555 Review: Greed, Jealousy, and Doomed Ambition in Nightmare Hollywood

Anyone who puts their work in the public eye — whether it’s writers, actors, musicians or directors — is torn between one main motivation and one main fear:

On one side, there’s the overwhelming desire to take the risk to show your work to other people. Go to an audition, pitch an article, send out demo tapes.

At the same time, there’s the crippling fear that you’re not worth anyone’s time. The fear you’re doomed to fail, living in perpetual obscurity, always looking for the one big break.

There’s no better setting to encapsulate this duality than Hollywood — the grim stage for nightmarish, disastrous satire like Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard, Maps to the Stars, and now 555.

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555 is a Vimeo Originals series of five 10-15 minute shorts directed by Andrew DeYoung, produced by Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker, and starring Kate Berlant and John Early.

It shows that for every one Hollywood success story, there are thousands of people left rejected, broken, bitter, and trapped.

With moms forcing their untalented children into acting, creatives getting ripped off, and past trauma ruining any chance at success, 555 takes an astute, skillful stab at covering the full canon of dark Hollywood hopelessness.

And it’s a hopelessness I’ve felt myself at times, making the topics 555 addresses (and iterates on in different ways) hit a nerve with me, and, I’m sure, anyone who risks opening themselves up to criticism and rejection.

Of the five episodes, Pop and Aliens stuck out the most.

Pop shows an unlikely amateur singer being given a chance by a record label, before having the song stolen by the same person who abandons her in the desert. As the first episode it frames the rest of the series, giving us a glimpse at the backstabs and shattered dreams to come.

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Aliens, set in the make-up trailer for a low budget sci-fi, depicts a 10-minute conversation between two extras. Sick of being stuck in the background, they agree to start filming their own movies. When one of them gets given a line in the sci-fi film they quickly abandon their friend, showing the fragility of collaboration and friendship when it comes up against fame.

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Having recently made my way through the first few seasons of On Cinema, 555 reinforces Tim Heidecker’s love of painfully awkward dialog, surreal shots, and sequences that purposely don’t go anywhere. Since I knew a little bit about his work from Lee before going in, it was noticeable how he tends to deliberately build scenes up with totally mundane material only to disregard it and get on with something that moves the story forward.

555 is a comedy in the same way that Entertainment is a comedy. Which basically means that the comedy label is used as a frame of reference, but the actual material itself is too real and depressing to be funny. Apart from some bright moments where a turn of phrase, facial expression, or unexpected intonation catches you off guard, the tone is deceptively dark when compared against the bright, plastic, deliberately fake visuals:

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I call 555 dark and depressing, but that isn’t a bad thing. The way it frames its stories as fake and surreal mythologies instead of the crushing realities they are makes it accessible and enjoyable to watch, conveying its message much more powerfully than if it was some gritty, soulless drama.

555 is the work of relatively new creatives delivered through a relatively new platform — Vimeo On-Demand. Right now, there seems to be just 12 titles in Vimeo’s Originals library, and for the director, Andrew DeYoung, 555 seems to be the first major release. A quick look at DeYoung’s website, and I’m excited to check out his other work and eager for what’s next.

In the final episode, the musician from Pop, episode 1 (the only element that seems continuous between episodes), is revealed to have had a hit single despite getting the song stolen from her after being left in the desert without a wheelchair.

Is everything less hopeless than it seems?

Maybe. Probably not.

555 review, live-tweeted version:

Space landscape-obsessed dreck penman. Appears on TechCrunch, The Next Web, and on Secret Cave in a far less restrained capacity.