The Church of Fun

The Church of Fun

project x


Nick Pinkerton

Looking back on the party that ended an era.

There are many noble reasons to set out to make a movie: decrying the waste of war, raising awareness around a terrible social injustice, promoting the brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women, sounding the siren for revolutionary action, whatever, take your pick.

And then you have 2012’s Project X. The idea behind the movie, according to co-screenwriter Michael Bacall, was to envisage the “gnarliest high school party of all time.” In terms of real-world effect Project X has almost certainly done no more good and no less harm than the average raising awareness project, and if it touches on the brotherhood/sisterhood stuff, or suggests in its anarchic vision the possibilities of the revolutionary transformation of everyday life, it does so only incidentally, brushing by on its way to the keg. You know what they say about the road to Hell, right? Well, Project X is almost saintly in its stupidity, in its total disinterest in good intentions, in anything other than fun, fun, fun. The buzzkill, pursed-lipped Pharisees of a corrupt critical commentariat tried to kill it once, as they do anything that threatens their sense of authority, but it’s still raging after the cops have cleared out: "TO THE BREAK OF DAWN, YO!"

The occasion of the abovementioned gnarly party is the seventeenth birthday of Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann), a soiree hosted at his suburban California home while his parents are away for their anniversary weekend. The mood of the movie is largely determined by Thomas’s booze-and-drug-fueled mood swings: when he’s getting uptight about property damage or interfering neighbors, it’s a bum trip; when he pops an E and just rolls with the chaos, all turns to blissy euphoria and enveloping, amped-up needle-drops. (There is quite a bit more of the latter than the former, which is fine by me—life is hard enough as it is.) The planning of the party, which snowballs into an orgiastic Bunga Bunga, is the responsibility of Thomas’s pal Costa (Oliver Cooper), a braggadocious, high-energy Queens transplant who struts around high school like the cock-of-the-walk when issuing verbal invitations, though his classmates only know him as “that dick in the sweater vest.” He’s the kind of guy who you might see walking around a party with a Pimp Chalice, which is exactly what he does for most of the movie. Rounding out this trio of outcasts looking to raise their public profile is J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown), a chubby weird guy who has an impressive arsenal of “fingerbanging” techniques. That’s it; that’s pretty much his whole character—whaddya want, a backstory?

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It is sobering to consider that Sergei Eisenstein produced approximately 100,000 pages of writing on the subject of montage and never shot anything as thrilling as these five or so minutes of cinema, and a helpful reminder that we could all stand to live outside of our heads a little more.

These three each correspond to certain, long-established teen movie archetypes: the “nice kid” picaro protagonist, the loudmouth party maniac, and the comic relief schlub, respectively. The recurrence of these figures probably has something to do with the preponderance of archetypes among actual teenagers—as Adam Goldberg’s Mike says in Dazed and Confused (1993), “High school kids don’t seem to be able to comprehend multifaceted personalities…”—but anyhow, Project X tweaks the archetypes just enough to make them breathe. Mann is an endearing dishrag, his coming-of-agge pupation the nearest thing to a character arc in the film. Brown, rather than playing J.B. as the shopworn slovenly horndog, projects a serene, understated self-confidence; when a North Pasadena graduate locally infamous for appearing in the Pac-10 issue of Playboy arrives on the scene, he wastes no time calling “dibs” on her. (It’s worth mentioning that three years before appearing in Project X Brown played the eponymous victim in the Bang Bros. production “Nerd Hunting,” in which he has a foursome with three women in the back of a moving van.)

My favorite performance, however, is that most widely derided in the critical drubbing that Project X received upon its initial release: Cooper’s Costa, who is so gratingly obnoxious as to achieve a certain grandeur. The idea, it would seem, was to have a Stifler type, but one shorn of Seann William Scott’s ingratiating charisma and lantern jawline. This corresponds to what we know from life—a friend who knows of my long-standing interest in party animal idiots recently sent me a 2014 article about “The real-life Van Wilder,” a six-year Florida State undergrad, and he ain’t exactly Ryan Reynolds’s doppelganger—and so I take this decision to be a concession to realism, and applaud the filmmakers for their bravery. (Cooper, like most of the film’s principles aside from Mann, was a nonprofessional actor who’d responded to an open casting call on the internet, which accounts for the refreshing lack of finish in the performances.)

