Planet Hollywood: Hell’s Club and The Art of the Remix

It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that YouTube is over eleven years old now. Ever since its founding in 2005, the video sharing website has provided media creators and curators with a limitless platform to display their work. As a cinephile, a considerable amount of time on my part has been spent watching various lists, mashups, and remixes that draw on connections between films, some easily recognizable while others are hazier. YouTube is hardly the only web presence to engage in these comparative endeavors, as sites like The Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes, and Letterboxd are constantly aggregating individual films in the effort to foster larger conversations about the medium’s canonical chronology. However, video formats grant creators the ability to extend their observations from the textual to the graphical. Along with the innumerable sources of music, news, and opinion that a website like YouTube has to offer, the influx of digital media has given filmmakers and cinephiles alike a playground to experiment with and challenge the very definitions of visual narrative.

The opening title of one such video reads as follows: “There is a place where all fictional characters meet. Outside of all logic. This place is known as…Hell’s Club.”[1] The premise of the video in question, Hell’s Club, relies on a suspension of disbelief that extends well beyond what a viewer can expect to grant a single cinematic work. The nine and a half minute video collages a wide variety of filmic sources (ranging from Scarface, The Terminator, Star Wars, and Saturday Night Fever, among many others) to create a fictional club that allows the characters to interact with one another. In essence, it’s the mashup to end all mashups that forges its own narrative from the ashes of all that came before it. Loosely, a group of wary bouncers from the likes of Blade (Wesley Snipes) and Vincent (Tom Cruise from Collateral) patrol a nightclub that appears to be run by Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino from Carlito’s Way). Meanwhile, a pair of Jedi Knights (Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor from Attack of the Clones) looks for a fugitive while The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) hunts down his own prey: Tony Montana (Al Pacino from Scarface).

That narrative summation still neglects to mention the various other threads that barely hold the experiment from tearing apart. The video’s overlapping dialogue, consciously uniform lighting design, and digital compositing makes you feel like you’re experiencing an animate wax museum that draws little distinctions between genres or even multiple personas of different actors.[2] Bartending Cruise from Cocktail exchanges a knowing glance with Cruise from Collateral. The Matrix’s Keanu Reeves expresses surprise at the gunning down of John Wick Keanu Reeves. After Pacino’s Carlito is shot and left dying on the dance floor, John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character (Tony Manero) thinks back to an earlier memory of idolizing a poster of Pacino from Serpico. The video’s narrative through lines goes a long way to distracting the viewer at just how offbeat and experimental the piece really is. The technical aspect could’ve proved enough of a reason to edit or watch the short film but the desire to present narrative proves to be a nearly inseparable trait inherent to cinema. Hell’s Club transposes these related threads to produce associations previously thought impossible or couplings so absurd they hadn’t even occurred to the audience.

It’s hard to pinpoint when films and filmmakers began to take such a pronounced interest in these meta-textual connections but nearly every answer inevitably relates to the work of Quentin Tarantino. Sure, the New Hollywood of the late 1960s through the late 1970s found considerable creative success at inverting classical Hollywood genres in a way that previously and currently read as cynical or mean-spirited. Conversely, the movie nerds who inherited the 80s almost seemed to take too much delight in crafting films that felt like commercially viable entertainment first and aesthetically complex material third or fourth. Tarantino, a child of both disciplines, takes as much joy in referencing Joe Dante as he does Jean-Luc Godard. Part of the fun of a Tarantino film revolves around his playing with iconography that indiscriminately alternates between high and low brow to generate a signature experience that celebrates the medium while simultaneously critiquing it.

All of this is to suggest that Tarantino is the prototypical example for the modern film nerd. However, many others have tried (and mostly failed) to follow his approach to storytelling. While watching Hell’s Club, I couldn’t help but think about screenwriter and director Max Landis, son of director John Landis. Landis the younger, whose big screen offerings have been met with varying degrees of critical and commercial success, is more popular on the Internet as a pitchman for would-be stories that often rely on the packaging of original content with the Trojan horsing of IP.[3] What if a studio was able to release a pirate adventure movie that turned out to be an origin for the villainous Captain Hook? How would audiences react to a science fiction epic that surprised by being a modern continuation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Landis has a particular skill at pitching these ideas in such a way that makes the eventual “a-ha!” moments even richer that you’d expect.

