When considering Fantasy A Gets a Mattress, it’s instructive to compare it with Know Your Place. David Norman Lewis and Noah Zoltan Sofian directed the former; Zia Mohajerjasbi, the latter. Both films are set in Seattle, and were shot around the same time (the end of the previous decade). In this way, Mattress and Place are about a Seattle radically transformed by a tech boom ignited by the e-commerce corporation Amazon.
During this period, the billions speculators spent on new office and luxury towers made the city’s skyline almost unrecognizable; and inflated housing values displaced the working classes, many of whom were people of color. One by one, iconic businesses—the city’s “soul”—closed their doors. The prices on menus exploded. The gig economy made the poor poorer. And those with deep pockets increasingly blamed progressive leaders for the negative externalities of the affordability crisis—homeless camps, petty crime, vanishing Seattle, and so on. Though Mohajerjasbi’s film deals, in part, with gentrification and racist policing, he presents a coherent city. And this is the way it should be; it’s not for nothing we call cinema “the grand illusion.” The coherence of interiors or exteriors is fabricated because, as any filmmaker knows, location fidelity is almost next to impossible. In this art, it’s nothing but normal for, say, a Capitol Hill apartment building, a Beacon Hill sidewalk, a University District overpass, and a Northgate parking lot to become, in the editing room with continuity and color correction, one and the same place.
Fantasy A Gets a Mattress does the exact opposite of this. It presents an incoherent city, and this has nothing to do with the limitations imposed on the directors by a very small budget. Technology has made the magic of editing the cheapest part of the filmmaking process. Getting the film in the can, even with a bargain-basement digital camera, is what sets a production’s bank account on fire. Incoherence is, with Mattress, the very logic of the work, which has at its center a Seattle rapper, Fantasy A (Alexander Hubbard), trying to become rich and famous—and who also dreams of obtaining a mattress he “can dream on.” The obstacles to these grand and modest goals include a ruthless landlord, a budding loan shark, low-wage work, and public transportation that’s never on time. Nothing gives him a break, even at the end of the movie.
The same goes for the person Fantasy A hires to shoot a music video, Asia Rose (Acacia Porter). They also face one challenge after another, one shock after another, one defeat after another. In Mattress, Seattle is a place that’s become inhospitable not only for Black artists, but any artist.
This no-placeness explains the film’s incoherence and powers its feverish plot and acting. Fantasy A is all over the city. He runs to Beacon Hill, plasters self-promotional posters all over the International District, tries to catch his breath in Georgetown, listens to a homeless poet under the Mount Baker Station, and is cut no slack in the Central District. And this goes on and on and on. He hits wall after wall after wall. The city refuses to cohere, it refuses to connect its cultural levels, its neighborhoods, its economy. And it is here we find the political key to Mattress’ editing: poverty fragments a city that’s built for money.
What money buys is a unified experience. Those who are behind the Seattle Is Dying movement, members of Safe Seattle, or who attack the only politician fully devoted to the working class and progressive policies, Kshama Sawant, have only this as their understanding: money makes the city. If you can afford to live here, you can get to work on time, or simply work from home, or not be dependent on underfunded public services. And the higher your income, the more coherent the city becomes. Fantasy A and others in his film are on the other side of this reality. For them, the poorer you are, the more dysfunctional, disconnected, and disorderly the city becomes.
Fantasy A, in the movie, is a funhouse mirror of the actual Fantasy A, who began posting flyers all over Seattle around the middle of the 2010s. (The former is played by the latter.) One of his flyers asked: “Want a Rapper for a Roommate?” It was clear this rapper could not afford to live in his own city. But that did not stop him from posting more flyers (some even reached Green Lake) nor sour his sense of humor. And this brings me to another aspect of Mattress: it’s a funny movie. But this has much to do with the absurdity of being poor in a city that’s obviously wealthy, in the material sense.
The homelessness, the greedy landlords, the loans with extortionate interest rates, the daily struggle to pay monthly bills or even the bus fare (a difficulty that even the film’s successful rapper is not spared) are as artificial as the set for a play or the props in a movie. But this artificiality, which is imposed and rigorously maintained by those who are paid handsomely to enforce the law, does not make them less real. They are as physical as blood, as the air entering and exiting the lungs, as the hunger that squeezes an empty stomach. Sleeping on the streets is painful. The body and clothes of a person who can’t access a washroom or a laundry facility will not smell like flowers.
This is the point that unites the comic surrealism of Mattress with that of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. What do these works show? How surreal it is to live in a world where what is most unreal (poverty) has the most reality. Yes, Fantasy A searching for a mattress is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as throwing people on the streets and then sweeping them from the streets.
See Fantasy A Gets a Mattress during Local Sightings Film Festival at Northwest Film Forum Friday, September 15, at 7 pm. It’s also available to stream online September 15-24. Visit nwfilmforum.org for more information.