What once might have seemed like a radical situation, far removed from our everyday reality, aligned itself with our own experiences of living through a dangerous pandemic.
It’s perhaps a strange choice to produce a Marxist analysis of Neil Breen. The near perfect definition of an outsider artist, Breen’s films are confusing to the point of incomprehensible, filmed on essentially no budget, and often feature Breen himself filling a variety of roles from director and lead actor to catering and makeup. His self-seriousness in interviews is starkly contrasted with casting himself as whatever all-powerful superhuman he’s come up with as the lead for his newest film, and whilst he does have an incredibly passionate cult following, he’s still largely unknown (despite the occasional viral video essay about him). Where’s the value in talking about this weirdo?
In some capacity, I am guilty of self-indulgence here. I am a massive fan of Neil Breen, and will talk about him with every chance I get. But more importantly, there is use in investigating how art manifests at the fringes of society. Breen largely operates from an entirely different playbook than other filmmakers, and the observations we can make as a result may well be valuable. Just how does Breen relate to our broader culture and society, whilst still operating at such a distance?
To begin with, let’s nail down his cultural position more specifically. Despite Breen’s clear desire to be seen as a “serious filmmaker”, he has found himself comfortably occupying the same artistic space as films such as The Room and Birdemic—the so-bad-it’s-good, the 21st century midnight movie. The parallels are unmistakable: the cheap sets, the awkward cinematography, the amateurish acting and stilted dialogue—I could go on. And whilst Breen’s self-seriousness might lead to him distancing himself from his Z-movie peers, I don’t believe he’s necessarily looking to divorce himself entirely from that scene. On some level, Breen is able to recognise that his popularity stems not just from his own filmmaking ideas, but how they manifest through the limited means he works with. A high-budget movie with a terrible, self-obsessed director is just a bad film—but replace the practical-effects explosions and professional actors with stock green screen effects and no-names plucked from the local community theater, and you’re onto something.
There are many reasons why that could be the case, but endless speculation would miss the point—these films are being made, and they are being made cheaply and (by broader cultural standards) terribly. And there is the real crux of the matter: the so-bad-it’s-good oeuvre will never be able to achieve any mass recognition without a significant cultural shift in society. By working within this specific artistic bubble, Breen renounces any hope for mainstream success. I don’t think he’s too worried about that, either—he seems enamoured by the image of the auteur, someone who creates not for money or fame, but to express some deep-rooted artistic desire. Nor does he need to capitalise on his films; he’s very open about his established and apparently quite successful career as an architect, which he uses to self-finance his movies (in addition to the occasional crowd-funding campaign for his more recent efforts). The image of a Breen distanced from capital, at least to a degree, is beginning to emerge.
This distance can be observed on not just the base level, but within Breen’s artistic practice itself. The fact that Breen has no formal filmmaking training will most likely not be a surprise, but it means that he is forever barred from the title of “serious” filmmaker. To grant him such a status would challenge the enclosure of artistic training and practice the bourgeoisie have enacted; it would prove that being an artist is not conditional on paying for formal training or getting in bed with capital. Those who wish to prevent this gesture to Breen’s films themselves, and how they are devoid of any established standard of “good” art, how he’s just one man doggedly pursuing a passion project, how he never has any hope for success outside of his cult following, to the point where the question of if Breen’s films are even art is raised. Christopher Caudwell’s assertion that art “only become[s] art when [it is] ... clothed in socially recognised symbols” is especially relevant here—and a Breen film is profoundly lacking in these socially recognised symbols. This just reinforces Breen’s status as an outcast from normative art, forever an outsider looking in longingly at his dream of recognition as a serious artist.
In theory, this should mean that Breen is able to create art free from the influence of bourgeois ideology, but this is not so. Take Fateful Findings, Breen’s third and breakthrough feature, starring the man himself as a writer gifted with psychic powers attempting to expose corruption within the government and corporate world, or as he puts it, “hacking into these government systems, to see what I can find out, about all this national and international corruption I know is going on!” Whilst the bourgeois state being accurately portrayed as corrupt and antagonistic towards its own citizens is a welcome touch, the fact that the conflict is resolved by the deaths of a number of individual politicians and CEOs at the end of the film is indicative of the fact that Breen sees any societal issues as rooted in individual behaviour. There is no structural analysis, no acknowledgement of the fact that a bourgeois system will always be bourgeois unless it is overturned completely. Instead, we are left with vague allusions to a few bad apples in power (nowhere in the film are these characters even named) being the root of society’s ills.
