Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Out on Netflix
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
The quest is over. Watching Netflix’s latest original, Earthquake Bird, I think I’ve found the weirdest of all movie dance scenes. Naturally there’s competition, but directors with real skill have the knack of turning bizarre boogaloos into things of immemorial beauty. Think of Barbara Steele with her mad eyes writhing about in Fellini’s 8 1⁄2. Godard’s Bande à part features arguably the most influential of cool dance sequences. Gene Kelly, Tarantino, Travolta, Romy and Michelle, The Leopard. There’s too many glorious toe taps to recall, but the bit in Wash Westmoreland’s movie will stick with you.
It comes halfway in, at a crucial time for the three brooding bores wrapped up in a love triangle. Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), an expat in Japan in the late 1980s, is in a club with her new boyfriend, local arty photographer (and I mean that as the sniping epithet it should be), Teiji.
Tagging along as is the new girl in town, a walking cliche of Stateside bacon cheeseburger proportions, the bouncy, frizzy-haired and empty-headed American expat, Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Teiji crosses the dance floor to get Lucy a drink – but he doesn’t get past Lily’s fun-loving singularity that easily. She stops him in his tracks. She then eggs him on to dance with her to a bubblegum J-Pop number, which he does and by doing so offers the viewer a minute or so of excruciating, horrifically awkward, disgustingly pseudo-intimate shimmying. Everything about this is wrong.
It’s supposed to be a glimpse of a love triangle in bloom; it’s supposed to show how Teiji, who up to now has led the emotional life of a ring binder, has multiple sides to him. It’s aching to be suspenseful and lusty when it’s just flat out Japanese dad dancing.
But the movie isn’t about dancing, thankfully, it comes specially bound in Netflix’s bullying sobriety.
This is a movie you have to take seriously. Earthquake Bird opens with good time gal Lily having gone missing and presumed dead. And over the course of this dull, absolutely shapeless thriller suspicion clings to Lucy, the fragile foreigner who surprises herself with how jealous she can get. But oh the romance. Lucy and Teiji meet on the streets of Tokyo as he’s taking photos of puddles. In cliched movieland, this means he must possess magnificent talent and a deep mind.
Anyway, she’s lured in with his mysterious blankness (just poor acting on the part of Naoki Kobayashi) and his gnomic little gaffes about truth and art. Slowly a dark side reveals itself: his drawers are full of obsessive photographs of other girls. Is Lucy his new fly by night muse? She’s even more insecure when the chirpy American pixie girl Lily turns up and strikes a bond with Teiji. It’s as predictable as it sounds. This is a psychological thriller for people who find arrow words psychologically thrilling.
Most scenes don’t even try to connect to each other. There’s aimless trips to Sado island, scenes where Lucy and Lily share a bed and come just close enough, purely because latent lesbianism is noirish hang-up, so has to be in the film by cinematic default.
Nothing is sense-checked, everything is hurled at the screen in a desperate attempt to create disquiet. Even the title – just say the phrase over again. ‘Earthquake Bird’ is obviously what Amber from Love Island would call her debut poetry collection. The title’s awful metaphorical oh-so-seriousness spreads throughout the movie, yet we’ve seen this happen before.
There are other birds in the awful aviary of Netflix Originals (NO). I will explore this at some point in greater detail, purely because the lazy assertions of Netflix’s output tell us about what’s happening to movies through streaming, but for now, I’ll list some shared features of NOs. Wash Westmoreland’s movie is just the latest in a line that, I think, includes Richard Shepard’s The Perfection and last year’s dire art world lampoon, Velvet Buzzsaw.
On a superficial level, there’s inept symbolism of the titles – a key to what lies beneath. In the movies themselves, bad performances are given by good actors (just look at Jake Gyllenhall’s execrable turn as the waspish art critic in Velvet Buzzsaw, like Vikander’s performance in this), there’s the exact same muted photography regardless of situation, geography or atmospherics, the hovering around ‘disturbed’ characters, the mannered landscape shots, and the equation of a woman’s bloody vengeance with women’s equality.
There’s even more rot. Look at the general situations of each film: art world (Buzzsaw), classical music elite (Perfection), groupies of an arty photographer (Earthquake). There’s some foundational assumptions about art running across all of these pathetically art house-lite NOs.
Two ideas in particular stand out: one, that murder is an art form like any other (this is something that even Ted Bundy knew was fraudulent); two, that all artists, with their obsessiveness and self-centred visionary-ness are inclined to murder (prima facie wrong), and therefore the only acceptable form cinematic seriousness can take these days is to explore the relation of art and death. It’s the thought process of a streaming service who’s search for art results in dilettantish Content, yes with a big C.