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Inside Neil Breen

Neil Breen is astoundingly bad at making films. Since 2005 he has released four, and they collectively form what has to be one of the worst directorial oeuvres in the history of cinema. It is common to use hyperbole when critiquing media, but I genuinely believe this to be an accurate statement. Neil Breen’s films are failures on every single level: he writes, directs, produces, edits, and stars as the lead role in all four self-funded films, and he is terrible at all these things. His films are close to unbearable. They are ugly, incomprehensible, glacially paced, woodenly acted, and marred by editorial choices that surely no sane human being would make. Breen is the antithesis of a director like David Lynch, a man possessed of a special genius when it comes to creating Bad Cinema. And I cannot stop watching his films.

I’ve always had a passion for Bad Cinema, and I’m not alone in this passion. Many of us walk this dark path. I think for me it stems from my interest in horror movies. As a genre, horror has some high profile critical darlings like Rosemary’s Baby, but for every horror film that gets a place at the table with the serious art, there are a hundred thousand cheap, vicious, lurid throwaway movies that nobody involved with thought about for longer than ten seconds. And I love them. Their carelessness, incompetence, and sheer stupidity is intoxicating, and it’s this enjoyment of poor horror cinema that dragged me down into the cesspit of my adult life, where I sit in a darkened room sniggering at films widely known for being terrible.

Deep within the ninth circle of horror trash hell, there are a few films with a legendary reputation as the worst one can watch, films like Troll 2, or Manos: The Hands of Fate. Some of these films have become strange kinds of hits, years after their release. Mediocrity will be forgotten, but in the internet era, being the absolute worst at something has its own perverse glories. Troll 2 began playing to large midnight cinema audiences across America during the 00s as its reputation grew online, and the cult adulation even spawned a surprisingly affecting documentary, Best Worst Movie, which tracked down the cast and director to explore their lives decades after they wrapped the shoot. The most successful work of this type, which is not a horror film, is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a San Franciscan relationship drama which is so staggeringly bad and strange and funny that it has entered the Bad Cinema pantheon, quoted and memed and parodied from sea to shining sea. There is a film about the making of The Room being made, called The Disaster Artist. James Franco is starring.

Neil Breen does not enjoy this level of cultural attention. It’s not hard to understand why, despite the superficial similarities of his amateurish, self-funded work to Wiseau’s. The Room is gut-bustingly funny, with plenty of crowd-pleasing moments like Wiseau saying his signature ‘Oh hi there’ to a dog, or trashing his living room like a drunken android. It’s also fairly easy to understand what the plot of The Room is intended to be, despite the terrible execution. By contrast, Neil Breen’s films, while intermittently funny, are mostly just weird and distressing. They’re like watching a dream you had while sick with flu being played out on screen. Nothing makes sense, plot lines emerge and end without warning; you can understand each individual line of dialogue but not why Breen thinks it’s important that we see this conversation happen. His shots are ugly and banal and menacing, intercut with cheap stock footage, overdubbed with Breen’s monotone monologues. It’s often not even clear what genre of film you’re supposed to be watching: his first project, Double Down, seems initially to be some kind of Jason Bourne-esque techno-thriller, but then veers off into deranged supernatural events, including the discovery of a magic rock that cures cancer.

It’s worth examining Double Down in a little more detail, as Breen hasn’t really evolved as an artist in the twelve years since he made this first film. All of his signature techniques, mistakes, and obsessions are already present. Released in 2005, Double Down stars Neil Breen as a CIA-linked super hacker who has gone rogue in order to bring about some kind of bioweapon apocalypse in Las Vegas. He is doing this, I think, because the government killed his beloved girlfriend while she was naked in a swimming pool. Their motive for doing this is unknown. The government dare not kill Neil Breen, because if they do, nuclear bombs will be detonated in major cities. Breen keeps the body of his girlfriend in a bag inside the trunk of his car at all times; her state of decomposition is inconsistent. He wears a black tank top and eats tuna out of cans and fires guns at nothing and owns four laptops on which he does his hacking; none of the laptops are ever visibly turned on. He has a sleeveless denim jacket on which he has pinned all of his CIA medals. Sometimes Breen wakes up underneath his car, which has ‘help me’ written on the side in blood. He has a forcefield which will kill any CIA agents that try to approach the car; it seems to melt their brains somehow. At one point Breen meets an old man in the desert, who gives him a rock. Breen uses the magic power within the rock to cure a little girl of cancer. Breen buys anthrax from an ‘anthrax dealer’, a black man in a car park, then tests the anthrax by pouring it into a river, where it kills some fish. At one point he sees his dead parents dressed in white robes at the edge of a lake, and he asks them if he is also dead. He poses as a limousine driver in order to pick up an enemy from a chapel in Las Vegas, where this enemy is getting married. Breen poisons the couple with chemicals in their strawberries. He then discovers he poisoned the wrong couple; his actual enemy, having discovered famed bioterrorist CIA hacker Neil Breen was on his tail, has already killed himself and his new wife, seemingly to evade whatever horrible unavoidable fate Breen had planned for them. He’s just that good.

If this was difficult to follow, then I have successfully recreated the experience of watching Double Down. I can’t even remember how it ends, and I’ve watched the film multiple times. Neil Breen cannot tell a story, or communicate ideas to his audience. These images and scenes are important to him, and he understands them, and that’s all that matters. Watching Double Down is like watching a transmission from an alien planet. The aliens have been receiving our TV broadcasts for decades, and they’ve decided to try and make something they think we’d like. But they haven’t quite got it right. I recently watched a short film called Sunspring, which was written by a neural-network AI program, and the similarity between that film and Breen’s oeuvre is remarkable.

