The terribly familiar theme of the corporatization of rock culture lies at the heart of Christopher Wilcha’s “The Target Shoots First,” his personal video diary of a post-collegiate stint in the marketing department of hoary Gotham-based mail-order music outfit Columbia House. Docu captures precise period of both rock and filmmaking (1993), when Nirvana single-handedly created a new niche on which corporate suits at first couldn’t put a label, and amateurs armed with hi-8 vid cameras began to produce autobiographical works typically adorned with the sound of their own voices. As such, “Target,” a double winner at Slamdance for docu feature and editing, is already dated and may even feel nostalgic to auds in their late 20s, who will flock to remaining dates during an already successful run of alternative fests and venues.
Opening footage of Wilcha’s last gig with his band serves as a reminder of where he came from, though we have to accept on faith his claim that he is a major record hound; he never films his home entertainment lifestyle. His alleged record-listening habits prove crucial down the road, as the philosophy major reluctantly job-hunts and lands a position as Columbia House’s assistant product manager. Expecting to be more gofer than anything else, Wilcha is thrust into greater and greater responsibility, perceived in this somewhat loose but still conservative corporate environment as its youth connection to the burgeoning alt music scene.
Filmmaking maintains the casually spontaneous structure of a diary, where the mundane intersects with the metaphysical. A repeated motif, for instance, of an off-kilter shot from his office window of a skyscraper takes on almost mystical proportions. Wilcha displays genuine curiosity about everything while maintaining a generationally correct cynical irony. Thus, his camera takes in a host of office personalities letting their hair down (two underlings admit they’re upset by having to report to someone much younger than them); documents the basics of employee applications, training policy, pseudo-peppy motivation sessions; indulges in kooky insert shots when Wilcha’s feeling cabin fever in his office; and, most interestingly, tracks the internal company clashes between execs on the 19th floor and creative staffers on the 17th.
Docu begins to take on a kind of storyline as Wilcha finds himself promoted to product manager, nearly succumbing to the unexpected pressure and long hours until he finds relief as he and an assistant reorganize staff to produce an “alternative” catalog. Firmly believing it’s subverting Columbia House, Wilcha’s group — in a stroke of truly blind naivete —eventually realizes that it’s only created a new, easily labeled marketing niche. Suicide of Kurt Cobain, who, like Wilcha, was openly conflicted about creative needs and commercial pressures , seems to inspire our hero to quit. Amusing coda, in which filmmaker finds stylized use of his mug in the company’s catalog a year later, leaves out the even more paradoxical fact that Wilcha rejoined Columbia last year.
Hi-8 images are clean, with some added speeded-up f/x, and cutting is sharper than most docus of its type. Voiceover tilts pic into the solipsistic, a common malady of the diary-docu form, and ends up telling us more and showing us less. What remains astounding is the willingness of co-workers to be so openly filmed day after day, apparently unconcerned that they’re being captured for posterity.