Tao Lin proves he actually sat through this movie.
The Shoplifting from American Apparel movie is the cinematographic equivalent of the Doritos Loco Taco—a total lack of substance covered up with gimmicks to distract the consumer. Based on alt-lit wunderkind Tao Lin’s novella of the same name, it was produced for $30,000, half of that financed from the director's own pocket. After a protracted attempt to get the film into festivals, it was self-released this December in six theaters for single-night engagements.
Pirooz Kaleyah, a Los Angeles-based indie filmmaker, secured the rights to make the film after befriending Tao Lin. Tao was initially asked to play himself, but declined. In lieu of a real appearance, he appears in homemade iMovie clips.
The original title of this movie was "Ski School 2: Revenge of the Fallen."
The opening scene features the cast and crew sledding down a hill, skateboarding, playing rock and roll, and generally acting wholesome, young, and Millennial. None of these things happen in the book. The rest of the movie is a scripted faux-documentary about the making of the movie. Jordan Castro, an internet writer and non-professional actor, plays Tao Lin. Brad Warner, who blogs about Buddhism, plays himself as an actor in the film portraying Tao Lin. “Brad Tao” and “Jordan Tao” interact throughout the film as scenes taken from the book overlap and entwine with scenes about the making of the movie. With two actors playing Tao, plus the aforementioned iMovie cameos of Tao Lin, the viewer is left with the sense that the movie is a fake documentary about the making of a fake movie, with a real documentary about the making of a real movie wedged in the middle.
For once, this movie and I agree.
In the past (before we were all on Gchat and Twitter all the time), people did tangible things and this tangible reality was portrayed in films. Tao Lin’s literary career has been built on portraying the technological dullness of the 21st century. His characters don’t do much of anything, and their dialogue is choppy and awkward and doesn’t resemble natural speech. Here’s a representative sentence from Shoplifting from American Apparel: “He made a smoothie. He lay on his bed and stared at his computer screen. He showered and put on clothes and opened the Microsoft World file of his poetry.” This is as close as you get to an “action scene” in his oeuvre. Making a fucking smoothie and using a laptop don’t exactly scream "gripping cinema," so perhaps when the director decided to undertake this Sisyphean task he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
This is probably the last time I'll be photographed with one of Tao Lin's books.
For full disclosure, I made a brief appearance in the film in exchange for $50. Even though the filmmakers put years of toil and hard work into the production and the experience of making it with them was so pleasurable, Shoplifting from American Apparel was never intended to be a film. The book, and all of Tao's literary output, is not cinematic in conception. I e-mailed Tao for comment. He wrote back:
Hey, I don't have anything to say about it. Thank you for asking though. Interested in reading what you write about it.
His lack of interest in speaking about the film (and his asking a Village Voice reviewer if he was going to write “something snarky” about it) lead me to believe that he might be embarrassed by the film.
Brad Warner (left) and Jordan Castro (right) express ennui through plaid.
Tao’s former wife, Megan Boyle, told me she thought the film was “weird,” “tried too hard,” and that Tao and the film’s writer/director “have different ideas about what art is.”
Tao Lin projects an image to the world of being someone who is too alienated to care. In a recent VICE interview about his new book, Taipei, Tao said he doesn’t write for outside approval. He claims he wrote Taipei because he “was going to need to do something for money.”
His statements make him seem above fame, literary respect, peer approval or artistic satisfaction. If he just wanted to get paid, he could have continued to sell his possessions. His history of picking fights with literary figures and websites he doesn’t care for makes it seem like he’s after one thing: attention.
These two are as confused as you are right now.
The film version, ultimately, came out as scattershot and confusing. It resembles an extremely low-budget Charlie Kaufman movie. The tonal shifts and changes of perspective are jarring. Despite all the attempts to liven up a bland book, there’s no emotional resonance or thematic weight to the material. The Gchats are illustrated with cute cartoons, but are still boring to read. There’s far more action in the movie than in the book, but the action in the film is empty. A claim could be made that the creative forces behind the movie were not faithful to the text they were adapting, but a more straightforward adaptation would have involved watching someone do fifty jumping jacks and prattling on about stealing batteries while high on cocaine.
It will probably be a while before another one of Tao’s books is adapted to film. I doubt this sits well with Tao. There’s a large section of the world that will never be exposed to his work. Some critics will never approve of him as the “voice of his generation.” Tao Lin tried to go Hollywood, but in the process it was revealed that his work is so vacant that the director of this movie had to add a bunch of postmodern distractions to make it remotely tolerable. And if that’s not true, then I’m sure Tao will make sure everyone knows.