“I never cared about how a shot looked,” Louisa Krause tells me. That’s alarming, since she’s one of the cinematographers. In King Kelly, which comes to VOD this week, Krause plays the title character, a loudmouthed Web-porn star who iPhone-cams most of her waking life. This serial narcissism affords us a front-row seat to her Fourth of July night from hell, which involves locating a stash of narcotics she’s left in a missing car.
For Krause and her costar, Libby Woodbridge (as Kelly’s best friend), making the movie amounted to a form of Method acting. A satire on YouTube culture, Andrew Neel’s feature was shot entirely on iPhones and consumer-grade Canon ELPHs, often by the actresses themselves (playing a duo filming each other).
When the four of us meet in the restaurant of Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema, King Kelly’s technological gambit has started conversations at South by Southwest. “There were times when they weren’t comfortable holding the camera, especially driving and stuff like that,” Neel says.
Yet more often than he expected, it worked. While Neel’s confrontational polemic flirts with the absurd, the director (who takes a “story by” credit) points to real-life inspirations: the porn of Melissa Midwest and a viral video called “Memorial Day 2000.” To him, King Kelly was a way of taking on social networking and “user-generated self-mediation” in one film. “I felt like that would make the ultimate hyperbolic version of the reality that I wanted to comment on,” he says.
Woodbridge, who saw her cinematographic contributions as a natural outgrowth of her character, takes an ambivalent view of the screen pair’s iPhone-philia. “They do a lot of things that they’re not really thinking [about],” she says. But at the same time, “they’re really looking at things in a more mesmerized way than they would if they didn’t have the camera.”
King Kelly raises a question present in the films of vérité pioneer Frederick Wiseman: Do people behave differently on-camera than off? This theme gains urgency with the appearance of Kelly customer “Poo Bare” (Roderick Hill), a state trooper with a wild side.
“The camera has become so ubiquitous in our culture that I think we can get lulled into thinking it doesn’t matter that it’s there,” Neel explains. “Cops do crazy stuff on camera. You can see it on YouTube.”
There are silver linings. “Technology has made me emboldened to say things that I might otherwise not have courage to say,” Woodbridge argues, referring to e-mail. (In a reversal from the film, the stage-trained actress speaks more than Krause, best known as Elizabeth Olsen’s cult friend in Martha Marcy May Marlene.)
Neel’s view is closer to that of Internet skeptics like art critic Lee Siegel. At the Q&A after my screening, he linked what he sees as Web-abetted narcissism to the “decline of empires.” It’s clear King Kelly means to indict more than youth culture. “I don’t want to get specific,” Neel says, “but I would say we as America have been presented with some very difficult situations inside our border and outside our border in the last 12 years that were a direct product of our own kind of navel-gazing inability to understand how our behavior was affecting the rest of the world.
“There’s a great potential for tragedy,” he adds, “when your perception of yourself does not add up to what you really are.”
King Kelly arrives on VOD Tuesday 4.