Breen’s output has a few common obsessions. Humanity is venal and corrupt. The government is in league with corporations, lawyers, banks, and lobbyists to keep the little man down. There needs to be some kind of apocalyptic cleansing, where the bad people are wiped away, so that the weak and meek can live good lives again. There’s a messianic quality to his work, and Breen always casts himself the saviour. In Double Down he’s a super hacker working against the government. In 2012’s Fateful Findings Breen plays a Julian Assange-like best-selling author who is hacking into the secret files of the world’s corporations and governments, and then calls a press conference where he denounces their corruption and lies. Dutifully, the lawyers, bankers, and politicians of America resign, then kill themselves. In 2009’s I Am Here… Now the messianic subtext becomes supertext, since Breen casts himself as the physical form of God on Earth. He heals the sick, fights drug dealers, and eventually crucifies a group of ‘elites’ in the desert. In his latest offering, Pass Thru, Breen plays an AI from the far future who rescues two women from being sex trafficked. He then dissolves every ‘negative human’ on the planet into thin air, possibly using nanotechnology. The bankers, lawyers, politicians, and lobbyists do not, be assured, escape this bloodless holocaust.

Breen is clearly a crank, a conspiratorial obsessive, a Walter Mitty-ish daydreamer who decided to make his power fantasies a reality. He’s not, so far as I can tell, a particularly hateful crank, and there’s no hint of anti-semitic language in his spiels about the depravity and corruption of the global ruling class. It comes across more as endearingly adolescent than anything else. He seems convinced that his insights about how fucked up and corrupt modern American politics has become will be news to his audience, and seems to hope that the didactic monologues his protagonists deliver will be enough to change people’s minds, make them aware of the situation they’re in. Despite the all-pervading narcissism of his films, scripted by, directed by, edited by, distributed by and starring Neil Breen; despite the solipsism of his screenplays and his inability to communicate stories visually to other humans, I do think there’s something positive about Breen’s desire to wake his audience up. He’s clearly concerned about corruption, about living in a broken political system at the mercy of corporate lobbyists and large vested interests, and I think any sensible American living in the 21st Century would be. I Am Here… Now contains extensive scenes dedicated to the importance of renewable energy. It’s hard to argue against such sentiments.

In the first paragraph I said that Neil Breen has a special genius. I’m aware this may be difficult to accept, but I mean it sincerely, even if nothing I’ve said seems to support such a statement. I do think he is a genius, and I believe he is the antithesis, the warped mirror, of an American director much more commonly held to be a genius: David Lynch. Both men, I feel, are in abnormally close communication with their subconscious. Both seem not to care very much what audiences think of their work, or whether their meaning is understood — they are producing intensely personal work, films which take you inside what it means to be David Lynch, inside what it is to be Neil Breen. There are scenes in Breen’s films that I think are almost equal to the savage power of the imagery in work like Eraserhead or Blue Velvet; not many scenes, certainly, but some. Watching the new series of Twin Peaks, in which Lynch has cast himself in a major role, the hearing-impaired FBI director Gordon, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Breen’s protagonists, and I’m not the only person who has drawn this comparison.

The major difference between the two men is in terms of technical execution and artistic intention. David Lynch is a talented filmmaker. He understands cameras, scene blocking, sound design, casting, writing. If he wants you to feel disoriented and feverish and trapped in some other reality you wish you could wake up from, he knows how to get you there. If Lynch wants you to feel another way, he can make the artistic choices necessary to take you to that place instead. Breen does not have this control over his filmmaking, and it’s not clear to me whether the disorientation and feverish confusion I feel when watching his films is intended. I suspect that it is not, and is a side effect of his inability to master his form. David Lynch knows he is a surrealist, but I do not think Neil Breen knows that he is.

So what is it that draws me to Breen’s films? Why do I watch them, if they’re so bad? Partly, I must confess, I watch them from cruelty. Failure is funny, success less so. I take unkind, snickering pleasure from Breen’s incompetence, his inability to make a conventionally enjoyable film, in the same way it’s funny to watch a seal bumble across the land: they’re not designed for it, they can’t really do it, they’re graceless and awkward and bizarre and so we laugh. I laugh at his pained, grave expression and his ponderous pseudo-intellectualism, his mawkish delusion that anyone will take his ramblings about corrupt politicians and bankers seriously. I laugh at the awful CGI and the wooden supporting actors and at Breen’s creepy insistence at casting himself opposite love interests half his age and making them pretend to enjoy kissing him. Above all, it’s Neil Breen’s sincerity that makes me laugh so cruelly and so hard: he really thinks he’s making important art. He really thinks people will see these horrible movies and enjoy them and, along the way, wake up to the harsh truth about the world around them. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of humour and it does not occur to him that anybody could find these films funny.

And yet. And yet. There is something about Breen that I find inspiring. The same solipsism that prevents him from telling a story other people can understand also makes him incapable of being deterred by criticism or indifference. Neil Breen, making these films, seems to want to project an image of himself as a hero. And here’s the funny thing. To make art, and to continue to do it in the face of such manifest obstacles — a complete lack of acting, directing, or writing talent, of money, of an audience or of critical acclaim — to continue to make films, funded entirely out of your own pocket and almost certainly never making any money back on any one of them, for twelve years, in the face of these obstacles? In a strange way, it almost looks heroic.