When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to Kent, a private boarding school in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. It’s one of those schools where they send America’s pre-fame Paris Hiltons and JFKs; it was almost immediately clear that the place was a horrible fit. I wasn’t a super-rich kid or a super-bad girl. I never got picked up on the weekend in a private limo and the only time I had a sip of alcohol was when I thought a Long Island iced tea was some kind of regional Arnold Palmer. The mandatory Episcopalian services icked me out — I even pretended to faint during weekly chapel — and Christianity commingled into the education as well. One particular English class involved a hefty amount of biblical analysis, with religious interpretations permeating nearly every novel or poem on the syllabus.
Somehow I made a couple of friends during my lone year at Kent (I thankfully switched to public school for the rest of high school); they were mostly other students involved in the GSA and performing arts. So it’s telling that in a school of less than four hundred kids, I remember almost nothing about Lizzy Grant, who, only a few years older than me, served as both arts and literary editor of two campus publications, and sang in several school choirs. I know her better as Lana Del Rey, the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” by which she now self-identifies 10 years after graduating from Kent. Apart from a yearbook photo, I don’t remember her as she was then, but I can remember the amorphous hers she hung around at Kent School: slick kids in pleated skirts, silk blouses, and pressed blazers; prefects dethroned for their coke problems. And I can picture her sitting at the table in that same English class, finding the religious connotations in Salinger, mimicking Whitman’s poetry for a Blue Book exam.
A lot of these pseudo-sacred lesson plans have permeated into Del Rey’s latest endeavor, the short film Tropico. A half-baked amalgam of ’60s iconography, canonical poetry, and glamorization of America’s destitute, Tropico re-mythologizes the garden of Eden with an L.A. lens, interspersing strip club shimmies with heavenly aspirations. It’d be hard to inject much subtlety into a 27-minute biblical reinterpretation, so it’s a good thing Tropico doesn’t bother with subtlety. It’s an over-the-top, Tumblr-come-to-life presentation that flops somewhere between entry-level art house and student film. When first announced, Tropico was supposed to be Del Rey’s retirement from music and debut as a screen starlet. Now that she’s confirmed a new album, Ultraviolence, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to draw from her cinematic unveiling.
Its plot, for starters, lacks cohesion, and that’s when Tropico even bothers to adhere to a plot. The first scene is an ornate, staticky afterlife, where a caricaturized gang of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ dialogue nonsensically over each other, with phrases that seem transcribed from pull-string talking dolls. They cajole and console a wimpled Del Rey, costumed as the Virgin Mary with Gak-green nail polish. Simultaneously, in cut shots featuring that famed paradisiacal garden, Del Rey plays Eve, gyrating on Shaun Ross, the model and dancer who plays Adam (and her paramour throughout various character changes). The two dance and pose in floral skivvies; a little white snake gets all up on LDR’s bod; they chomp on an apple (spoiler); John Wayne seems to disapprove. Huh? I already need a nap.
I’m not sure I’d desire a sensical narrative from the whole scene if Tropico was presented for what it really is: a series of music videos. That opening scene is Del Rey’s “Body Electric,” and it’s almost literally translated from the lyrics (the track name-checks Jesus, Mary, Elvis, Marilyn, the Grand Ole Opry, Whitman). The rest of the “film” consists of two other tunes, woven together into something far from seamless. “Gods & Monsters” features a face-tatted Del Rey killing time with her convenience store gangster boo (also played by Shaun Ross), the two of them playing out a grimey brand of lovey-dovey: snuggling, eating ice cream, shooting guns into the L.A. sky. Their respective posses, credited as “The Summertime Girls” and the “Tweekers,” help them kill time with stripping, smoking, drag racing, and — what else? — the armed robbery of a group of business men who’ve hired the aforementioned Summertime Girls for a private party. (I actually fell asleep during this part, which is not really a positive endorsement for a heist scene, or a film that is under half an hour.) Finally, Del Rey and Ross, now sporting brand-new all-black Nike gear (presumably gained through their sacrilegious theft?), pull up to a cornfield, in which they frolic like they’re modeling for an Anthropologie catalogue. They get totes naked. They find God, or something. While Del Rey’s “Bel Air” plays, they ascend up into the light of heaven. Aww.
Director Anthony Mandler, who also helmed videos for “Ride” and “National Anthem,” at least made the whole thing look nice; the lighting and costumes are beautiful, and the vibrant colors ride a line between stained glass and Our Lady of Instagram. But why bother presenting a trinity of promo clips, which would stand fine alone, as a film? Why not schedule a half-hour MTV Takeover? It’s the connecting threads between these musical numbers that drag the entity down, and for these sections we have credited writer Lana Del Rey to blame. Between each scene, she reads excerpts of poems by Allen Ginsberg and John Mitchum. It’s a little discomfiting to hear “HOWL” in a breathy voice better suited for a perfume commercial. There are seldom moments of dialogue, but when they happen, they are cringe-worthy. One of the few spoken lines: “In honor of Jack’s birthday tonight, I thought I’d bring somebody here tonight that Jack could jack off to.” Followed by a crotch shot of Jack. Eesh.
Perhaps the movie’s purpose is less to express art than to convey for the masses some kind of high school lit editor depth beneath Del Rey’s perma-pout. Certainly, she’s doing her job as a collagist; the references in the movie are so fleeting and hysterical, there’s at least memorability in their very juxtaposition. But rather than expressing any real message or artistry, Tropico is a promotional pastiche to verse us in Del Rey’s press release influences, all of which are culled from a pop-cultural consciousness too obvious and surface-level to be truly meaningful. I mean, really, in 2013 what does it say about a person to cite Marilyn Monroe as an influence? Nada, as far as I’m concerned. And so Tropico, if we take it as the film Del Rey wants us to take it as, winds up sub-sophomoric, a prettily packaged piece of moving picture sandwiched between two major label albums, a footnote of a PR stunt from a singer whose cinema chops are as wispy as her faux-retirement. Bummer, because the songs are good, and I might revisit their music videos if they weren’t all Frankensteined together into an unwatchable 27 minutes. But because they’re surgeried as they are, I fear Tropico will soon to be forgotten if, two weeks after its release, it hasn’t already. Just like my memories of Lizzy Grant.