Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Poser (2021) dir. Ori Segev & Noah Dixon

Opens Friday, 7/15 @ Kendall

by

Some things are universal.

Poser, the feature debut from music video directors Ori Segev and Noah Dixon, is a character-based psychodrama set against the backdrop of the underground music and art scene of Columbus, Ohio– and its setting is in no way incidental. Even before reading their director’s statement in the press materials, I could tell that Segev and Dixon were making a film about their home: they shoot in what appear to be genuine DIY venues; the cast is filled with local musicians and artists clearly playing themselves (or at least the versions of themselves they choose to present in their art); and the script is filled with insights, observations, and in-jokes that could only come from actual creatures of the scene. I myself have never been to Columbus; I had never heard any of the featured bands prior to watching the film, and it should go without saying I’ve never met any of the principles personally. Yet every person, place, and happening in this film felt abundantly familiar to me, and anyone who’s ever spent time orbiting a hyperlocal music scene– which, I should imagine, is a good percentage of the Hassle’s readership– will likely feel the same way.

“Orbiting” is certainly the correct word for Lennon Gates (Sylvie Mix), a painfully shy wallflower who is fascinated by the Columbus scene, but can’t quite find an “in.” A perennial observer, she ultimately decides to launch a sort of freeform podcast, documenting the geniuses, weirdos, and hangers-on in her midst. At first, she simply anchors herself at the outskirts of various concerts and parties, holding her iPhone out like a dowsing rod, collecting ambient noise to layer under her own observations. Eventually, she works up the nerve to ask artists for interviews, collecting their self-mythologizing stray thoughts and shambolic bedroom performances (in true lo-fi fashion, she transfers her digital recordings to audio cassette, then re-digitizes them for upload).

Lennon finds herself particularly drawn to Bobbi Kitten, lead singer of the real-life dance-pop outfit Damn the Witch Siren. Bobbi is everything Lennon is not– confident and charismatic, warm and well-liked– and Lennon sees in her an avatar to which to aspire (and maybe something of an unrequited crush object). As Lennon interviews her, she strikes up a friendship with the singer and her partner, Z Wolf, who never appears in public without his oversized werewolf mask and seemingly never speaks. Drawn into the Witch Siren’s inner circle, Lennon finds, for perhaps the first time, actual community, and is emboldened to share some of the scribbled lyrics from her ever-present journal. But relationships between artists can quickly turn sickly and fraught, and it gradually becomes apparent that not everyone in this picture is what they seem.

Going into Poser, I was a bit apprehensive; I tend to have trouble with films in which sad characters narrate their journals over muffled indie music, and films made by-and-for members of a hyperlocal indie scene run the risk of being too precious for their own good. But Poser has a bite to it that I found refreshing. Lennon is a sympathetic character; Mix sells her confusion and loneliness (I was surprised to learn that this is her film debut), and I suspect her earnest ruminations on the Columbus music scene are at least partly the filmmakers’ own. But the film wisely holds her at just enough of an arm’s length that we are invited to critique her as well. As much as Lennon loves the scene and wants to belong, there is a sense that she just doesn’t quite get it; in one of the film’s funniest gags, a scene of Bobbi mentioning her love of performance art cuts immediately to Lennon googling “What is performance art.” She hangs on her interview subjects’ every word and repeats them to herself as she replays their tapes, but it’s often unclear whether she actually understands these mantras or simply believes she can internalize their power by memorizing them. As unlikely as it sounds, I was reminded of Roger Corman’s classic 1959 beatnik horror comedy A Bucket of Blood: like Dick Miller’s hapless coffeeshop busboy, Lennon wants nothing more than to be an artist, but seems a little hazy on what “art” actually entails.

Also like A Bucket of Blood, Poser is simultaneously reverent and keenly satirical toward the artists it depicts. Even the most dedicated supporter of any music scene likely can’t help but admit that much of it is deeply silly, and Poser simultaneously celebrates and satirizes its subject with a knowing intimacy. In a hilarious early scene, we cycle through all of Lennon’s interview subjects’ grandiose descriptions of their music (“I would say… queer death-pop?” “We’re like if your weird uncle was a band.”). In another interview, a musician gravely announces that his new album is inspired by “the sound of the water running between the rocks,” and that it’s slated for a fall 2026 release. But it’s also clear that, when Lennon compares Columbus’s Old North neighborhood to “a modern Florence,” Segev and Dixon don’t entirely disagree. To love a scene is to also fondly admit that your scene sucks, and Poser is one of the most honest depictions of this truism I’ve seen on screen.

As I said, I’ve never been to Old North, so I can’t personally vouch for its depiction in Poser. But it feels like a glimpse into the sort of vibrant artistic community which is being systematically exterminated by the ravages of capitalism: the New York City of Downtown ‘88, the Austin of Slacker, the Allston which is being devoured by prefab condos and Harvard annexes as we speak. If this was the only thing Poser had going for it, it would be worth checking out; that it tells a compelling story and showcases some fresh and promising young actors is a more than welcome perk. Poser avoids the typical punk-movie pitfalls of sloppy self-indulgence (though there is a little of that) and presents a nuanced protagonist and a very clever third-act twist. It’s also bursting with life and is filled with great music from underheralded artists (Damn the Witch Siren’s “Claire Danes” in particular is a certified bop). Watching Poser is enough to make anyone want to start scouring flyers for local underground happenings– just maybe try to set firmer boundaries than poor Lennon.

Poser
2021
dir. Ori Segev & Noah Dixon
87 min.

Opens Friday, 7/15 @ Kendall Square Cinema
In-person Q&A with co-director Ori Segev Saturday, 7/16, 7:00

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