Breen’s psychic powers are a similarly idealistic and individualistic plot device—despite often going unmentioned for large chunks of time, they prove instrumental in Breen’s victory at the climax of the film. The framing of these abilities is remarkably similar to how the success of individual capitalists is often presented as exceptional individuals taking advantage of some metaphysical marker of ability, rather than self-serving exploiters climbing to the top on the backs of the proletariat. Whilst Breen’s character doesn’t achieve these abilities through such grim means, the effect is still the same: we see a hero overcoming their opponents through the simple virtue of being better than everyone else. This is made even more ironic when we consider that these powers are obtained through sheer luck—Breen gets them from a black stone he stumbles across as a child—in effect completing the paradoxical vision presented to us by capitalist propaganda: anyone can become successful if they only work hard enough, but those who are successful are so because they are just better than you.
Whilst it is impossible to determine Breen’s own political leanings without asking him, I and others I have talked to have picked up on a noticeable similarity with right-libertarian politics. It’s easy to spot themes of the individual against the collective (with the collective being “the government”—no class distinction to be found), the oft-present conspiratorial air (“national and international corruption!”), and the obsession with vigilante-esque forms of resistance. A point I often return to around this brand of ideology is that its adherents are sort of halfway there—they can tell something’s wrong, but can’t really say what beyond vague allusions of “government control”, or, for that matter, who is responsible in any meaningful class sense. This is a trend repeated in Breen’s films, with the most on-the-nose example perhaps being a scene in his second film, I Am Here… Now, where two politicians brag about bribing their fellow representatives in order to stop an environmental bill. Breen clearly knows bad stuff is happening, but I don’t think he has an answer for why that extends beyond “people are just bad”. Even then, his solutions are no solution at all: as much as right-libertarianism might proclaim the failure of modern society, it offers no opposition to capital, choosing instead to prostrate itself at the altar of the self-made entrepreneur in perpetuity.
If we stay with I Am Here… Now, more traces of bourgeois ideology emerge, most notably relating to carceral punishment. The themes of societal ills stemming from isolated cases of poor moral character remain—in fact, it is the film’s driving conflict, with Breen starring as an omnipotent messianic alien returning to Earth in order to enact judgement on evildoers. This occurs in numerous… creative fashions, such as the destruction of a man’s eyes after he is aggressive towards a disabled man, or when Breen sees a gang beating up an undercover cop and decides the best course of action is to crucify them (make of that what you will). Not only has Breen given away his complete lack of any understanding of structural oppression, he’s shown his hand as to how he thinks it should be dealt with—not with any sort of restorative justice, but with an eye-for-an-eye approach to punishment uncomfortably similar to the modern prison system.
It’s certainly lamentable that Breen has been unable to break free from capitalist ideology despite how much distance he’s able to place between himself and the bourgeois cultural empire, but it does reveal an important truth: capitalism is a pervasive system that we cannot willingly detach ourselves from. Even if we choose to make art entirely independently from any official bourgeois institution, we still live in a bourgeois society, and to reframe a famous quote from Marx, all art we make will be stamped with the marks of the society from which it was formed. Passive acceptance is not enough; we need active resistance if we are to make truly revolutionary and anti-capitalist art. Perhaps Breen’s deference to these ideas is his way of bargaining with a system that has excluded him from artistic fulfilment, perhaps he has underestimated the hold bourgeois hegemony has over his worldview, or (most likely) he is simply following the path his own petty-bourgeois class allegiances take him. Either way, his films are working to reinforce the same system he claims to resist.
However, I don’t think that’s the end of the story. Breen is certainly a flawed figure, in more ways than I have time to convey, but he’s doing something special, and people have noticed. Breen’s fanbase is qualitatively different to that of a similar outsider filmmaker, say Tommy Wiseau. Whereas Wiseau’s popularity manifests as tongue-in-cheek mocking of his personal idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, Breen’s fans seem genuinely devoted and interested (the fact that Breen was able to release a nearly six hour-long retrospective documentary last year to rapturous support from his fans is testament to this). Unlike Wiseau and his peers (and similarly unlike corporate Hollywood, depending on who you ask), Breen has something to say, and whilst it is spoken in a confused and near-incomprehensible dialect, it’s there nonetheless, and people are eager to listen. Breen isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to film—all the hallmarks of cinema are still there, even if they are obscured by Breen’s own unique approach—rather, he’s reinterpreted them through his amateuristic lens, giving us striking works of art through which he’s able to approach themes and ideas in a way only he could. The fact that his imperfect denouncement of the capitalist class is resonating with people is also encouraging. It shows people know that something is wrong in society, and whilst they might not know what yet, they want things to change.
Neil Breen is a sign that people are after something else. Breen himself might not be that something else—his willingness to toe the bourgeois line ensures that—but this cultural and political gap won’t go unfilled for long. It’ll take some time, and a lot of nurturing and guidance, but eventually, we can build something better.