Start Options Exit
The Melbourne Underground Film Festival chose to honour dark indie satire Start Options Exit with two successive gongs – the first being Opening Night selection, the second being Best Film. This brings into serious question their entire raison d’etre as a festival, and not because the film they’ve selected is “so contentious”, but because it is precisely the opposite.
Start Options Exit takes its name from the menu options on a SNES game cartridge, played by two pre-teen boys, in which “two seedlings of iniquity are defecated into a world of opportunity”: Neville (Ari Neville) and Yolis (co-director Yoav Jenkem), two scummy Melbournites who crawl the underside of the city in search of stimulation.
The framing mechanism is ultimately the codifier for the film’s failings. Its attempts to shock and awe are completely flaccid because all of its provocations are not only rote but outmoded: all of its targets are shipped in from the same '80s exploitation films it apes. The directors (Jenkem and Christopher H.F. Mitchell) want to paint the flick as satirical commentary on the toxic culture of white, straight men – and, to be fair, they don’t glorify their foul leads – but all of their most venomous barbs are slung at women, midgets, queers, the homeless; less satire and more actualising of toxic hegemonic thought. Even the supposed moral compass, The Vagrant (Tom McCathie) devotes half a sermon to caustically denigrating the entirety of Gen Y. It gets hard to hear all of the script’s armchair philosophising over the deafening tipping of fedoras.
Their throwaway gags belie the writers’ true nature – the first (and far from last) use of the word “faggot” is accompanied by a title card explaining that the word means “a bundle of sticks”. Yep, it’s not their fault if you’re offended, because it’s just a word, right guys? Can I get a high-five? Anyone? Then there’s the fact that our two impressionable kiddies in the framing device are eating a box of Cheesy Poofs, thus referencing actual satirists these directors will never come close to emulating. The vape smoke is thick enough to cut.
Neither the aping of the nostalgia-bait trend nor the tired meta-cinematic trickery can salvage a script with all the social critique of the Basement Tapes. Even the standout moments are stolen: Neville watching a man overdose and die (Breaking Bad) and smash-zoom montages (Edgar Wright). The ‘hipster scum’ are lifted from every Bondi Hipsters sketch; the snide intellectual tone stolen from every Che Guevara-shirt-toting second-year student.
All women fit the Madonna/whore trope, with Tottie Goldsmith’s Oracle being the most complex female character in that she embodies both. They’re all “vacuous cunts”, “whores”, “fucking tainted”. At debauched parties, men snog men (gross) and women snog women (hot) because society is anomic, you guys. That’s what all the close-ups of T&A are allegedly for, the slo-mo twerking, the stripping: not evidence of two ‘artists’ paying people to enact their fantasies, but culturally relevant artistic statement.
Naturally, there are rape jokes. Naturally, there’s casual sexual assault, on both men and women. And naturally, after a sickening Stockholm-syndrome rape plot is successfully carried out (with some slapstick thrown in for ‘good measure’), the film spends more time convincing us to sympathise with the rapist than with the victim. At its most tasteless, it plants porn star Ron Jeremy as the arse-slapping PTSD psychotherapist for the rape victim. This is not clever satire: this is “we can joke about anything” high-horse bullshit from two white heterosexual males that have no concept of trauma.
And yet, this twosome have somehow drawn a crowd. They’ve managed to amass $35K and get both Jeremy and Mark “Chopper” Read onscreen, the latter merely to call a couple people “faggots” before unceremoniously vanishing. All because they can wave the flag of exploitation cinema and its proud history of provocation, forgetting that the films they parrot weren’t simply 90-minute nihilist memes, but actual pieces of entertainment with actual things to say.
Oh, and the sound was poorly synced, which costs literally nothing to fix. That’s just bad filmmaking, no matter your budget.
Start Options Exit, neither daring nor original, cannot provoke the debate or the outrage it so desperately wants to generate. When the credits finally roll, the intense headache from having rolled one’s eyes so hard feels more immediate than any biting social commentary. As a meditation on Gen Y’s arrested development, it fails. As a satirical insight into rape culture, it fails, despite the loudly touted self-awareness of the creative involved. As imitation of exploitation cinema, it fails. And, most egregiously, as a work of entertainment, it falls resoundingly flat on its arse.
The only true shock is that MUFF would consider this a high bar to set for underground cinema.
BY DAVID MOLLOY