In our column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. In this instalment, Conor Bateman looks at the Chris Wilcha’s lo-fi look behind the scenes at Columbia Record Club in the early ’90s.
Date Watched: 29th January, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 7
When we launched this column months ago, I began scouring online for unusual and underseen films that instantly grabbed my attention. There was a strange freedom in the constricted “less then 50 views” criterion, leading me to add many films to my watchlist that I never would have seen had this project not existed on our site. In my search for some interesting documentaries, I found a list made by Greg DeLiso over at SmugFilm. The headline was hyperbolic enough, one in a long line of “the best — you’ve never seen” type articles, but the reason DeLiso’s stood out from the rest is because of the passion evident in the writing of it. His article wasn’t composed from a position of smug superiority (the site name is misleading in that sense) but of someone who genuinely wants people to share in his affection for cinema, and because of that a handful of those films listed have made it straight into the shortlist for future Less Than (Five) Zero pieces. For this film, though, the reason it became the first cab off the rank, is because in the article he calls it “one of the most watchable and interesting documentaries ever made.” Hyperbolic again, but he’s not wrong. It’s insanely watchable.
“The video camera doesn’t seem to bother anyone so I just keep taping”
The idea of a young, newly-hired marketing assistant in a massive media company deciding to compulsively film his workdays smacks less of documentary than a forcibly quirked independent feature, a twee Office Space perhaps. Chris Wilcha’s documentary feature, though, is not that film, it’s something rather unique, a strangely intimate, matter-of-fact, and wryly funny look into a media-driven workplace in the early 1990s and the disconnect between popular culture and the corporate re-packaging of cultural identity.
Wilcha himself was a philosophy graduate from NYU, though that isn’t the prism through which we view his work. We open on his punk band’s final show, the film instantly grounded in music, and in voiceover Wilcha explains his need for work due to the expiry of his lease. His later hiring at Columbia Record Club is thrust upon us suddenly, Wilcha claiming it was his knowledge of Nirvana that miraculously got him over the line. The Target Shoots First is, initially, not explained to us as an experiment in philosophy or an investigative attack but rather a highly personalised diary of employment. It’s a way to maintain creativity parallel to relatively uncreative work. The role of the Hi-8 camera over time, though, moves between observer to mechanism for accountability, and as people get used to the idea of Wilcha filming them, his relationship with people becomes defined by that. It moves from gimmick to clever premise to slightly uncomfortable interactions with those around him.
At one point, early on in the film, Wilcha takes a close up on the word “work” in the dictionary during a period of narration about starting in the job. Suddenly the book moves and another person looks strangely at him and asks whether he’s done with the dictionary, and just why he has the camera. When it becomes apparent he’s filming the word “work”, the look this woman gives him is so funny, just slicing through an apparent pretension of construction. She’s almost on the verge of laughing but holds it together as she walks away. The fact that Wilcha kept this in the documentary is something beautiful. It’s a rare metatextual documentary unafraid to embarrass its creator.
Wilcha also seems acutely aware of certain editing decisions in conventional documentary cinema. We have insert shots of magazines and brochures, segments taken from news broadcasts, informative narration about the sales strategy of the Columbia Record Club. Every time he and co-editor Bill Yoelin utilise one of these elements, though, you can sense the wry humour – these are reference points and the documentary as a whole is one punctuated by wit and a sense of beguiling freedom amidst a corporate work structure. It mocks both the workplace and the documentary form, the underlying gag being the absurdity of getting away with filming your job. In an interview with AdAge (Wilcha now shoots a fair amount of commercials), he reflected on The Target Shoots Itself as merely a “modestly made essay film”. It’s not just an essay film though, and looking into the special thanks section in the credits revealed two familiar names, Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) and James Benning (see here). It seems Wilcha studied under the both of them at CalArts prior to the release of The Target Shoots Itself (he graduated with an MFA in 1998). The repeated shots of buildings near the Columbia office and a shot of an external elevator making its way across a pristine windowed facade feels very much in Benning’s wheelhouse, whereas the pop culture infused narrative that tracks the evolution (or de-evolution?) of independent music culture is akin to Andersen.
