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Sundance 2024: Devo, War Game, Girls State

A diverse group of high school girls take a group selfie.Girls State, courtesy of Sundance Institute

First you get radicalized, then you get professionalized—a familiar trajectory Chris Smith’s Devo retells in a familiar idiom. After sitting down with dour conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert for 2009’s Collapse, the American Movie director didn’t make a feature for eight years. He returned to begin his populist doc era with 2017’s Jim & Andy, which made generous use of previously unseen videos of Jim Carrey acting like a maniac “in character” as Andy Kaufman on the set of 1999’s Man on the Moon. In present-day interviews, Carrey described his dilemma: having given a performance at a relatively young age that confirmed he was finally as good and acclaimed a dramatic actor as he’d always wanted to be, he realized that achievement did not fill the void inside. I was very interested in that problem, and while I haven’t kept up with all of Smith’s output since, I try. His streamer work is, in many ways, a best-case scenario, above-average lively assemblages of archival footage with some unexpected insights along the way that make me care about subjects I might not otherwise. Someone is going to end up making, say, a documentary about Wham!; it might as well be Smith.

A thoroughly authorized biography produced in part by co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh’s Mutato Muzik, Devo is strategically arriving at the same time as restorations of the band’s short films and music videos. Mothersbaugh, his brother Bob and Gerald Casale are all onhand to tell a selective portion of their story in a tight 96 minutes, spending nearly the first hour playing the hits: the founders’ initial radicalization by the Kent State Massacre; struggles, then vindication and recognition from David Bowie and Brian Eno; the success of “Whip It” and record company pressure to replicate it; the band’s eventual implosion as the MTV ’80s dragged on and the network’s window for weirdness rapidly narrowed. All this is illustrated with professionalism and speed via tons of archival footage spliced with the band’s own visual output and narrated by band members in fresh sit-downs. Smith is credited as his own cinematographer, which in this case literally means just those talking heads bits. Still, that counts as keeping your hand in and has the additional merit of implicitly confirming that, unlike many meaninglessly nominal directors of these kinds of works, Smith was actually on-hand to conduct interviews himself.

Smith’s immediate follow-up to American Movie essentially began as sponcon produced for a web startup, so making content for Warner Bros. Music isn’t really that much of a swerve. Nor do I suspect that Devo has especially dark skeletons in their closet—complicity with the subject seems fairly harmless here. I’ve never been much of a fan (Devo’s a lot of aggressively nerdy energy), but the footage is all stuff I would never look up myself and whatever questions I had were definitely answered. (A friend who is a fan basically said he didn’t learn anything but had fun regardless.) Then again, I’ve never been a Wham! enthusiast but got more of out of Smith’s film on them than I did from this one, which drags as it enters its last third and the bandmates try to convince themselves (and us) that they still represent, per one of their memorable ’70s formulations, “a musical laxative for a constipated society.” Gerald Casale observes that while it’s probably inevitable, it’s nonetheless “depressing that you succumb” eventually to the forces you once described; watching Mothersbaugh enthuse that by inventing a device that can play speech backwards and inserting himself subliminally saying “We smell sausage” into commercial jingles he’s still subverting the assignment inadvertently proves the point.

Devo’s ideological project was objecting to everything about American Christian/consumerist existence; if he’s not religious, Jesse Moss definitely believes that there’s something in the US still worth salvaging, and his two films at this year’s Sundance are good-faith attempts at figuring out what safeguarding democracy might look like. Both features are co-directed with longtime collaborators—War Game with Tony Gerber, Girls State with Amanda McBaine—and necessitate different kinds of compression: War Game condenses a six-hour scenario, while Girls State whittles down a week’s worth of activities. For the former, six cinematographers keep tabs on a multi-hotel-room exercise in gaming out what might happen if a January 6 insurrection attempt were repeated in 2025, this time in multiple states and with parts of the military choosing to actively join in. Given the known presence of redpilled members of the armed forces, this is not a completely idle hypothetical. Under the guidance of the nonprofit VetVoice, a range of government officials play the premise out: Former Montana governor Steve Bullock is newly elected president “John Hotham,” facing a rebellion led by “The Patriarch” (Ralph Brown) and stoked by Lt. General Gabriel King (Gary Perez). (Why do the character names sound like they were ripped from The Omega Code?) 

A countdown clock indicates how much time is left; between decisive moments, the backstories of VetVoice’s representatives are filled in. Most compellingly, there’s Kris Goldsmith, who’s got a beard the equal of Anthrax’s Scott Ian and accordingly looks the part of an on-the-edge paramilitary patriot; he explains that following a disillusioning post-9/11 tour of combat, that’s nearly who he became, hence his investment in preventing others from going down that path. He’s also savvy about how to present on-camera and “tell his story” in the optics sense. As my colleague Abby Sun has pointed out, the film registers as a fundraising tool for VetVoice, not least when Goldsmith says that the “brand” of veterans has been damaged as former troops become radicalized but fortunately nonprofits and PACs are stepping up, which I would not consider reassuring as a solution. Throughout, the voices we hear emphasize the need for “coming together” to figure out how to save a “non-political” entity like the military, a characterization I completely reject for super-obvious and standard reasons. The structuring ideology comes from a space America left long ago; as far as I’m concerned, we are in the multiverse of ashes and it’s time to disband the republic before any more damage is done.

The programmer introducing Girls State said the film proved inspirational when he first watched it with his 15-year-old daughter—though shy, she was motivated after watching this film to join the “Virtual Enterprise club” at her school. The audience applauded, but this didn’t seem terribly uplifting to me, not least because the student organization’s name sounded ominous. According to Virtual Enterprises International’s website, this program simulates running a business: “Students establish and run departments such as Administration, Accounting, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Human Resources and IT, produce key deliverables required in a real business and are evaluated based on industry standards.” I can’t imagine that a 15-year-old playing HR director is going to do American society any good at all, let alone the kids.

Coming up to introduce the film, Moss defined it as a “sibling,” not sequel, to 2020’s uptempo Boys State, which followed teenage Texans in their weeklong participation in the government simulation program held in every state save Hawaii. Girls State shifts its attention to the sister program held in Missouri in 2022, in the days before the Supreme Court rolled back Roe v. Wade but after the leak of its draft decision (a particularly nasty detail of recent history I’d already forgotten). Like its predecessor and War Game, this is shot in widescreen (by seven credited cinematographers), a format choice that inherently spectacularizes and ennobles the proceedings. Though not as lively as Boys State, Girls State builds to a genuine political breakthrough: Starved for substantive discussion, the young girls collectively realize that the real issue is the program itself and its regressive demands that they cover up in cardigans whenever they run into Boys State, who are also on campus for their program. As the Girls State program unsatisfactorily progresses, one participant does a little research and finds out that sexism is baked into both programs’ funding: $600k for Boys State, $200k for Girls State. Lived politics is often a question of administration, and the students are 100% right to recognize that and push back. 

There is, however, only so far I can go with what both the program and the film propose as far as the inherent value of “having a conversation” goes. It honestly breaks my heart to hear a young conservative girl describe in detail why, while she doesn’t really plan to buy an AR-15, she likes that she has the option, because if someone broke into her house she’d be too scared to fire a smaller weapon accurately. This is a paranoid vision straight out of Death Wish; it’s difficult for me to believe that suburban America is a nightly wasteland of playing “who shoots first?” in the TV den. The film’s notable craft didn’t leave me convinced that there’s any cause for optimism, because I fundamentally reject the underlying premises.

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