Another wacky Annie Clark project, another raft of reviews trying way too hard to dissect her whole life story through her public image. Written by and starring regular music and comedic collaborators Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Sleater-Kinney) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), and directed by Bill Benz (Portlandia, At Home with Amy Sedaris), The Nowhere Inn, follows our stars as they set out to make a music documentary.
It’s a win-win-win. Brownstein gets to direct her big-break film, Clark gets to direct her own narrative that’s too often derailed by celebrity culture and clickbait journalists, while fans get a sought-after peek behind the curtain at the ethereal rock icon St. Vincent. “I wanted people to know who I really am,” explains Clark to the camera. “I wanted it to be intimate, and revealing.”
But something breaks along the way, and the music mockumentary shapeshifts to trippy art house, to psychological thriller, to horror, and lands somewhere undefinable.
Some fans may find Clark’s stated desire for confession and vulnerability suspect given her stance on the pressure for women songwriters to lay bare their life in song. “I do still think people have a tendency to assume that if a woman is singing a song, it must be literally true. They think everything must be emotional, a diary, and obviously that’s not the case,” she says in a 2017 interview with Vogue.
Many believe Clark wants to be unknowable, even alien, given her willingness to toy with interviewers (e.g. having them crawl into a bright pink “psychedelic womb” to ask questions). The Nowhere Inn acknowledges this.
A journalist who interviewed Clark the day before sits with her cousin watching the band sound check.
“Is she nice?” asks the cousin.
The journalist frowns, “No, she’s a snob. She’s totally impenetrable and aloof.”
But through this film and her work, we know that’s not true. Clark’s artistic vision can be weird or unexpected, but it never suggests she doesn’t want to be known. Intimacy is a goal Clark has always embraced and evaded. With each album, we get a new facet of her personality that meshes and clashes with the others. Clark’s art doesn’t tell a simple life story that starts in Texas and ends in New York as a Berklee dropout channeling mommy and daddy issues through song. Instead, it’s wide-ranging, contradictory, and messy, like real life. The only thing Clark has ever evaded in her public life is the pressure to tie up her rock star origin story in a neat package. She’s dedicated to conveying experience, not telling stories, and The Nowhere Inn fits right into her existing catalog of work.
As with her albums, we see Clark from multiple perspectives, some authentic-feeling, some off-kilter. There’s the too-nice, radish-sampling, Scrabble-loving Annie that takes long meandering walks in nature with BFF Carrie Brownstein. There’s the evocative, volatile St. Vincent rocking out on stage in orange thigh-highs. There’s the cloyingly friendly and impenetrable Clark that disturbs and alienates Brownstein towards the film’s climax. And there’s everything in between, contradictory and sometimes chaotic, like her past work, like life.
The Nowhere Inn offers plenty of food for thought, tackling questions of fame, identity, and the ripple effects of living in the public eye. Admittedly there’s not a compelling unifying idea driving the film, but it’s engaging and ambitious enough to not need one.
The Nowhere Inn opens September 17th, 2021 in theaters and on rental services.