John Maringouin’s latest film, Ghostbox Cowboy is a surreal, sarcastic pitch-black comedy about the Chinese tech boom and the misfortune of one “Ugly American” who tries to make it big in the East. David Zellner stars as Jimmy Van Horn, a would-be American entrepreneur, and creator of GHOSTR, which is the “Ghost Box” referred to in the title. This device is supposed to provide consumers with the ability to communicate with their dead loved ones via Electromagnetic Frequencies. It remains somewhat unclear as to whether or not Jimmy believes this is something that is actually possible, but that is neither here nor there in relation to the plot.
The film focuses more on the speculative nature of the new global tech economy, which has strong ties to China. American businesses are going to China in droves to get in on the action, to have their products made there for a fraction of the price. Everyone wants to strike while the iron is hot. Jimmy Van Horn is the everyman who seeks out a golden opportunity to only be sold down the river in a world that he literally cannot understand at all. His beloved Ghost Box is stolen from him from people he thought were friends, and he is left broke and homeless in a foreign country.
“This device is supposed to provide consumers with the ability to communicate with their dead loved…”
Ghostbox Cowboy stars actual tech professionals, including Vincent Xie, Apple global supply manager, and tech entrepreneur Specialist, who also co-wrote the script. The film is shot in a documentary style, and there are times when you forget that it isn’t, until there’s a speech about giant gerbils taking over a town in China that killed genetically modified eagles created to kill them, only to be taken down by cyanide pills with the American flag painted on them. Other strange non-sequiturs abounded, such as a long walk with a stubborn camel, dentures with radio transmitters, lots of blonde wigs, a man who didn’t attend his own wedding and had to be photoshopped into the photos and more. It is interesting to see the Chinese subversion of Western culture used against the purveyors of that culture, who also insisted on the Americanization of the world in the first place.
The dialogue in this film is darkly hilarious. There’s one interaction between Jimmy Van Horn at the beginning of his journey when he is trying to sell “GHOSTR” where he says to the (clearly) Asian-American man he’s trying to sell to
Jimmy: “These will like ‘the hotcakes’”
Business Client: “Don’t you mean ‘sell like hotcakes, there is no THE’ Is this racist?”
Jimmy: “No, no, hotcakes are for everyone, they’re round and sweet.”
Business Client: “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, I know what hotcakes are.”
The imagery in the film is also fantastic. At the beginning of the film, we meet Johnny Van Horn in a Dollar Tree, then we go to what is a Walmart, then to a bunch of kids jumping on a mattress on the side of the highway. This is the America of the not-so-distant future according to Ghostbox Cowboy. The China of this time is not that indistinguishable. All driving the point home that globalization is homogenization, and also, there’s no way to do that flawlessly. Chinese customs still exist that Americans won’t understand and vice versa, but greed is universal.
“…absolutely warrants multiple watches to catch all the jokes and messages that abound.”
Ghostbox Cowboy is a wonderful mishmash of mockumentary that lends comparisons to Ulrich Seidl’s work or Harmony Korine’s earlier films such as Julien Donkey Boy and Gummo, with the weirdness of Terry Gilliam and the idiosyncratic brutality of Werner Herzog, while also being a completely unique animal apart from these influences. It’s definitely not a mainstream movie, but that’s part of why I loved it.
David Zellner is wonderful as Jimmy Van Horn, Robert Longstreet is hilarious as Bob, another American who hit the big time (with the previously mentioned radio-dentures) and the supporting cast is full of weirdos, both real and fictitious. The score by Casey Wayne McAllister encapsulates the dystopian discomfort the film is out to convey, somehow being serene yet grating simultaneously.
I can’t recommend this film enough, it’s out on VOD currently, and it absolutely warrants multiple watches to catch all the jokes and messages that abound. I am very much looking forward to seeing more from Maringouin in the future.
Ghostbox Cowboy (2018) Written and Directed by John Maringouin. Starring David Zellner, Specialist, Robert Longstreet, Vincent Xie, J.R. Cazet, Carrie Gege Zhang, Steve Musselman, Tax Ninja, Angelina Liu, Nicholas Grgich, Nan Lin.
9 out of 10 Stars