Kid Icarus (Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin, USA, 2008)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I recently heard that Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s Kid Icarus will soon be available on VOD.

This blog post is a kind of reflective piece written to celebrate its release – and to encourage readers to watch the film.

And so I begin…

Only yesterday, I read another feed on Twitter in which a.n. minor celebrity spoke of how a teacher had told them at school that they would amount to nothing – and that now the minor celebrity was taking great pleasure in effectively getting ‘revenge’ on their teacher by telling them, and the world, how much money they had made in their lives.

Aside from the way in which this narrative reaffirms the idea that all teachers are always already failures for not going into a more lucrative career (because the minor celebrity is affirming success via the fact that they have made a lot of money, while their teacher is wallowing in the decidedly unlucrative career of teaching – because money is the only thing that validates humanity?), my personal response to reading such online discussions involves two queries.

Firstly, I wonder if perhaps it was the very ‘insult’ given by the teacher that inspired the pupil/student to ‘make something’ of themselves – since some people perhaps respond better to what we might proverbially term a ‘kick up the arse’ (or at the very least to constructive criticism) than they do always to being told at all points in time how brilliant they are. Indeed, since the minor celebrity is taking the time to recount this ‘revenge’ story, it seems to stand to reason that the ‘insult’ did indeed function as a spur to them to ‘make something of themselves.’ By this token, the student should probably not be so annoyed with their former teacher, but grateful to them for motivating their achievements, even if that motivation was ‘negative’ (i.e. done as an act of revenge rather than as a positive act done for oneself).

(Not that such a student – that is, the sort that might ‘benefit’ from the so-called ‘kick up the arse’ – would offer thanks to the teacher, especially if they did not really want their newfound minor celebrity and wealth, preferring instead to be able to go back in time and simply to have had a different teacher who did not inspire them to become a minor celebrity.)

Secondly, I query what the student was like at school, and/or whether they had the self-awareness to know what effect their behaviour had on their teachers (which is not to say their peers).

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably some terrible teachers out there, and perhaps some undeserving students have been offered insults by those nasty teachers before going on to achieve fame and fortune, while other excellent and praised students have achieved ‘nothing’ (whatever that means), while others received negative feedback at school and went on as predicted to ‘amount to nothing’ (which I guess means not making much money and/or not being mildly or massively famous). Meanwhile, yet others always were and continue to be ‘high achievers,’ while many more just middled through school and life, and still others fluctuated gently between positions over time.

I am sad for anyone who has been insulted by their teachers and taken it so much to heart that they have constructed a life narrative of revenge around it. I am also sad that any teacher would educate their students – positively or negatively – to believe that money and fame is what makes a life valid.

Furthermore, I am sensitive to how many humans have difficulties learning and/or concentrating in a classroom setting – and who thus may find the experience problematic, if not traumatic. School is certainly imperfect – and working at one entails precisely this: always working towards doing a better job, even as this might be exhausting (if not all-consuming).

I do not want to negate this diversity. Nonetheless, I might suggest from experience that some students have the sad effect of coming across to their teachers and peers alike as arrogant. Now, I have not (to the best of my knowledge) ever told any of my students that they will never amount to anything (because I do not really know what this means, let alone am I capable of knowing someone else’s future – and I have a policy to try only to say things that I know to my students).

Be that as it may, some students can, as mentioned, be perplexing and taxing in their arrogance, capable as they are of insulting their teachers – advertently or otherwise – through their comments, their attitudes and their actions.

What is more, they may be completely unreceptive to their teachers and/or perhaps not so good at listening – such that they might hear an accusation that they will ‘amount to nothing’ when really they are being told that **if** they want to achieve their ambitions, then perhaps they ought to make more of an effort to be more receptive to others, more humble in their attitude, more thoughtful in their comportment.

Indeed, in my own experience (which has involved about as much time studying as it has involved time teaching), the psychological trouble that problematic students can cause to teachers is far more taxing than any of the trouble that teachers caused me as a student.

(Not that this will apply to everyone, not least because most people do not go on to teach; that said, statistically my point stands to reason, since a teacher will encounter 1000s of students over their career, while students might only encounter 10s of teachers; let us not broach the role that peers play in the lives of students.)

All this pre-amble is to say that just this past semester, two students sat right in front of me playing chess with each other during a lecture that I was delivering.

When I then asked them whether they thought that their behaviour was rude – being absorbed in a chess game rather than my class – they denied as much and said that it was doing no harm to anyone. When I asked them if their behaviour was reminiscent of Leigh Harkrider, the main protagonist of Kid Icarus, they said no.