The young talent has even taken stabs at directly adapting popular franchises head on at face value, offering up his thoughts on how to modernize Ghostbusters, the Power Rangers, and Lethal Weapon. In short, all of these takes rely heavily on including most (if not all) previous incarnations as canonical, maximally priming audiences for heapings of fan service. In my estimation, this all-inclusive approach to storytelling appears to be a direct result to the popularization of fan theories and the Internet. The two entities go hand-in-hand, as the accessibility of the World Wide Web allows for discussions that would’ve previously been restricted to backroom cinema clubs to be disseminated by millions of people on a daily basis.

Funny enough, much of online cinephilia coincided with Tarantino’s meteoric ascent in the mid-90s, as his innumerable quotations provided the Internet with a building block on which to curate an ever expanding spectrum of tastes. Landis and his contemporaries[4] grew up with this attitude towards curation and remixing as a given. Their work and opinions offered up a pronounced sense of awareness and precedent made possible by the Internet. If Tarantino was the originator of an “it’s-all-connected” mentality, than the generations that followed only added to the footnoting.

This desire to unite disparate elements in a unified manner lies at the very heart of what Hell’s Club is trying to accomplish. Currently, the video sits at over five and a half million views, proving that such content interests plenty of film nerds. In YouTube terms, that means it was due for a sequel. Just this month, AMDS Films released Hell’s Club 2: Another Night, expanding on the template originated in the previous video. Considering Hell’s Club already strains credulity at nine and a half minutes, Another Night goes even further at just under eighteen minutes. Many personalities featured in the first return along with a slew of new characters.[5] YouTube commenters[6] who complained about character omissions in the first video are given what they asked for and much, much more. Continuity is maintained, broken, and re-established continually throughout. By the end, a swarm of xenomorphs[7] consume the frame and by extension the audience, succinctly symbolizing the dangers of remixes gone amuck. If you scratch the record so many times, how can you expect it to stay intact?

Ultimately, both of the Hell’s Club videos are Russian nesting dolls of Easter Eggs that feed into one another with a multiplicity that is often dizzying. YouTube and the greater Internet are filled to the brim with mashups but this pair of videos provides the quintessential examples that motivate the larger fan culture: to unite seemingly incongruous elements into a tight and satisfying package, with the originality lying in the aesthetic rather than the content. The two short films strike an uncanny balance of preaching to the choir and forcing new converts to go off and discover fresh sources for themselves. While the pleasures of such riffing are immediate, filmmakers and fans must extend their adoration to beyond just celebrating the medium itself with clever quotations and push towards the humanity that made the initial stories possible in the first place. As Edgar Wright said recently, “If we don’t start doing more original films, there will be nothing to remake in thirty years time.”[8]

hell's club 2

[1] Technically, the first video seems to have some typos but the second entry implies that this was the intended text.

[2] While the digital compositing can look a little ragged around the edges in moments, the sound editing and color correction forces you to give the editor (AMDSFILMS) a hand for the sheer volume of elements at play.

[3] This says more about the current industrial trends of Hollywood than it does Landis.

[4] I would include J.J. Abrams, Edgar Wright, Matt Reeves, Rian Johnson, and many more into this distinction. All of these examples are older and more influential than Landis but I think they still fit into the construct. All made their debuts in a post-Tarantino world and display a high level of film literacy. Additionally, many of them maintain social media presences that make them inherently plugged into online film culture.

[5] Interestingly, even more Star Wars mainstays fill the club. But I guess we’re living in a post Force Awakens world now…

[6] The Fumbo Muffin commented on the original video “Han Solo should have been there to shoot first.” with Robert Andersson agreeing “Yeah it is seriously lacking Han Solo/Blade Runner.”

[7] The name of the creatures that make up the Alien franchise.

[8] http://www.slashfilm.com/what-do-edgar-wright-alfanso-cuaron-and-marc-webb-think-of-the-upcoming-hollywood-apocalypse/.

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