucci’s creative process doesn’t read on the screen. Whereas issues of tone and creative choices that are reflected in the film itself dominated Shane’s narrative, Martemucci’s narrative was mainly about her indecision, her struggles to articulate her own directorial vision within her partnership with her husband and brother-in-law, and her inability to prioritize important shots instead of smaller ones and risking going over time and over budget as a result. However, I didn’t see any of this come through in the film: there were no scenes that looked like they desperately needed another take, there was no issues with vision that made it seem as though the film didn’t understand its goals, and there was no sign that there was a budgetary crunch that compromised the final product. For as much as there were moments that showed Martemucci struggling to grow into the role of director, the final product feels cohesive in spite of whatever turmoil might have existed behind-the-scenes.
The film’s biggest issue, and what to some degree holds it back from entirely transcending the project, is that it takes on a lot in choosing to divide the story into three main threads. The moment of convergence where Heather’s budding friendship with Will (Tristan Erwin) and Scott and Tori’s nascent relationship run into each other is meaningful (if a bit clunky as far as fight choreography goes), but it also reinforces that it’s difficult to balance three stories in a trim 87 minutes. The use of voiceover would seem to frame Tori as the primary viewpoint, but I found Scott’s story more clearly articulated relative to the themes of the film, and felt Heather’s was the most distinctive, and I ended up wanting more of both. As much as the trim running time was likely a matter of budget and shooting time, it feels like there was room to explore these characters in a bit more detail.
That being said, I appreciate that the film doesn’t try to do too much in terms of plot in such a short running time. You could argue that the number of montages of Pittsburgh locations set to indie music could be pared down to make way for more explicit characterization, but the character of the film is dependent on its sense of location, and so the choice makes the film feel more cinematic and distinctive (even if the aesthetic codes being used to signify location are fairly typical for the genre). There is nothing revolutionary about Hollidaysburg, but it executes tropes of the genre effectively, and relies on their effectiveness to tell a multi-faceted story in a short period of time.
So why did Hollidaysburg turn out so much better than Not Cool? We could look to the failures of Not Cool aesthetically and the comparative attention to detail in Hollidaysburg, or we could look to Martemucci’s experience as a writer giving her a better sense of how to work Schoffer’s original script—she and her husband and brother-in-law did an extensive rewrite, and it shows—into something more engaging. However, at the core of the series is that Martemucci cared more about making a “good” movie than Dawson did, making decisions and choosing a team that were working to that specific goal. In this way, the “experiment” proved that if you take two filmmakers with dramatically different understandings of what constitutes quality filmmaking, you will get two films that end up at the opposite ends of critical spectrums. It’s hardly a revelation, but it proves a meaningful climax to the The Chair experience nonetheless.
- The Chair, as a reality series, has continued to be engaging. The eight episodes were probably the right amount of time to spend with Dawson and Martemucci’s respective struggles, and I continued to appreciate how different producers ended up becoming our primary entry into the “narrative” as the directors became more and more embedded in their respective processes.
- The owner of the tattoo parlor who attacked Dawson’s videos for being homophobic and racist in an episode of The Chair ended up being representative of a larger critique of Dawson’s work, which prompted an apology video that spoke to those concerns.
- Chris Moore has been notoriously slippery about how the Survey that would determine the winner was going to work in order to protect against Shane’s fanbase flooding the system—in the end, a randomized quiz featuring details from both films works to protect against people who only watched one film, but it’s still built on the honor system beyond that. It still seems impossible that Martemucci walks away with a win given the strength of Dawson’s fanbase.
- I will be curious what kind of detail they offer in terms of the survey data. They’ve actually yet to explain how the data is being weighted, or how the choices people make changes their value to the survey, so part of me wonders how transparent the decision will end up being. I’d be equally interested to see if they release any sales data on how much of a disparity there is between the film’s digital download performance (where Not Cool broke into the iTunes Top 5 and Hollidaysburg maybe broke the Top 500).
- My favorite part about the survey was when it defined cinematography and editing for me. Thanks, survey!