Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 June 2016

With Friends Like These...

Let's talk about We Are Your Friends, a dance-music-fueled, millennial-targeted bro-movie that totally bombed at the box office when it was released last August. (For the record, it slowly recouped its costs and actually ended up making a small profit, but when it debuted the silence surrounding We Are Your Friends was deafening.)

Zac in a tank. He spends most of the movie in a tank.
First off, I don't think I understand Zac Efron movies. Now, I watch all of them (or at least most of them – I can find nothing to justify pressing play on Bad Grandpa), but I sort of fail to understand who the intended audience of these pictures actually is. First off, let's just say that I think Zac is a good enough actor, who does a decent job in all of his movies. He doesn't read as false to me, and I think he has great moments in all of his movies. But, who are these movies for? Efron is gorgeous, and he's nearly naked in like every movie, so I assume that these movies are for me or other gay men who want to look at Zac's body. I might think that they're for women (who one might want to assume want to look at Zac's body), but then the movies all appear to be aimed at young men. This movie, for example, is all about a young boy's dreams and all that, and is filled with topless strippers and bros in the San Fernando Valley doing drugs and playing chicken with topless young women in their pool. #squadgoals

...but this is what the movie is selling.
My point is that I am not sure that these films of Mr. Efron's have a target audience. I knew who was supposed to go see Charlie St. Cloud and New Year's Eve and The Lucky One and 17 Again. Even That Awkward Moment was clearly a romantic comedy where the three boys at its center learn to be in love and leave behind their silly singlehood. But for whom was We Are Your Friends made? Nerdy guys, I guess, who are supposed to want to be Zac Efron. I don't really think that's such a bad idea, I just don't think Efron's the right guy for that. He's just too... gorgeous.

Truth be told, We Are Your Friends isn't really that bad. And don't judge me too harshly. Even the Hollywood Reporter called it "surprisingly winning". Early on I thought Max Joseph was going to be doing something cool. There's a very fun sequence where Zac does PCP and hallucinates at an art gallery opening and the whole thing gets animated à la Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It's really fun.

But the film has two other little formal conventions that it does sporadically that both totally suck. Both are from YouTube. One involves putting the text of the film in giant capital letters onscreen as a character (in this case Jon Bernthal's version of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross) talks. It's designed like a lyric video to, say, Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You". The other involves illustrating an educational sequence about the science of the desire to dance using tiny clips from stock footage to explain how, say, the heart beats and where the impulse to dance comes from, and how many beats per minute Reggae and House and Hardcore each has. Am I watching a movie or a YouTube video by ASAPscience?

The title We Are Your Friends, by the way, relates to one of the film's subplots, which is about the housing market crisis in the U.S. and the way that assholes come in and make money off of poor people who are trying to make their mortgage payments but who have gotten foreclosure notices. Zac works for a little while as a cold-caller, pretending to be peoples' friend in order to get them to sign over their houses to his slimeball boss (the aforementioned Bernthal).

Still, there's the EDM, and it's mostly all good. The film has great dance track after great dance track in it, and I enjoyed them all. The narrative is super conventional and totally predictable and not at all interesting, but the beats are good, and Zac is dynamic.

The message of the film, though, is pretty awful, and I can sum this up by describing a single sequence near the very end of the third act. Wes Bentley, who is Zac's mentor for the whole movie, has been telling Zac he needs to make electronic music organically, man (which is, like, soooo Los Angeles, but let's let that go). And Zac is beating himself up about the girl that he lost and the friend that he lost, and he's listening to little recordings he made of each of them on his phone and then he goes for a run in the Valley. Shot of Zac running while listening to his headphones. He runs past a place with a ton of electric wires. He runs past a house. He runs past a whole bunch of trees. Then his internet goes out (or something?) and he no longer has any music to listen to. Zac is mad. But now he runs back past the trees, past the house, past the electric wires. And now instead of dance music we hear birds in the trees, and the sound of a lawnmower. We hear electricity hum. We hear a wind chime hanging from the house's front porch. Some serious John Cage shit, right? If you stop listening to the music you start to hear the music that is actually around you all the time. And if you listen correctly this is music. So this is the message. Well, no, this is the first half of the message.

Zac's listening to his heart. What are YOU listening to?
What you do now, if you're Zac and you're in this movie, is that you take all of those things that you were ignoring, those real-world sounds that make up who you are and where you're from and what you bring to this world, and you record all of those sounds, and you mix them up, and you make them into a really badass dance track that other people love and will pay a lot of money to listen to. You transform those sounds from the real world back into music. Actually not so John Cage, after all. (All props to Pyramid, who did the songs, though. They are so good.) The message of the film – and someone literally says all of this at the end of the movie – is that the thing that we all need to do is figure out what it is that makes each of us into us and then share that with the world and hope that a lot of people like it. This is, in fact, the reality-television dream: I know I have something special to share with the world because I am special. I hope everyone will notice and give me lots of dollars. This is also quintessentially a story of capitalism as immanent. What everyone in this movie is really looking for is a way to transform themselves into something that can make a ton of money: I will actually have figured out who I am when whatever that is is loved by many people and making me a lot of cash. The lie of We Are Your Friends is that the way to do that is to "be true to yourself". This is the ostensible message of the film, but this is ideological bullshit. What the film really has to say is exactly the opposite: What We Are Your Friends firmly believes is that you can only finally know if you've been true to yourself... if people are throwing money at you.