Cooper plays Costa as a putz, but not a malicious putz, and at the moment in Project X when he signals the recommence of festivities with his Pimp Chalice held aloft I am invariably filled with an enormous surge of affection for this putz, much as Godard reported experiencing when John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards impulsively takes Natalie Wood’s Debbie into his arms in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Perhaps it is for this moment alone that Costa was born, a feeling of affirmation that any inveterate partier knows—that this is how things are supposed to be, and that all the banality of daily existence one is expected to slog through has been some kind of terrible mistake.

It’s the presence of a fourth member to this crew, rarely seen on-screen, that accounts for Project X’s particular cinematographic flourish. This is Dax (Dax Flame), an AV Club friend of J.B.’s, who has been brought on to chronicle the party. According to Costa “He’s a fuckin’ weirdo… but he’s a solid shooter,” which suggests a potentially sinister double-meaning, because when glimpsed in the mirror, Dax displays a Trench Coat Mafia-esque sartorial style.

Even the AV geek freak egging on bad behavior through an omnipresent camera and the law of the observer effect isn’t unknown figures in the teen sex romp—see for reference Alan Deveau’s camcorder-toting “Hugh G. Rection” in 1985’s Screwballs II: Loose Screws—but in Project X, the amateur video angle shapes the film’s form as well as content, the entirety of the movie’s action shot as though from the perspective of either Dax or, once the party gets going, various participants wielding camera phones. (The Dax material was shot by DP Ken Song with a digital-HD Sony F23, with additional footage from iPhone and BlackBerry cameras wielded by partygoers.) These explosions of prismatic montage are pure cinematic dopamine drops—I’m thinking particularly of two sequences, flicker films made of quick-cut chugging, twerking, suggestive popsicle sucking, etc. scored to Steve Aoki’s remix of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and the A-Trak remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll.” It is sobering to consider that Sergei Eisenstein produced approximately 100,000 pages of writing on the subject of montage and never shot anything as thrilling as these five or so minutes of cinema, and a helpful reminder that we could all stand to live outside of our heads a little more.

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While almost comically lazy in setting up its tHiS aCtUaLlY hApPeNeD conceit, Project X may be grouped with a cycle of mockumentary fiction films whose style was affected by, firstly, newly affordable home video equipment—most famously 1999’s The Blair Witch Product, which a panicking Thomas seems to evoke in a moment of direct-to-camera address—and secondly, the new ubiquity of smartphones, and the documentation of everyday life that they allowed. (Flame, incidentally, was discovered through his YouTube vlogging.)

The immediacy and verisimilitude of Project X’s seemingly uncomposed amateur video aesthetic, among other things, makes for an effective comic tool—rather than laboring over laugh lines, the movie picks them up furtively in the course of its ceaseless forward propulsion. The funny bits aren’t set up so much as scattered over the movie like Solo cups across a frat house lawn. A few favorites from the film’s first half hour: Thomas’s father’s barely repressed hatred of Costa; J.B. popping a boner in the school locker room (“My underwear’s just sitting funny”); Costa greeting college baseball star Miles Teller (Miles Teller) at the supermarket by saying “Mi-Tell, what’s cracking?”; the camera focusing on the disgusted expression of the supermarket cashier when Costa promises Mi-Tell “high school pussy for days”; everything about Rick Shapiro’s growly performance as the kids’ shell-shocked weed connection, T-Rick (“I gotta be at the dojo by five”); the overheard comment “Wheelchair Robert even got a handjob”… It’s a moveable feast, really.

While Project X employs plenty of run-and-gun camerawork, it makes zero pretext of being an unpolished found-footage artifact otherwise, frenetically cut by editor Jeff Groth, who shortly afterwards would begin an ongoing collaboration with the film’s producer, Todd Phillips. Nourizadeh, a British-Iranian known at that point for his commercial and music video work, is the film’s credited director, but the personality of Phillips, in the midst of his The Hangover trilogy (2009-13) at the time that Project X was shooting, is abundantly evident in the movie’s frequent recourse to slo-mo swagger and in its overall air of bacchanalian degeneracy. Other aspects of the film’s style seem to belong less to any individual than a prevalent period aesthetic. The backyard night footage, much of it lit as though with a single camera-mounted light, evokes a period—lasting roughly from the release of Buffalo ’66 (1998) to the bankruptcy of American Apparel—when blown-out flashbulb photography was considered the height of sleazy glamor.