For, perhaps the biggest irony of this chess experience is that I had just shown to my students Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s documentary about students trying to make a film at the College of the Canyons community college in Santa Clarita, California.

For, even though they had just seen that film’s main subject, film student Leigh Harkrider, repeatedly ignoring the advice of his film instructors as he proceeds to make a mistake-ridden movie as part of his film class, they could not see that they might share some of Leigh’s arrogance. That is, their behaviour was, like Leigh in Kid Icarus, completely self-unaware – perhaps convinced, like Leigh, of their brilliance, and thus not in need of anything so boring as a lecture on filmmaking (let alone a lecture on filmmaking as filtered through Kid Icarus).

Sometimes I wonder that this sort of arrogance is especially acute in film classes, since we live in a world where everyone assumes that they are an expert on cinema, and yet where few people realise how much time and effort has to go into making movies, fooling themselves that their capacity to enjoy films will automatically be matched by a capacity to make films.

Perhaps this tendency is indeed especially acute in film classes because we live in a world dominated by movies – whether we watch them in theatres or not. For, we are surrounded by screens that show us content designed to capture and to maintain our attention as much and for as long as possible (i.e. screens that feature content made using the techniques developed over the course of the history of cinema).

To succeed in life – to be rich and famous – only works if you can be seen as rich and famous; that is, it only works if there are images of you in circulation that demonstrate your wealth and fortune. In other words, success is linked in contemporary society to the cinematic, or at the very least to the mediated.

If success is about appearance, then, small wonder it is that people don’t just want to get on with being successful, but they want to mediate their success. In other words, the values of our culture breed arrogance – in the form of people who lord their success over others by making it as visible as possible, and which breeds the values of revenge, whereby people publicly flip the bird at anyone who stood in their path to success.

Luckily for Leigh Harkrider, Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin are not themselves interested in ‘revenge,’ even if there might be moments when Kid Icarus seems like an exploitation of student arrogance for the purposes of making a movie – that is, for the purposes of using another person’s lack of cinematicity to reaffirm one’s own cinematicity, with cinematicity (or appearing cinematic) being a measure of success.

For while Kid Icarus does gently expose Leigh Harkrider’s arrogance as he believes that he can create a cinematic masterpiece without a clue and, more importantly, without putting in any effort, the film is also sympathetic towards him – not that he necessarily deserves it.

The film follows Leigh as he tries haplessly to make his student project, Enslavence, at the afore-mentioned College of the Canyons, where Mike Ott was working as a film professor at the time of shooting.

Kid Icarus is a catalogue of what not to do when making a film. Leigh alienates his friends (potentially stealing a script idea, getting rid of his most faithful crew member, Cory Rubin, and getting everyone to sign endless contracts handing all rights over to him), while also demonstrating little idea of how to create a story – even as he aspires witlessly to be Steven Spielberg and David Fincher.

And yet, Kid Icarus is more than just the humiliation of a student who does a fine job of making an arse of himself (such that he at times might just deserve a kick up it). For, while the film does show us the chaos on set of the student and/or amateur film production – making of Kid Icarus a wonderful companion piece to Christopher Smith’s 1999 masterpiece, American Movie – it also shows us the conditions of Leigh’s life.

Leigh has a Superman cap, he has a Superman check book, his favourite show is Smallville, and he discusses Superman at various points in the film. And yet he is also a guy who lives with someone else’s family, who works at The Home Depot, and who generally seems quite alienated and lonely.

And so while Leigh might dream of being or becoming the Man of Steel, Kid Icarus takes the time to show that this desire is born from its complete opposite, a sense of powerlessness, which itself is tied to one thing that perhaps Leigh Harkrider does share with Kal-El, namely an inner solitude (Superman as an orphan).

Furthermore, while the Enslavence shoot is an at-times hilarious disaster, making of Leigh something of what James Franco might call a ‘disaster artist,’ in the making of his film, Leigh does make friends with all manner of people, as is made clear at the film’s end when he is surrounded by cast and crew come to celebrate at the wrap party.

In other words, Kid Icarus gives Leigh rope enough to hang himself as far as his pretensions of being a great filmmaker are concerned – with Leigh at one point even failing to impress Jay Keitel, whom he courts to be his cinematographer (and who has since gone on to lens episodes of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s Steven Soderbergh-inspired show, The Girlfriend Experience).

But at the same time, Kid Icarus also demonstrates how film brings people together and how filmmaking does create friendships that help to stave off that loneliness. If community college teaches anything, it is perhaps a sense of community.

