Los Angeles is the perfect backdrop for Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s film, Something in the Dirt. When we meet the main characters, John and his new neighbor, Levi (played by the directors), these thirty-somethings are charming and relatable, but stagnant. They haven’t done much with their lives.
“L.A. is like Halloween, but just all the time,” John says, as if Los Angeles is a sort of escapist Neverland.
Channeling the unique, strange energy of the city, its quirky and fabulous architecture on full display, the film questions whether success happens as a matter of coincidence, or if those who fail simply get in their own way.
Something in the Dirt trailer
Los Angeles and Something in the Dirt
Dirt is set in the Hollywood Hills, specifically Laurel Canyon—the most L.A. of L.A. neighborhoods. Close to Hollywood studios and the Walk of Fame, it’s a place where anything feels possible. Some residents achieve huge success (Harry Houdini and rock stars like Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, and Jim Morrison used to live there), while others fall into obscurity. Known for its countercultural vibe, this area has long been home to artists, and harbors an elusive, creative energy.
The men live in a run-down apartment building nestled in the canyon. John’s been a resident for ten years and is in denial about his deteriorating lifestyle. He’s a failed wedding photographer, a failed math teacher, and now works as a “scooter wrangler,” rounding up electric scooters for recharging. Unsurprisingly, he’s running out of money. Levi has just moved in. He’s in a similar boat, working as a bartender, unsure of his place in the world. He’s on probation and plans to live at the building temporarily—before he leaves L.A. for good.
Looming hillside fires, planes flying low overhead, and howling coyotes make for an apocalyptic landscape. The men interpret these as normal features of the neighborhood rather than warnings, barely looking up when the hillside is engulfed in flame, helicopters buzzing. This is simply the soundtrack to the city.
Juxtaposed are glimpses of L.A.’s Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, whimsical swan boats in Echo Park that light up at night, and impressive rooftop vistas. Looking out over a vast expanse of glittering buildings interspersed with towering palms, even the most run-down apartment offers a feeling of possibility. This is the side of L.A. the men internalize—the one that suggests they can still “make it” despite everything.
John’s internet network is even called “Behold the Promised LAN,” though his password, JUDGMENT DAY (all caps) implies an endpoint is nearing.
The men are in Levi’s apartment when a large ashtray begins floating in the middle of the living room, accompanied by a bizarre light array. They’re stunned but soon realize this is their big break, an opportunity to provide real, actual evidence of the supernatural.
What they need to do is clear: make a documentary. They’ll get their film into festivals and sell it to Netflix for millions, at least. Their lives will change.
This plan seems absurd, but also kind of makes sense. They’re in Hollywood where everyone’s working on a film project. Dirt becomes a quintessentially Los Angeles story. Where else would two broke guys decide their ticket out of poverty is to make their own film, and assume they could earn millions, despite having little experience?
We don’t blame them for trying. Who hasn’t absorbed the myth of the American West as a land of opportunity? John and Levi aren’t so different from those who’ve flocked to the Southland for ages. They’re the same as midwestern teens moving to Hollywood with hopes of lighting up the silver screen. They’re the ‘49ers heading out west to dig up their fortunes in the dirt.
References to striking gold and treasure hunting abound as the men investigate the central quandary: Why is the ashtray floating? Is it because of a ghost? An issue with gravity? There are other unexplainable happenings. The closet is extremely hot. Quartz deposits grow from the walls. A mysterious snakeskin appears on the floor.
John and Levi are obsessively focused but also have trouble finishing their project. They accidentally destroy hard drives, get distracted, and go off on research tangents. It’s unclear whether there is a supernatural force working against them, or if they’re incompetent and lazy. When they consider quitting and try to leave, the ashtray floats again, roping them back in, keeping them in the building.
Levi suggests their experiment has gotten dangerous. The men routinely ponder the possibility of their building collapsing in a major earthquake. Yet John insists they’re on the right path, returning to the promise of Los Angeles as the reason to stay.
“We’re not quite in dangerous, unchartered territory…” he insists. “We’re in Laurel Canyon. Harry Houdini used to live here. Jim Morrison used to live here. I don’t know. Maybe we’re just the most recent people to tap into that special frequency...”
There’s something so relatable here, in the way they relinquish blame for their failures—and even give those failures meaning.
Levi says, “…my entire life I’ve felt like there’s like this invisible force just holding me back from accomplishing anything I dream about, anything I want to do.” His stagnation is simply part of a bigger story, setting him up for this golden opportunity to be a documentarian.
The strange, constant sense that success could be just around the corner will feel familiar to those who live in the city—where half the patrons at any given café are working on a screenplay.
Levi tells of walking alone on Sunset at night, passing people heading to clubs, and locking eyes with a coyote. He says, “People talk about the traffic… But they never talk about those magical L.A. moments.”
We can’t help but think: Maybe John and Levi are tapping into something.
They still haven’t answered the central question: Why is the ashtray floating?
Embarking on an erratic quest for answers, they devolve into conspiracy theories, freely associating events from their own lives with information on message boards, podcasts, and in clickbait. They find a unique symbol in the light array. They see the symbol repeated on some of L.A.’s more esoteric buildings—the Egyptian-themed mall at Hollywood and Highland, a Mayan Revival house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the hills, and on Grauman’s Chinese Theater. There must be a secret message embedded in the very fabric of the city, one they’re only now seeing.
But what does it mean?
John and Levi are on a quest for meaning, telling of the mental gymnastics we go through to find answers when maybe there aren’t any—or we simply don’t like what we see. The city’s mysterious, strangely hopeful environment fuels a desire to stay despite the constant threat of obliteration by joblessness, fire, and earthquakes.
Something in the Dirt is a dark meditation on the idea that opportunity comes to those who wait. For some people, L.A. is the haunted house they just can’t escape.