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In these things and in many others, Project X may be called a “product of its times”—perhaps a curious statement to make of a film less than ten years old, but then again these last ten years have been very long ones, years in which the kind of bad behavior played for laughs in Project X, already lamented at the time by critical observers, has all but disappeared from a milquetoast, sanitized popular culture. There have been other vast changes specific to cinema; I encountered several expressions of disbelief when it was announced that Project X would be playing Metrograph on an actual 35mm print, as though people had already begun to forget that up until relatively recently, actual 35mm prints were still struck for literally every studio movie.

The confusion here is understandable, for Project X is a film born on the brink of the analog and digital divide. In point of fact it may have the distinction of being the first movie inspired by a viral video, namely a 2008 clip of 16-year-old Australian Corey Worthington, appearing on the news program A Current Affair after a party he threw at his absent parents’ house metastasized into a near-riot in the Narre Warren suburb of Melbourne. In the segment the anchor, Leila McKinnon, speaks via satellite with Worthington, who appears shirtless, left nipple pierced, wearing stupid-looking yellow sunglasses, and his straw-crisp bleached blonde hair spiking out from beneath a colorful a ballcap. McKninnon begins by dutifully castigating an indifferent Worthington, and grows audibly frustrated when he refuses to mouth the expected platitudes of remorse and apology. Failing to extract the required show of regret from Worthington, McKinnon moves to sign off. “I suggest you go away and take a good long, hard look at yourself,” she tells Worthington, to which he responds: “I have. Everyone has. They love it.”

Prior to introducing Worthington, the newscaster refers to his wicked pisser as “the real-life Risky Business,” a reference to Paul Brickman’s 1983 Tom Cruise vehicle, a high masterpiece in its own right. Brickman’s film is one of a handful of ’80s teen comedies that continue to exert an outsized influence on the genre today, an influence which Project X isn’t entirely free of—the premise of a parental absence occasioning a blowout paarty owes not a little to Risky Business, while Thomas’s fretful protection of his father’s Mercedes Benz, finally for naught, recalls that of Alan Ruck’s Cameron in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). More than either of these films, however, Project X seems to me a spiritual relation to of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), a film as meticulous as Project X is messy, though in both one encounters the invigoration of human mayhem surging over the channels of control.

Project X may be called a “product of its times”—maybe a curious statement to make of a film that’s less than ten years old, but then again these last ten years have been very long ones

Nourizadeh and company didn’t have to build a replica of La Defense from scratch for their tits-out rager, as Tati had—they were igiven a readymade patch of suburban street on the Warners lot, featuring the home of Danny Glover’s Sgt. Roger Murtaugh as seen in Richard Donner’s 1987 Lethal Weapon. In order to summon and maintain the energy of a party, the shoot was conducted as a night-after-night party, and the effect is palpable. On a recent re-reading of Olivier Assayas’s A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, I encountered the following: “What if, in cinema, the veritable artistic gesture was not so much the finished result as the shooting itself? Aren’t most films less than what has been lived, truly lived, while they were being made, and isn’t the challenge, after all, to try to capture in images an approximation of the magic of life as conjured on the set?” Now, Assayas has filmed many wonderful party scenes—that in 1994’s L’eau froide foremost among them—but I’m not sure he has ever got quite so near to the magic of life as Project X.

Of course the reviews were dire, most of them tut-tutting over verboten language—a consistent obsession of arbiters of middle-class morality—while failing to notice the barbaric yawp that the film represented, a glorious victory of youth and license over age and inhibition. , a love-in where kids of all colors get freaky together, and where Wheelchair Robert gets a handjob, too. In these negative notices, it almost seemed as though Project X was being regarded as a contaminating force that must be contained, but these appeals to a sense of shame fell on deaf ears, and this scurrilous little movie has outlived its lauded contemporaries like Argo and The Artist, which were never really alive in the first place. These movies have all but disappeared now, along with many of the holders of critical sinecures that savaged Project X, safely installed today as an authentic cult object. I’ve seen it. Everyone has. They love it. •

Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian,4 Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Decadent Editions), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk).

Project X plays Metrograph Saturday, October 23 at 10:45pm.