“I don’t feel any personal investment in this business…but marketing determines the direction of the business. My opinion counts, simply because of the department I work for”
The division above is between the creatives in level 17 and the suits on level 19. Just by walking around with a camera, Wilcha manages to straddle the divide, he later says he feels like he’s stuck between the floors. People from both floors complain about the other and even just in a minutes-long interview montage Wilcha effortlessly sets up the corporate environment. He follows this sequence with the first ‘casual friday’ held by the 19th floor. It’s an absolutely hilarious shift.
One of the other impressive elements of the film is how he’s able to make characters of all of his co-workers. His heavily pregnant co-worker Paula, his immediate superior, the bearded Rick, his hijinks co-conspirator Marie. Though they’re all captured in passing or in interviews, Wilcha allows the viewer into the work environment in a unique way, this also having something to do with the way the importance and feel of the footage shifts over time. Also through the structure of the documentary, he’s able to almost cynically collect elements of office life under simple categories – “Office Babies” is a montage of co-workers and their kin at work, “Office Parties”, you get the gist. At the Chicago Tribune in 2001, reviewer Steve Johnson felt the cynicism a tad too strong – “Wicha seems to want to indict the office environment in general…and his 40-something bosses for having the audacity to be selling music they no longer understand or listen to.”1 In an interview with DeLisa at SmugFilm in 2013, Wilcha recontexualised his film as not “really a harsh exposé of the company, it’s more of a coming of age story”.
“This place is oblivious to vulgarity and this place is eternal”
The documentary does develop something of a narrative drive and meaning past its halfway point, when Chris and his colleagues are put in charge of an ‘alternative music guide’ to be distributed to consumers. We watch them sneak critical in-jokes into the print, boost the placement of their own personal favourites in the magazine, yet there is a clear sense of a creative work environment developing, something quite starkly different from many of the other meetings we’ve witnessed. There’s a downside, though, an undercurrent of resentment develops. An ad agency is brought in to consult (whose comments regarding alternative music fans, “the target”, gives the film its title), and only when a flurry of positive letters reach Columbia House does the company let the magazine mostly do as it may. The existential downside, though, as Wilcha notes, is that he’s actively co-opted an artistic identity for commercial purposes, something that becomes explicitly clear in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
The film seemed to hit some vein back in the early 2000s, having a fairly lengthy run on the (mostly underground) festival circuit. It picked up awards for editing and Best Documentary Feature at the 2000 Slamdance Festival and at South by Southwest, in the same year, cleaned up both the documentary competition prize but also the Audience Award for Best Documentary. It’s still festival-worthy today, it would seem, after the film screened at the 2013 CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen, in a series programmed by the Yes Men.
Wilcha would later become the director of the This American Life television series, which seems something of a perfect fit based on The Target Shoots First alone.2 It feels, in a sense, like a podcast. Its runtime is only 72 minutes, it’s a strange and intimate journey through the seemingly mundane, peppered with well written and delivered narration. Also of note within the list of crew members is Sasha Frere-Jones, who appears in the film as a co-worker on the alternative magazine and also provided some of the film’s soundtrack. Frere-Jones would go on to become the New Yorker music critic from 2004 (he’s recently jumped ship to genius.com).
Ed Halter, who selected the film for the 2000 New York Underground Film Festival, where it picked up an award for Best Music Documentary, noted in a recent interview with Mousse Magazine, that: “When Target premiered, it was seen…as something subversive, about infiltrating the glass-curtained fortress to fight from within…when we screened Target at Light Industry in 2013, it felt very different. Sasha Frere-Jones…noted in his introduction that Target had instead become an archive of a corporate culture that no longer existed.” When DeLiso calls the film one of the most interesting documentaries ever made, there’s something in that very specific to the time of now. The Target Shoots First is a shorter-term gutpunch of nostalgia that unfolds both organically in its footage but specifically told in its editing. This feeling of nostalgia never feels forced though, because the film is focusing on its own present, about one person’s disillusionment with the corporate world (something universal) coupled with the way in which we connect with media (something now outdated). What’s interesting is that divide, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Also, it’s a really well made and funny film. Which helps.