And this sense of community functions as a counter-example, then, to the self-serving values of wealth and fame that I described at the outset of this post. There is no need for revenge when we treat people with dignity, and there is no need for hatred if we can learn to love, with Ott and McLaughlin clearly loving the subjects of their film even as Leigh in particular is infuriating.

Not only is this a testament, then, to Ott’s patience and qualities as a teacher, in that he does not succumb to telling Leigh he will amount to nothing, even if he gets him to query whether he is a more committed viewer than maker of Smallville. (That is, Ott gets his students to question themselves, their values and their ideas; that is, he inspires in them the desire to learn.)

It also is a testament to Ott’s commitment to community, a commitment that he has continued to explore in his subsequent films as he sticks primarily to the Antelope Valley region of California and as he explores the lives of those who have often been overlooked by a society that values only visibility and wealth.

If visibility and wealth are cinematic, then Ott creates something of an anti-cinema, or what Robert Campbell refers to in his study of Ott’s films as a non-cinema (see Campbell 2018). Or what Ott himself might call ‘small form films.’

But more than this, it is a human cinema, with people defined by their humanity and not by the amount of money or celebrity that they have. And it is a cinema committed in many respects to reality – to showing how real people are more wonderful and complex than any fiction film can imagine, even as fiction films shape our sense of who we are and whom we aspire to be.

With this in mind, step forward Cory Zacharia, who progresses from a friend incidentally on location during a visit with Leigh to The Home Depot, to the prime focus of much of Kid Icarus, where Cory explores who he is on camera, to the main actor with whom Ott has worked in various subsequent film and video projects.

Repeated work with Cory Zacharia not only makes Ott’s relationship with him akin to that of François Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Léaud, but it also demonstrates Ott’s care for and concern with not just Cory, but many other of his collaborators.

Leigh may lack a visible family in the film, but in making Enslavence, a new, substitute family is born. And in making Kid Icarus, a new family is born for Ott and with which he will work on numerous subsequent projects, including Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012), Lake Los Angeles (2014), Lancaster, CA (2015), California Dreams (2017) and the online movie criticism show Cinema Club (2018-2019).

Bringing humans together and making meaningful and creative bonds: this is the true power of cinema, far more than the wealth and fortune that its most visible makers achieve.

But does it work? That is, if my students could not see how they might have some of Leigh’s arrogance (if they could see it, then they would not have disrespected the class by ignoring it and playing chess), then can Kid Icarus create communities among those who watch the film?

Well, for starters, I can only say that after showing Kid Icarus to students for many years now, it continues to be a film that inspires both laughter and tender responses – as well as being a film with which the vast majority of film students can identify.

But also the very fact that the film is becoming available means that it is a film that can continue to inspire learning. Held up for many years in a distribution gridlock, the film now is becoming available at least in part because of its value as a learning experience for all involved, including Leigh, with whose blessing Kid Icarus can find new audiences.

Perhaps there is hope, then, for not just my own students but perhaps for us all to learn equally to learn, and to continue learning to learn as life goes on. Ott’s films and Ott himself do this, being thus akin to the very best teachers – of the sort that I myself aspire to become: not interested in petty glories or insults, but rather in simply learning for the sake of learning, making films not to achieve fame and fortune, but out of love.

The gift of love and learning to love: no wealth and fame can buy those things at all. That is why they are precisely gifts, offered to us by gifted filmmakers. For those who can now watch Kid Icarus for the first time (or for a second or third time), you are about to receive something wonderful.

2 thoughts on “Kid Icarus (Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin, USA, 2008)

  1. Sorry to hear about your rude students. Makes me wonder if instead of wanting to learn they want to “consume”. Like, consuming what they want from a class and not caring about what it does not interest them. Anyway, Kid Icarus sounds like my 1st year at Uni, when I wanted to make a masterpiece within weeks of learning how to use a camera! I guess it was just enthusiasm. I hope I’m not being cheesy, but when I started to think about film rather than just “consuming” it, I appreciated filmmaking and film analysis a lot more. One of the things I loved most about Uni was learning to think better!

    1. Thanks, Angela. I definitely hear what you are saying – but so much film is designed simply to be consumed like fast food, that those nicer films with acquired tastes often seem unpalatable to certain people. That said, I think that these students enjoyed Kid Icarus – it was just my class that they did not like. But it was interesting to me how they kind of acted like Leigh from Kid Icarus even though they’d just seen the film – but without thinking at all that they were acting like Leigh when I asked whether they thought they were…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s