by Joshua Ray on Sep 17, 2021

When St. Vincent returned to St. Louis in 2017 to support their latest album, Masseduction, the musical act put on a show that was quite different from the ones featured in The Nowhere Inn. There was no full band onstage supporting Annie Clark –  Clark is St. Vincent, St. Vincent is Clark – just a newly anointed indie queen standing on her glittery pink riser receiving her dues. In the first half, Clark went through St. Vincent’s “greatest hits,” then played the new set front to back in the second. Only occasionally would she whip out her trademarked Sterling by Music Man St. Vincent guitar for her trademark guitar shredding. Instead, Clark mostly sang to the rafters and pulled some David Byrne-esque herky-jerky dance moves (she worked with the artist on the 2012 album Love This Giant and its tour). Opening with a screening of Clark’s piece from the all-femme-directed horror anthology XX (2017), the show was seemingly constructed to be a treatise against pop worship. However, it reeked of sanctimonious righteousness.

By 2017, St. Vincent had already risen to the upper echelon of outré rock acts, with each subsequent album increasing in sales and critical appreciation. As St. Vincent, Clark has always played parts throughout this ascension: from her “wife in watercolors” for breakout album Actor, to soft butch dominatrix in the politically conscious Strange Mercy era, and then to “Digital Witness” diva for the self-titled Grammy-wining 2014 album. Produced by omnipresent hit-maker Jack Antonoff, Masseduction leaned even further into alternative pop styling, particularly those of the 1980s and ’90s, made apparent by its cover featuring a leopard leotard- and pink-stocking-donning Clark mid-bend-and-snap from behind. It features the singles “Los Ageless,” a screed against the City of Angels where “the women eat their young,” and “Pills,” a tricky earworm about addiction that has a much better, much less didactic sister in the Strange Mercy track “Surgeon.” In this phase, the twisted poetics of her earlier work were hammer-smashed and pieced back together with a more self-conscious shape.

Her 2021 glam-rock-inspired album, Daddy’s Home, is best left unmentioned, even though this Lens piece previously did so in a context in line with the main preoccupations of The Nowhere Inn. Chiefly, who owns the person, the artist, and their work, and how do their audiences reconcile the three? Written by Clark and Carrie Brownstein, a progenitor of Clark’s who leads Sleater-Kinney and one-half of the Portlandia duo, the meta-fictional film tracks the artist during the Masseduction tour. Where the live show required closer reading to distill its ideas of identity and celebrity, director Bill Benz’s film makes the thesis glaringly apparent. The pseudo-doc-cum-psychological mindbender is a winking vanity project about vanity so thuddingly self-aware that even the winks are in scare-quotes.

One doesn’t need any of this background to see as much. The prologue is a nod to the David Bowie doc Cracked Actor, which features the coked-out Thin White Duke in the backseat of a limo having an apparent identity crisis. Here, Annie Clark plays a version of herself in the backseat of a limo traveling a desert highway. Her driver annoyingly prods her about why she’s important enough to be driven by a limo. Although she’s perturbed, Annie graciously obliges by answering his line of questions, even singing the chorus of “New York” a capella to the driver’s son over the phone. Like most of the American public, they have no clue who Annie Clark or St. Vincent is, to the point where she has to explain that she is both and one or the other. Clark, a film fan whose musical output can often be described as cinematic, has done her homework, turning in a playful performance of an iteration(s) of herself. She can’t, however, undo the damage inherent in her and Browstein’s script, which is a compendium of cliches born from other, better films, including Persona (1966) and other identities-in-flux brethren Mulholland Dr. (2001), 3 Women (1977), and certainly the Mick Jagger-starring Performance (1970).

However, the comparison to those great works isn’t meant to describe the tone of The Nowhere Inn, which has its own identity crises. The Russian nesting dolls that make up its structure don’t necessarily fit snugly within each other. The whiplash from real concert footage, to faux documentary scenes, to the sardonic psychological chiller documenting their making could only be navigated by much more incisive filmmaking. Behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes (of the behind-scenes?) featuring Carrie Brownstein, playing a version of herself, fare best. Carrie has been hired by Annie, her best friend and frequent collaborator, to direct her debut feature documenting the Masseduction tour. Annie, however, isn’t much of a subject when she’s off-stage. Carrie encourages Annie to do something more exciting than lying on a bench and playing her Switch. She pushes Annie into actualizing St. Vincent as a person – a  reckless, sex-obsessed egomaniac who, at one point, forces her director to film the sex she has with her girlfriend, Dakota Johnson (Dakota Johnson). Eventually, the two face off in a battle of personal wills that leads to a psychic breaking point.

Carrie’s motivation to direct something vital and, perhaps more importantly, something exciting without turning her friend into a monster provides Brownstein the opportunity to leverage the comedic chops she displayed on Portlandia into a credible sensitivity. She and Benz worked together on the hipster-loving/hipster-hating sketch series for hipsters, and the director carries its glossy edge to his debut feature. Even when they’re aesthetically striking, his images unfortunately contain the gnawing self-awareness of the scenarios they depict, rendering them flat. Perhaps because of this, those scenarios play like Portlandia sketches, but they’re all lead-up and no punchlines. There are scant pleasures in The Nowhere Inn: the short glimpses of St. Vincent concert footage, Brownstein and Clark’s chemistry, the title song they co-write in the film, the occasional gut-bust from a perfectly delivered one-liner. Much like Clark’s recent music, however, this project is largely a miscalculation of themetization. Clark’s work used to speak for itself, but now she’s too busy explaining it away.

Rating: C-

The Nowhere Inn opens today in select theaters and is now available to rent from major online platforms.