Amy Lam and Jon McCurley, also known as performance-art duo Life of a Craphead, didn’t ask permission when they organized live shows on flatbed trucks, train tracks and swimming pools for their performance-art and comedy series No Face No Problem with Laura McCoy, and they took a similar shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach to filming in and around Toronto’s parking lots, public-art installations and transit vehicles while making their debut film, Bugs.
The directors’ approach to co-opting unsanctioned locations led to at least one security run-in while cameras were rolling, but it was also how Lam and McCurley ended up with a feature film that shows Toronto’s urban landscape in all its advertisement-charged, scorched-concrete-jungle, dollar-store-bling chaos.
If the condo generation deserves its own John Waters, post-psychedelic Bugs hints that one millennial iteration may be Craphead and crew, who since 2012 have also been the force behind live performance-art and comedy show Doored at Double Double Land.
The same disenfranchised zeal that drives fringe filmmakers like Waters or Ryan Trecartin to willfully work outside the mainstream while stealing from pop and kitsch aesthetics to create work that’s both aggressive and, for some, far too alienating, also lurks within Life of a Craphead’s vision. But there’s a tenderness here, too, for those who seek it (or perhaps those who need the rush of finding it in such a harsh place). As Lam and McCurley turn contemporary life inside out in search of a laugh, their raw offerings, meant to churn the stomachs of some, will soothe those who, by fate or by choice, call nausea a way of life.
Four years in the making, funny-furious Bugs has undergone a handful of incarnations, even changing significantly between the January 2015 premiere at the Western Front in Vancouver and the December 2015 screening at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. But it’s retained its initial drive: a movie that hates movies, but is nevertheless structured around classic Disney narratives.
“It’s similar to the approach we have to doing comedy, or theatre,” Lam says of the Disney inspiration. “It’s interesting to think about that genre and how it usually works, and then we have criticisms of it, so we try to do it in the opposite way.”
The film’s conflict relies on the juxtaposition of two neighbouring localities: affluent Bird Country, where most birds travel, it seems, by car, and the underdog community Bug Garden, a police state ruled by one celebrity family.
Bug Garden’s waning patriarch, Shay, is about to cede control, but the ongoing power struggle surrounding his first family of bugs (who, in addition to working in politics and architecture, also produce a self-aggrandizing and increasingly violent series of campaign videos) matters little to neighbouring Bird Country.
Much of Bugs focuses on the strained relationship between Dan and Gaston, first-family sisters of ambiguous gender, and the unlikely friendship between charismatic comedian Sexy Bug and surly author Rob, who dreams of taking down Gaston.
Gaston, Bugs’s most easily hateable character, aspires to be a part of affluent Bird Country, and produces troubling videos as part of her quest for power and fame, which she tasks Dan to assist with.
Lam and McCurley claim to “not know anything about” the Kardashians, making the parallels as eerie as they are apt: the idea of a famous family profiting and enjoying enormous societal privileges even though they are “the ones that everyone hates the most,” in McCurley’s words, came to them organically.
“I don’t think the Kardashians are evil,” Lam clarifies.
“They are linked, in that we used the Kardashian-style animation in the beginning,” McCurley admits. Bugs is a live-action film, but animated 3-D renderings and special effects, such as pastel-blue water lapping over the street next to a Tim Hortons, lend it a surreal, video-game vibe.
It’s easy to read allegories in the Bug Garden versus Bird Country setup: Toronto versus New York, Canada versus the US, Yonge + Rich Condos versus Kensington Market (or Scarborough), but Lam and McCurley downplay Toronto’s role in the film, stressing that the themes in Bugs are universal.
“It is specific to Toronto because everything is [filmed] in Toronto,” Lam explains to me at her home in Kensington Market, “but I feel uncomfortable saying it’s about Toronto, because Toronto is different for so many people, and it depends how much money you have and who you are. Other people who live here would look at this movie and say, ‘This is not Toronto.’”
Still, at the AGO in December, the audience greeted Life of a Craphead’s piss-taking appropriation, aided by Andrew Zukerman’s plunderphonic soundtrack, of key local landmarks—such as Douglas Coupland’s statue of toy soldiers on Bathurst Street and the glasses-wearing models on the side of a Hakim Optical shop (which artist Zak Tatham animated to serve as Bug Garden’s speaking oracles)—with enthusiasm and laughter.
All corporate branding or (spoiler alert) Green Day covers in Bugs are there sans permission.
“It’s trying to capture what’s realistic,” Lam explains. “In movies you don’t see [unsponsored] brands, but in real life you see them everywhere. It gives you this feeling of what it’s like to listen to the radio and constantly hear this crap around you all the time.”
“What locations do we know about that are really exciting to look at?” McCurley remembers asking. He references a scene using the enormous floral logos along the Gardiner Expressway, which the characters interpret as various insignia of the Bug Garden illuminati.
“These are places in our world that we visit that bother us or that would be fun to make fun of, to misappropriate in this way,” Lam adds.
“Why would any of these companies want to associate with the content that we have?” McCurley laughs. “There’s freedom—you can do whatever you want. It’s not that we’re promoting Tim Hortons or whatever, it’s just that that’s there, that’s what’s present.”
Art director Laura McCoy furthers Bugs’s anti-movie, anti-establishment aesthetic: only using materials bought at one convenience store, McCoy attempts to make genderless, visually flattened, two-dimensional characters through crude face paint, cheap wigs and baggy T-shirts with holes cut in the middle, using mostly arbitrary signifiers to distinguish between birds and bugs.
Lam and McCurley admit that while the new cut of Bugs is finally fit for touring and, eventually, the festival circuit, some of the chaos that gives Bugs its charm is accidental. Four years of edits means that much of the original dialogue has been chopped and overdubbed, adding to Bugs’s jarring, sometimes nightmarish, otherness.
Life of a Craphead is already looking forward to its next movie. “It’ll be fun to start a new project from scratch, because we’ve realized so many things,” Lam tells me. “There are things about the film that make it hard to grasp.”
In a feature even some art-house fans will have difficulty following, as outdoor sets sometimes represent indoor locations or vice versa, and actors, mostly wearing nearly identical wigs and costumes, often play against their age and gender, it’s Life of a Craphead’s biting, flat comedy, and flair for finding the absurd in everyday life, that will pull viewers through.
“Do you go to university?” the dean of Bird University asks a smoothie barista in one scene. “No no,” answers the bird barista, “I’m in college.”
Meanwhile, in the Bug Garden, two characters apply for jobs from each other—something that actually happened to McCurley.
“You can’t make that shit up,” Lam laughs.
“Just thinking about moments of being humiliated or embarrassed in real life,” McCurley smiles, “like, that’s good, that’s got to be in the movie.”