The Threat of Vomit: A Review of Mike Gordon’s Outside Out
Here’s Jesse Jarnow’s review of Mike Gordon’s feature film Outside Out. This originally ran on the site in March 2001
“Outside Out”, Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s feature-length directorial debut, is brain-stumpingly ridiculous. Watching the film might be likened to some contemporary classical music: it is certainly not always pleasant to experience, though – if one can listen through the apparent chaos – a jagged order appears that acts as an alternative tonality. This order, a one-time use language with its own grammar, attempts to demonstrate something that cannot be shown otherwise.
Or it could just suck. I sense the general reaction to the film, even among Phishheads, will be to write it off as Mike being weird. However, I think there’s more to “Outside Out,” definitely worth considering.
Underneath the visible surreality of the plot – which centers around the highly abstract teachings of Col. Bruce Hampton (played by himself) as he encourages his young guitar student, Ricky (Jimi Stout), to go “out”, so Ricky can get into music school and thus escape being shipped off to a military academy by his father (Ashley Scott Shamp) – there lies a latent low-budget sci-fi flick, though the monsters are never clearly defined. The sci-fi plot is covered by a layer of confusing noise, sometimes even literally.
“Outside Out” is as much a film about “bad” guitar playing as it is about “bad” filmmaking, at least as judged by the conventional standards of the mediums. The experimental techniques Gordon uses to tell the story seem to intentionally mirror Hampton’s philosophies, attempting to put the viewer through an experience analogous to Ricky’s lessons. The film doesn’t entirely succeed in forcing the viewer “out”, though it has a grand time trying.
An understanding of Hampton’s teachings – which Ricky originally encounters through a tape hawked on late night television called “the Outstructional Video” – may well be central to an understanding of the movie. There seem to be three major elements to the teachings: going “out”, the threat of vomit, and being broken. Here is the fault of the film: with some careful post-viewing thought, Hampton’s ideas fit together in an interesting way. However, Hampton’s performance – coupled with the narrative structure – is so scattered that the occasional moments of holy-comic lucidity are cherished.
The over-arching concept, as indicated by the title, involves going “out”. In musical terms, this means leaving conventional rules of tonality behind to the point where one can think unconsciously in a dissonant language. If this is the plot tension, Jimi’s goal in the film, then Hampton’s role as an instructor would be to teach him how to achieve it. Of course, the lessons can’t be as simple as exercises — by definition, those are guided by rules and are inherently “in”. The first step in getting “out” involves accepting what Hampton describes as the “threat of vomit”. This is a concept not entirely articulated.
The idea of vomiting musically is somewhat akin to the age-old idea of letting music pass through the body, though stated in slightly more humanistic and grotesque terms. When one vomits, he is absolutely out of control. Though the brain can grasp what’s going on, it cannot control the spasms — it just has to surrender to the expelling force. Musically, this is the goal. It doesn’t rely on any outer power. Everything that needs to be put out is already inside, one only need let go — a generation of musical bulimics.
The vomiting, as well as the idea of being “broken”, are represented literally throughout the film with the aforementioned sci-fi flourishes — though the references to a disease that prevents people from vomiting and occasional bandaged characters are so low-key that it’s almost hard to draw out the connection between them and the absurdist musico-philosophical bent they might represent. The nearest I can derive to the implications of being broken is that involves breaking the mind to the point where it will give up control and let the body vomit. Or something.
That said, it is also these three devices that lead the viewer through the experience of watching the film. The first step in getting “out”, of course, is to “break” the viewer. In doing so, the film – in some ways – rips apart conventions of filmmaking. Despite the fact that conversations in typical films (read: not “Outside Out”) often seem natural or realistic, they are usually anything bt: the pacing is much faster and the kinds of mid-sentence revisions and retractions tohat mirror the thought process are eliminated.
The brain has such a fluid double-standard between reality and cinema that it’s often hard to discern. The pace of the dialogue throughout the film is just slightly off, for the most part. Gordon is more than capable of making it work in the traditional method. He does, in places — oddly enough, usually in dream sequences.
No, the combination of techniques Gordon uses to achieve this is carefully considered and intentional. Or, at the very least, it appears to be. For example, in editing, there are often one too many milliseconds of silence after lines of dialogue, inserting unnatural space into conversations. I’m still undecided about the acting. Much of it – emphatic line delivery and over-gesticulation – is amateurish to the point of exaggeration. In places, it reeks of David Mamet’s awkward two-person monologues, characters disarmingly disconnected from one another.
It made me squirm in my seat, unsure whether or not to be uncomfortable because I was watching a pitiful wreck of a film, bad acting, or some combination thereof. In places, I couldn’t understand what was going on, though there was clearly something happening. My brain was broken.
I twisted against my will on the couch. My brain had lost control of my body. I was prepared to vomit, wipe stray chunks of Ramen off my chin, smile, and keep on watching. I accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable and surrendering to genuine emotion, as opposed to being moved by the inherently artificial facsimile that a movie is. Like the late Andy Kaufman, Gordon’s work removes the comfort barrier from between art and life. It’s a different way of accepting Ricky’s plight. Sort of. Ideally, one squirms so much and lets his body go so much that the germ of the characters’ ideas and emotions come through clearly.
But only ideally, because – even with all the twitching – this is where the movie’s failures occur: not because the film itself isn’t “out”, but because it doesn’t necessarily supply adequate provisions for the viewer to get “out” himself. Almost any one of Col. Bruce’s pre-Aquarium Rescue Unit albums – especially “Music To Eat” (with the Hampton Grease Band, 1971) and a pair of recent reissues on Terminus Records – works much more efficently to liberate the brain.
The charm of Gordon’s film, though, isn’t necessarily the philosophy, the plot, or anything else that can necessarily be pinned down in tangible terms. It’s the oblique afterglow. After being immersed in Gordon’s world for an hour and a half, regular conversations seem strained and unreasonable, even unnatural — too fast, too hurried. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the state of mind I was in after the film as “out”, but it was definitely altered. But, like mental residue after a psychedelic experience, it was certainly not permanent.
Overall, the film is a notable first effort – especially for someone who’s been a professional musician for the past 15 years of his life – though it could’ve used another mind or two in the editing process, in both pre- and post-production. It’s telling that the best actor in the film is Gordon himself (portraying country star Matt Gizzard), if only because he seems to be the only one with the total emotional picture of the movie completely hard-wired.