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Shelf Life: It’s the End of the World as We Know It, But This Movie’s Good

New local movie is a fresh offering in the doomsday genre

By Charlotte Murtishaw

Paradoxically, we’ve already been granted the opportunity to observe the moments before the world ends many times. In this millenia alone there’s been Y2K, misguided Mayan calendar anxiety, and a few Biblical raptures – each doomsday deflated by the continuation of life as we know it, and re-routed from abjection to absurdity.

Perhaps for this reason, there is no ambiguity about the impending apocalypse in Shelf Life, a new short movie by local filmmaker Liz Walber. In Shelf Life, the end is denoted by an omnipresent, meaty vortex (equal parts black hole, exploding sun, and tentacled monster) hanging over the familiar slope of the Holyoke range. The film wants you to think: What if the world were really ending? Forever-ever?

Humanity would crumble into a confused, mundane tangle of listlessness and excess, the film suggests. Shelf Life climaxes in a bad party, which – what a good metaphor for life: becoming the confidante-cum-receptacle for the petty non-problems of strangers and worse, personal problems of faint acquaintances; failing to be adequately impressed by the braggadocio of strangers, a failure which rebounds with a slight cast of guilt; accidental intrusions on intimacy which sharpen loneliness; the disconnect of being overwhelmingly surrounded by so much motion and so much noise that breathing seems meaningless; and amid the waste, moments of genuine pleasure.

We surf through this high-contact, contact-high madness with Tova (James Walsh), a character overwhelmed by existential dread. In the middle of this disaster bash, they find the story’s ostensible centerpiece: Golda (Zoe Nadig), who earns a living serving as some cross between an Amazon delivery drone and weed guy, sitting with customers as they unpack their final, covetous purchases. Considering the circumstances, this seems like a state of overemployment, but maybe that’s the point. Without a doomsday deadline, everyone seems to be living half in a state of business as usual, half in a state of despair. That everyone’s despair manifests so differently (nihilism, hedonism, denialism) is one of Walber’s many intelligent, deft touches: The thundering, screaming crowd from the monster/alien genre flick is notably absent. When emergency is everywhere, there is nowhere to run from or toward.

“Why aren’t they afraid?” asks Tova, watching the party unfold from the safety of a couch. “They don’t want to be?” Golda suggests back. Amid an idiosyncratic cast, Nadig and Walsh in particular turn in sensitive performances, Nadig through her sly and precise delivery, Walsh with a wordless, bruised brood.

“I don’t know if the food we eat is a part of us,” Golda says at a different point, which feels as much a way of asking how deeply we are connected to the outside world as how deeply the things inside us are connected to us. The movie cycles through the concerns of the body, which are really the concerns of ecology, and thus the planet: Is the system working right? Is everything in balance? Are the individual pieces marvelous, or repulsive?

Apocalypse as theme and metaphor is now approaching cultural saturation; we know this because it is a selling point – a fashionable aesthetic, winking and lurid. (Balenciaga-brand breathing barriers took off long before COVID19.) Apoco-washing has subsumed greenwashing, which was cute when it seemed like it might carry any real force. Now, control can only be found in a nihilistic death-drive: To so obviously bet against the odds is to reveal oneself as foolish to the point of stupidity.

In this grim market, Shelf Life avoids the pitfalls of soggy disaster capitalism through specificity and loving detail. Art directed by Indie Beare, the movie delights in its visual flourishes and oddities: Golda’s thermos emblazoned with EAT YOUR VEGETABLES BEFORE THEY EAT YOU, lingering up-and-down shots of a green latex prairie dress, a cathartically caloric banquet of wiggling rainbow jello and frosting…

Tova and Golda find themselves coagulating over a shared interest in what form, if any, memories of the world as it was will endure – in archiving, they call it. It doesn’t seem a stretch to speculate that Shelf Life arises from a similar attempt to freeze a particular time and place into the media record. Most obvious is its loving commitment to queer culture: The first shot of Tova foregrounds a splayed copy of Stone Butch Blues, a Con X tour poster hanging in the background; later, Lez Pop’s “Big Dyke Energy” plays as femme Marge (Yara Colón) prepares a decadent milkshake, long, manicured fingernails tapping the glass. (In this universe, there are small triumphs over past enemies; repentant frat bros jump at the chance to clean lesbians’ gutters.)

This attention doesn’t come without critique. There’s a certain barbed embrace of the end of history—“lesbian astrological culture will be burned into stargas” sneers Golda—as much as a reach towards outlasting it. And really, the archivist bit seems beside the point, except as a means for Tova and Golda to embark on a shared mission. To find sweetness at the end of the world is a small comfort, and a reason to keep living right up until.

Shelf Life premieres Friday, March 13th at the Majestic Saloon in Northampton and online as a Youtube stream.

Charlotte Murtishaw is a regular contributor to The Shoestring.  She recently interviewed state senator Eric Lesser about East-West rail.


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