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Beware Of the Strong Female Lead In I Blame Society

I was buzzing with so much to say when I finished watching I Blame Society, and now the buzzing won’t settle down. Let me see if I can get it under control.

Gillian (Gillian Wallace Horvat) has many creative projects in her head, but a “compliment” some friends paid her months ago is diverting her attention: they said she would make a great murderer. This concept feels ripe for a film, and she considers how to apply her filmmaking skills to the subject of murder but steadily she finds herself developing new skills and aching to prove herself.

The real Gillian Wallace Horvat is also the writer (along with Chase Williamson) and director behind I Blame Society: essentially, she has written and is portraying an alternative version of herself, one who takes her ambition and insecurities to a bloody extreme. Consequently, as soon as I saw this arc start to emerge, I was reminded of Adrian Țofei in his own film, Be My Cat: A Film for Anne (a favourite found footage of mine). Granted, there was much less humour in Be My Cat (I Blame Society is distinctly a black comedy), but the way I was fooled into almost believing I was watching a “real” Adrian—not actor—on screen was cleverly executed. In both films, the lead was unassuming at first, a little awkward but probably harmless; and in both films, they stumbled across the line once or twice, then firmly jumped over it. But let me focus on I Blame Society for now.

The film is set in sunny Los Angeles, a city seemingly full of coffee bars and actresses. The people seem real in that they come across as deliberately fake, in a probably-real way. There’s a lovely/sarcastic scene in which Gillian eavesdrops a first date conversation and then tells the camera “he has to die”, and until that moment, it would have been easy to believe that she was filming a real conversation, rather than a scripted one. The theme of deceptive appearances crops up regularly in the film, especially as Gillian generally presents as a “sweet girl”.

That leads me to Gillian’s character arc, which is both interesting and very entertaining. She does indeed start out as a “sweet girl”, with perhaps some naivety that means she doesn’t navigate the line between honesty and hurting people very well. She’s tired of not getting anywhere with her career and doesn’t find it easy to be taken seriously; so considering what it could be like to murder someone gets her into a tougher mindset: is that what she needs to get ahead? The problem is that the more she toughens up, the more inclined she becomes to live as a murderer, and not just portray one.

Woman with tech strapped to forehead tweezes eyebrows.

By the end of I Blame Society, I had no doubt that this is a feminist film. I don’t mean the character is a feminist or even some kind of role model—oh no—but what she goes through certainly says a lot about the female experience (and indeed the experience of those perceived as female): they are expected to be soft but not taken seriously until they are strong, but while becoming stronger, those around them are suspicious. In this film, Gillian (the character—I’m going to use her last name to indicate the person behind the film) explores what these behavioural changes can do to her relationships, her sense of purpose, and her career prospects. Presumably, this enabled Gillian Wallace Horvat to explore the same issues without resorting to murder herself.

Film, like any form of art, can be a lot like life. In I Blame Society, we’re not just watching someone transform into a killer, but we’re watching a filmmaker transform from someone capturing a murder to becoming her own subject. In that sense, her life and art steadily reflect each other. There is a terrific plot strand which demonstrates the point above about strong women being just as much an issue in films as it is in the world in general. Gillian goes to meet with a couple of (male) film producers with some ideas which she’s hoping to find a home for. It turns out they are keen on meeting her only to add some demographic breadth to their work: it’s all about ticking boxes, rather than genuine inclusion (one of them even forgot how to pronounce “intersectionality”). To top it off, they dismiss the short films Gillian demos to them because there is no “strong female lead”: the satirical writer in Horvat clearly believes that any personality is valid as a story lead. I agree: we only need to remember The Shining, and we know that a resilient woman is not the only kind of memorable female character. But there certainly aren’t many like that.

Gillian isn’t the only character in I Blame Society, of course, though I can understand if she feels like she is: she has no allies in her self-discovery. She has a good friend, Chase (played by co-writer Chase Williamson, in a very similar tone to his Dave in John Dies at the End), and partner, Keith (Keith Poulson, Little Sister), but even these two become opponents after a while, despite trying to be cautionary influences. The majority of other people are either two-dimensional elements of American society that are easy to put down (in both senses) or individuals who Gillian has targeted due to a reason of her own, and in this way, Horvat explores the serial killer genre as well as gender-based expectations. Homeless or chic, male or female, these small parts are astutely written and each portrayed in an individual style; there are so many films where “throw-away” characters have not been given any character, and therefore all look the same: not here.
Gillian Wallace Horvat as Gillian writing her latest victim's suicide note

I’m struggling to find fault with this film, and to be honest, I’ve given up looking for any by now. Its success lies in the overall arc. I’ve mentioned the development of the central character and the story, but there are parallel arcs in the changing tone of I Blame Society and its production style. It starts off as an easy-going, fairly naturalistic comedy of manners, and steadily introduces tension, drama, and sarcastic humour (I loved the fake suicide notes particularly). The cinematography techniques—generally controlled by the main character—start off equally laid back and unassuming, then as she gets closer to her subject, Gillian wears the camera too, gradually adding lighting and positioning to her players as she becomes bolder. Everything about the way the film progresses shows the character’s personality and her art merging: and she is good at it, so why not?

Let me finally address one little qualm—not with the film, but with the way it has been marketed. I Blame Society has been described as a found footage film, but I cannot agree with the use of that label: this is no single record of events, like the footage “found” in Cloverfield, for example. Sure, this is filmed either “by” Gillian or from her point of view, but there are many individual recordings that are edited together. Mockumentary or video memoir would be much more apt descriptions.

Regardless of how it’s described, do watch I Blame Society if you get the chance. It’s entertaining, keeps a viewer on their toes, has plenty to say about what it’s like to be a leading lady and even more about the nature of serial killers in film.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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