Bad Fever Dustin Defa

When we first meet Eddie Coopersmith, the extraordinary protagonist of writer-director Dustin Defa’s first feature Bad Fever, the camera follows him from behind: a tall frame in a huddled posture, head down, matted long hair, baseball cap, hurrying into a gas station mini-mart. Then we watch the tail lights of his sinister black car, driving slowly, braking often, exhaust billowing into the cold. When we see his face, it is through the dingy windshield, peering at female pedestrians over a pile of stuffed animals on his dashboard. He looks creepy at best, dangerous at worst. This is how the world sees him. In his own mind, he is a successful standup comedian. He begins a mumbling monologue in the driver’s seat, trying to write his act, and returns to it throughout the film:  “Let me start off by saying my name is Eddie Coopersmith. You all know me very well. Let me start off by saying that I will say a little about my day.”

Like Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Eddie walks around imagining an appreciative audience of invisible fans. But unlike Robert De Niro’s charismatic, daring New York hustler, Eddie, played by Kentucker Audley, is a pathologically shy resident of Salt Lake City, where there is neither a beckoning skyline nor celebrities in tantalizing geographic proximity. Bad Fever does not build to an absurdist media circus, much less take “celebrity” as its subject. It’s a small-scale, painfully candid examination of the connection between loneliness and creativity: is art made in a vacuum valid at all? Can it be cathartic without the receptive praise of other people? For Eddie’s sake, we’d like to hope so, but the film persists in probing the question.

Defa, a Salt Lake City native who now lives in Brooklyn, made a strong impression at Sundance, SXSW, and True/False last year with his experimental documentary short Family Nightmare, in which he condensed over 40 hours of his family’s VHS home video footage into a 10-minute shard of personal hell, manipulating the speed of the audio and replacing most of the voices on the soundtrack with his own mimickry. Defa has a talent for making “clean” images disturbing: without explicitly depicting either, Nightmare hints at a family history of violence and addiction. It is a visceral immersion in Defa’s bad memories, made all the more disturbing (and darkly compelling) for being an objective record, rather than a subjective recollection, of events. The visual properties of old, degraded VHS—a surreal blurring of faces and bleeding of motion inherent to low-resolution video—heighten the malaise and foreboding.

Bad Fever was mostly shot in HD, but Nightmare’s muddy analog-video aesthetic, along with actual VHS footages, figures into the story. So does the theme of self-recording and re-recording.  Eddie acquires a tape recorder and ambles around dredging the linguistic sludge of his brainpan for jokes, which he drains into the microphone. (“I want to jump around on a trampoline that… it’s just a trampoline, you jump on it and that’s the end of the transaction.”) At home, where Eddie lives with his mother, he plays the tapes back for himself. Like the protagonist of Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, Eddie’s compulsion to record himself seems motivated less by narcissism than plain loneliness: his own voice as a substitute for human company. Eddie lobs painful questions into the void: “Does anybody even want to know what I do with my day? Does anybody even want to know about my lifestyle? Does anybody want to even know that my life might not be as great as you think it is?”

Bad Fever Dustin Defa