Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel is Now a Movie About Malaise, Stealing, and Tao Lin


“Are you going to write something really snarky about this movie?,” asks Tao Lin

We’re sitting in a dark booth at Williamsburg‘s IndieScreen after the New York premiere of Shoplifting from American Apparel, the film based on Lin’s 2009 novella. He’s systematically tearing apart a poinsettia, for no clear reason other than dramatic effect. The table ends up looking like the dicey aftermath of that Slap Chop infomercial. 
The other three people in the booth are typing on Apple products of varying makes and models. He says, “I just don’t see how you could write a review of this movie that’s not snarky.”


Well if such a thing is possible, here it goes–our best attempt, sans snark.

Shoplifting From American Apparel, directed by Pirooz Kalayeh, is a movie about making a movie about a book. In mockumentary fashion, it follows the film crew as they try to reenact scenes from Lin’s story with an amusing lack of funds, rights, equipment, and professional actors. According to Kalayeh, it began as a straight-ahead, mid-budget adaptation, but as times turned shitty, commerce-wise, and financing depleted, the project gradually accumulated more layers of narrative.

So now let’s break this down. We’ve got blogger and zen priest Brad Warner playing the part of the “movie” Tao Lin, indie rocker Jordan Castro playing the part of the “real” Tao Lin, and, what the hell, Tao Lin appearing in short cameos as the “actual” Tao Lin. Basically what happens is that throughout the movie, the lives of the crew begin to blend with the lives of the characters they’re portraying until everything more or less coalesces into one big meta-fictional muck. Kind of lost? So are we. The overall effect of seeing this amounts to an odd, sudden urge to go stare at a natural rock formation–anything concrete or reliably one-dimensional.


Kalayeh said, “I think of Jackson Pollock, and how he said ‘I don’t use the accident. I deny the accident.’ I think what would happen if I did the opposite and allowed the accident. Then, as the project became what it was, I would play back and forth between this idea.”


And pitfalls there were. Aside from budget issues, things faltered when Tao Lin, who was originally supposed to play himself in a prominent role, dropped out of the picture because of scheduling issues. At one point in the film we see Kalayeh resort  to taking people off the street to fill in minor parts. What could have been a disaster actually turns out to be one of the most authentic feeling scenes in the entire film. Real people bring real emotion, it’s simple enough, and Kalayeh with his background in reality TV production seems to have intuited this.


 Lin’s book (and if you haven’t read it be forewarned, this movie is fraught with insider-only moments) is about things like existential boredom, hanging around NYU drinking iced coffee, and non need-based stealing. Politics, literature, sex–nothing is deemed compelling enough for any response more passionate than an abrupt, contraction-less sentence or sly, judgemental grin. 

But the more fictional parts of the movie — the Tao character toting a picket sign for a cause he knows nothing about, Audrey making fun of a family on the street– bring out all that’s frustrating about this kind of bored ironist’s resolve to mock the world rather than risk connecting with it in any real way. Consequently one of the most compelling scenes is the one in which the Tao Lin character is lying in bed talking to the Kaitlyn character. They begin to laugh about stuffed animals. After slogging along on the brink of a deadpan O.D., this burst of genuine joy is jarring and welcome.


Nevertheless Kalayeh and co. can be credited with capturing much of the tone of the novella. The gmail chats in the beginning (though they look more like text messages) highlight the best of Lin’s arid humor– made all the drier by visual gags like when Warner types “I’m laughing,” with a completely straight face. Still, something is off.


At one point in the book, a character wonders “Do you sometimes look up from the computer and look around the room and know you are alone, I mean really know it, then feel scared?” Everyone in the movie always seems to be having a disaffected good time getting all kleptomaniacal. These periodic bouts of tech-age loneliness served as the book’s humanizing anchor, and their depth would improve film. 


Instead here is a fractured piece of art primarily concerned with what it’s like to make art. It’s clever of course, in a post-pomo conceptual way. But sometimes it just feels self-serving.


In the Q&A following the premiere, Tao Lin raises his hand with a question for Jordan Castro: “What other actors did you think about when you were playing the Tao Lin character?” Castro smiles and replies “You…I mostly just thought about you.”