Watching Zach Clark’s White Reindeer in late 2013 was definitely a highlight of my year, and it made me curious to explore some of his other work. First on my list was the one that came just before it: Vacation!With a tagline like “Everything starts up so good and ends up so fucked,” I was bound to have a good time. And boy, does Clark deliver. The minute the film starts, it already gives off an unsettling vibe; the black and white photography, the switches between the calm and frantic, and even the simple but menacing score in the background working perfectly. The fact that it immediately cuts to a title card that says “3 GIRLS COVER UP FRIEND’S DEATH ON BEACH TRIP” with Glass Candy’s “Animal Imagination” playing only makes it more effective.
Long before Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers came around, Clark made a film that one could argue easily helped inspire it. The similarities between the two are impossible to deny; the toyingy with lighting as mood depiction, the notion of transgressive sexuality, the boundaries of friendship between a group of women, the insertion of a repulsive male presence, the sometimes frantic editing, the electronic music that slips between energetic and melancholic, and even the inclusion of gorgeous neon fantasy worlds match up. To think that months ago, when I first reviewed Spring Breakers, I had no idea just how indebted to Vacation!‘s wild existence it was. Considering the two go down immensely different paths though, it’s unfair to compare them both entirely. But I will say this: they both certainly depict some mad, mad, mad, mad worlds.
Scattered throughout the film are dozens of shots that foreshadow a death, whether it’s finding a friend’s arm on the ground not moving under a car or simply the announcing of a dream in which you killed three of your friends. It’s all a little fucked up, but it’s mostly a lot of fun. The film’s centerpiece — which is simply an acid trip that the four gals go on — takes every bit of unsettling atmosphere from the first act and makes it real. In that moment, the film dives into one of the most fascinating drug-induced set-pieces I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. It’s amazing what kind of mad surreal world Clark creates with a seemingly minuscule budget, with glowing body paint, gorilla suits, implications of murder, miracle bowel cleanses, and floating fish all present.
While Korine’s film may have gone from its disturbing moments back to light again, Clark’s stays in the dark from the moment its centerpiece happens. Oh, sure, there’s a mountain of black comedy that comes along with the film as a whole, but its back half is more interested in the emotionally-fueled exploration of how these women handle the loss of their best friend. At times, its handling of sex and death borders Lynchian territory; at others, it glides into that of John Waters. Some might see this as a bad thing, but it works so damn well for Vacation! In no moment is the notion of these women sexually interacting with each other, or strangers, or even objects, something that comes off as erotic or mean-spirited, and it’s for that reason that it’s all so interesting to watch.
Their dealing with death doesn’t always go hand in hand with the way the aforementioned directors does though, and that’s something to be thankful for. As near-mumblecore as the conversations between these women get, it’s more about the moments where they don’t speak. Each gal reacts to their situation differently, and every performance goes miles in reflecting the awkward morbidity of their best friend dying. Where the first half of the film introduced these women as happy with occasional glimpses of sadness, the back half breaks them down as much as possible. It’s a lot like the sun-burnt woman in the film’s telemarketing commercial for Miracle Bowel Cleanse (who looks straight out of a Waters film) says, “It is amazing how many people you talk to pretend to be happy for the benefit of others. They pretend that their life is perfect, that there’s nothing that can be improved, but inside, you know they’re miserable. Deeply, deeply miserable.”
With little plot and a lot of insanity, Vacation! is a great reminder of just how interesting and entertaining those barely heard of films of modern independent filmmaking can really be. Sure, his White Reindeercould be considered more mature, and decidedly less experimental, but Vacation! comes off as self-assured as any other. It won’t be for everyone, and some of it can certainly be grating to those with a low tolerance for seemingly aimless scenarios, but with two of his films under my belt, I can say Zach Clark is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
Directed by Zach Clark; written by Zach Clark; starring Trieste Kelly Dunn, Lydia Hyslop, Maggie Ross, and Melodie Sisk; 90 minutes.