I reject the idea that movies can be so bad they’re good. Are there pleasures to be found in movies that are rough around the edges, made by inexperienced craftspeople, devoid of the kind of slickness we take for granted in the big films? Of course. There is a magic in a movie that is just a little bit handmade, that is filled with imperfections… but also personality. These films aren’t so bad they’re good, they’re just good on their own terms, and they’re charming as hell.
It’s the difference between a piece of art that is mass produced and a piece of art that is hand-crafted and that you buy on the side of the road. The technique may be primitive, the artist may not have the hours of experience, the materials may even be technically subpar, but the art is free of artifice, and you’re getting closer to the experience and understanding of another human being.
Even when the artist thinks they’re making something commercial – the grandmother who knits beer coozies for with the local teams’ logos on them, or Neil Breen making paranoid scifi epics – they’re actually giving you a look at their own sensibilities. The term for these people is ‘outsider artist,’ and their position outside the mainstream, outside the cognoscenti, outside the halls of academia, offer unique perspectives on art and the world itself.
This is what thrills me about the films of Neil Breen. No one on Earth is making movies like these, and no one else on Earth COULD, even if they wanted to for some reason. That Breen’s movies are amateurish and technically unsophisticated are truths that offer the least interesting way into them. What’s fascinating is that Neil Breen is quietly amassing a canon of films that illuminate his worldview, films that are absolute windows into the soul of another human being.
His next film is called Twisted Pair, and it seems to continue some of the themes that have consumed his previous work. Check out the trailer:
Breen’s filmography is full of paranoia, with Breen himself playing characters who either discover multiple layers of reality, or who manipulate them. Many of his films deal with governmental secrets, with Breen playing a lone wolf who learns deadly secrets about the corrupt officials who work with white collar criminals to keep the common man down (Neil Breen could very easily stump for the Democratic Socialists of America. Maybe he could run with Bernie in 2020). For Breen the systems of control are twofold – there is an occult world of computer networking and then there is an occult world of the occult itself. Many of Breen’s films are obsessed with hacking, and present his leads as almost effortlessly excellent computer hackers (despite Breen clearly having little to no understanding of computers or network systems).
Corporations, greed, corrupt government employees – these threads run through all the Breen movies, usually connected by hacking. But there’s also often a mystical element, one that has been present since his second film, I Am Here…. Now, which features Breen as Space Jesus/Monster/Thing. While debut feature Double Down establishes the strange morality of Neil Breen – the system is corrupt in such a way that any actions you take against it, no matter how evil, are justified – it’s I Am Here…. Now and Pass-Thru that really solidify the bizarre edges of that morality. Breen’s most famous movie, Fateful Findings, ends with a long suicide montage wherein all the corrupt corporate stooges and keepers of government secrets self-annihilate, but that’s peaceful compared to the Terminator-like Space Jesus of I Am Here…. Now and the frankly genocidal hero of Pass-Thru.
(Side note: Pass-Thru is actually terrible, being largely boring and without shape. But it does end with Neil Breen killing 300,000,000 people so that peace can come to Earth, and walking among their corpses.)
Breen’s movie sees people as the victims of huge conspiracies that extend beyond their understanding, but they do offer some hope in extra-normal sources of information and power. That is on display in Twisted Pair, which finds Breen playing twins (!), one of whom seems to have been turned into an assassin by the government. That’s your conspiracy angle, and your mystical/extra-normal angle comes in through ‘programmable virtual reality,’ which seems to play like a fantasy world/Narnia of some type here.
As in previous Breen movies he’s playing a deeply unlikable character – just check out the lady who REALLY does not want to get drinks with him – and I think that’s on purpose. I think Breen understands that these driven men are martyrs in their own ways, unable to forge human connections. If I were psychoanalyzing Breen through his movies (a truly tempting thing), I’d say that he’s exploring his own personal inability to get close to people through his damaged, weird characters.
There are other Breen classics in this trailer, including a shot of Breen waking up in fear (I’m willing to bet the filmmaker suffers from night terrors, based on the way he depicts menacing shadows threatening him in his sleep) and a totally bloodless love affair. What’s intriguing is that Breen has set up a plot wherein his hero doesn’t need to be a lone wolf – he’s a twin! – and yet it really seems as if he ends up on his own (Breen’s trailers tend to give the whole movie away).
I had the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with Breen many years ago, and I can tell you the man is no Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau has leaned into the ‘so bad it’s good’ thing, but Breen refuses. Where Wiseau coasts on his one movie, Breen just keeps working. He has things to say, and as the world gets wackier and darker the things he has to say seem less and less fringe (seriously, Fateful Findings feels so of the current political “DC Swamp” moment it’s crazy). Breen seemed a little pained by the laughter meeting Fateful Findings that night, but he gamely tried to connect with the audience. I know that in the past Breen has bristled at his film’s being played in midnight slots at festivals, and he’s denied that he makes cult movies.
And he doesn’t. Because you can’t make cult movies. Cult movies happen on their own, the cults spring up around them. And the best cults spring up around movies that are real, not movies that are calculated to capture the Troll 2 mojo. Neil Breen is making movies to the best of his ability about the things that he thinks are important, saying things that he believes matter. He’s not taking the piss, he’s not trying to be funny (I’m not sure Breen CAN be funny, to be honest), and he’s not trying to amuse stoned kids at a midnight show.
That, to me, is real art. Whether Breen’s technique or technical ability stands up to the greatest filmmakers of all time (or even the competent ones) is besides the point. The movies he makes are straight shots of himself, and the fact that they’re so creaky and weird and written and edited as if by someone who has never seen a movie before simply makes them more charming and personal. These movies blow through your preconceived ideas of not only what movies can be, but what they should be. Neil Breen wouldn’t know how to make a cookie-cutter generic movie if he tried, and for that I am eternally grateful.
So I’m very excited for Twisted Pair, but not because it looks ‘so bad it’s good.’ I’m excited because, after the dullness of Pass-Thru I’m hopeful for another blast of Breen that is just good in its own, specific Neil Breen way.