In 2006, Portland filmmaker Aaron Katz released Dance Party, USA, a 70-minute, deeply personal, heavily improvised, little movie. It debuted at South by Southwest, played many other festivals, and received praise from Art Forum, the New York Times, and plenty of other fancy enough publications. Katz's plotless snooze was heralded as part of a then burgeoning “mumblecore” movement spearheaded by young eager directors embracing the freedom of digital video and write-what-you-know earnestness.
That same year, Harlem rapper Cam'ron released an on-the-cheap, two-hour and eight-minute, meandering autobiographical feature called Killa Season. There were ten screenings in New York and a couple weeks later, it went to home video. For the most part, it was dismissed as sloppy and nonsensical. Just another “hood” movie in the Baller Blockin' mode. Not that there's anything wrong with straight-to-video rap movies (which, arrived around the same time as not all that different no-budget indie blabbers from guys like Kevin Smith), mind you. Some of these flicks, like Three 6 Mafia's Choices: The Movie or, shit man, Baller Blockin' itself, are solid genre affairs. And don't tell your local real hip-hop head, but the fiction-meets-verité style of these movies has more in common with a rap classic like Wild Style than the supposedly “respectable” hip-hop movies with big budgets and crisp cinematography.
My takeaway from all of this: When a bunch of nerdy white kids make shaky, hand-held pictures about parties and drinking and feelingz bro, they're given the benefit of the doubt. Hell, they're ushering in some new cinematic scene! When one of the most word-nerdy, brightest, and bizarre rappers of the 2000s does a warts and all emotional epic about the ins and outs of hustling, he has crapped out some kind of unmitigated disaster. But here's the thing: Killa Season is a very good, incredibly weird, and important movie and Killa Cam knew exactly what he was doing with it.
Killa Season brings Cam's spur of the moment, off-the-dome-and-in-the-booth lyrical improv to hip-hop cinema. Whereas big budget autobiopic rap movies like 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin' tend to puff up their real life rapper protagonists into compelling dramatic leads, Cam (cast as “Flea,” but just playing himself, really) deflates his bigger-than-life, on record personality. There are two different scenes involving somebody lecturing Cam about lighting up a blunt indoors. In another scene, his aunt admonishes him for planning to rock all his jewelry to grandfather's funeral. When he inherits 200-thousand bucks from gramps, he foolishly spends it on a Lamborghini (the act of buying the car involves being severely humiliated by Funkmaster Flex). Flea, savvy but arrogant, swaggers through the movie with the cluelessness of someone with an overabundance of street smarts.
Also, Killa Season doesn't really have an ending? The gritty shootout at the two-hour mark recalls the climax of Michael Mann's Miami Vice (another digital video crime ramble from 2006 that was severely misunderstood because it was about the downtime and awkwardness surrounding crime as much as it was about crime itself). But then, the movie goes on for a little while longer, cutting off just as the revenge-for-revenge narrative is about to kick in. Sure, it's teasing a sequel (that never arrived), but it also has an abrupt Infinite Jest-style quality to it that tells viewers, “This isn't a movie about plot, so LOL @ U if you wanted resolution out of this long-ass thing.”
And couched in its anti-style is the previous decade of proto-YouTube DV zeitgeist: Lars Von Trier and friends' no-frills Dogme 95 sloganeering; the handheld mock-doc fun of Arrested Development; ugly-ass reality TV; and yes indeed, mumblecore, which Killa Season would be categorized as, if not for the fact that it circles around an uncouth and cocky d-boy instead of say, an annoying and arrogant dickhead in an indie rock band. Also on display is the improvisational on-the-cheap stylings of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show we know Cam gleaned influence from because, in 2009, he referenced it while teasing a sitcom in development (He referred to this still unreleased show as like, “black Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
The easiest way to praise Killa Season is to say that it's “real” – a little too real. In a scene often mocked by fans, Cam'ron witnesses the murder of his niece by rival dealers and while he holds her, he sniffles, whines, and generally freaks the fuck out. It's hard to watch, not because it's corny or cheesy, but because it's how people actually look and sound when they don't know what the hell to do in the midst of tragedy. Cam's high-pitched wailing recalls the raw audio that opens up Wu Tang Clan's “Tearz” and it's safe to say the Wu's off-the-cuff audio skits were an influence on Cam's documentary-tinged fiction, here.
Tonally, the movie's a mess, which is why some view it as a failure. However, moments in life tend to jump from horrifying to hilarious with no warning, too. Just consider the scene where Cam gets revenge on his niece's shooter. He doesn't kill his rival's little girl, too (though he has the chance), but he doesn't let her entirely off the hook either. He hocks a big loogie on her face, shown in a slapstick close-up. See also: Grieving at grandfather's funeral interrupted by She's Gotta Have It-like “please baby baby please” scenes of Cam's friends hitting on funeral attendees; the coke mule scene, which is one big poop joke and a fairly brutal presentation of how coke gets smuggled into the states, at the same damn time.
Killa Season does what hip-hop does best: It facilitates conflicting ideas to create compelling chaos. Too many rap movies are content to chase the tightly structure tics of Hollywood. Cam's got no time for all that – he's too busy capturing the rocky, repugnant rhythms of real life. The rest of the rap movie canon still needs to catch up.