Samantha Carroll’s 2022 short film Love Liz opens at a literal intersection. Passing by signs emblazoned with the reflexive impressions of Los Angeles, Liz (played by Carroll, who is a New York City-based filmmaker, writer, and actor) navigates a world of her own making. This sequence is notably similar to Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas—although it is ironically inverted in every sense. For Paris, Texas, the locale symbolizes a compass for characters permanently on the move. The film begins with shots of the drifter Travis at a would-be crossroads, eyeing the nude vistas before him. Instead of the blank canvas canyons of the American Southwest, Love Liz, on the other hand, is populated by the equally vacant and less grand figments of the American Southwest-west, that is, present-day Los Angeles. Passing by signs emblazoned with reflections of Hollywood, Liz—not unlike Travis—moves at once in a world of her own and within the hyperreal enticements of the all-American.
Though they are ultimately different types of films, a comparison nonetheless appears apt—and not just because Carroll’s filmmaking practice is indebted to the formal aspects of Wim Wenders’s solo universe. Love Liz—which premiered in September 2022 as part of the second installation of the exhibition Health Ensurance—centers around an aspiring pop star (played by Carroll) who travels to Los Angeles to meet a music producer with whom she has connected over Instagram. In ways both quiet and epic, it gestures at the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of auteurist aspirations in a media environment defined by endless timelines, opaque algorithms, and storified content. “There is such a fine line between content creation and art,” Carroll muses on the subject. “I look at TikTok and YouTube all the time … it’s a great study of human emotion. It can be a useful tool for people with a genuine creative practice.”
Love Liz, not unlike Paris, Texas, aspires to live at limits, the kind that Anna Pagès once flagged as the point where “the gaze becomes an unfamiliar point in the image.” Carroll’s admissions of inspiration nonetheless come with crucial caveats. “There’s a scene in Paris, Texas that I love; it’s one of just, like, a homeless man rambling—it doesn’t appear to advance the plot at all,” Carroll says. Pressed, she adds, “As an artist, you always end up leaving certain things to chance, and the more you embrace it, the more potential there is for authentic storytelling.” As such, Carroll writes about what she knows perhaps all too well: her films are chanced collages of post-grad drama, retellings of halfhearted interactions amid the minutiae and abstract grandeur of daily life.
Quietly concerned with authorial agency and achievement, Carroll’s characters are inscribed by her own totalizing tendencies—“however I’m feeling at the time,” she says—routed through the descriptive grammar of post-mumblecore. (“I watched a lot of Joe Swanberg’s films from the early aughts,” Carroll reveals, trailing off.) In this sense, Carroll is the kind of artist who seems to intuit the shape and pace of her moving image, grappling with how to channel perceptions: of herself and of the world in which she is a primary character. “I’ve always been writing for an audience,” she says, “even as a kid; even when I’ve written in solo diaries.” For Carroll, the camera, Hollywood, social media, and the liturgy of the written word all appear as nodes within a matrix of gazes, at the center of which is a not-quite reluctant self. Her films possess the token restless energy of an emergent filmmaker eager for her first feature.
In this vein, Carroll’s work weaves semi-comedic dramaturgy into succinct and altered morality plays. Carroll herself appears animated by twin impulses that underscore a sense of something beyond mere “scripted” alienation. Currently writing a feature set in Upstate New York (“it’s about power dynamics in female friendships”), her budding filmography also includes director credits on another 2022 short, Grove Night, as well as acting and writing credits in films like Mean Spirit (2020). “I’ve heard people talk about streamability … in relation to narrative,” she miffs, not unreasonably. “I can’t work that way. I often try to think about the person first, and then the story comes.” Nonetheless, Carroll’s story itself, like that of Love Liz, almost appears to begin closer to the climax. “I don’t know when movies first caught my attention, but I was always running around, using camcorders.”
One gets the sense that Carroll is always on for the camera, for her camera, in front of which she seems to revel in the chance to hide in plain sight. “I’ve always enjoyed manipulating the way people see me,” she says, with a defiant smile. (Like her characters, Carroll is active on social media, namely Twitter, where her semi-satirical and provocative pronouncements on the trappings of nano-celebrity drop like Zen koans from high altitude.) Carroll’s sense of humor is sharp and obliquely political, her statements prone to an acerbic flip—though they are never entirely irony-poisoned. Appreciating her deliberate obfuscation of ideology—at once deconstructing and celebrating the notion of influence as an index of femininity—is essential to a reading of her filmmaking. Her words occupy something beyond binaries of trad versus rad. Read: “Sometimes when I wake up I want to do really good work,” Carroll observes, “and sometimes I just want to look as physically hot as possible.”
But where her practice is infused with impressions of ego and autobiography, her work rarely scans as mere exercise in vanity or trauma-pilled navel-gazing. (“I really loved Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick,” Carroll pauses, “but I love everything she does.”) Carroll, in conversation as on camera, appears mostly measured, unconcerned, or maybe just unfazed, with the exigencies of the market. Her work itself reflects the potential in preoccupation—with the authentic, rather than just the apparent. She agrees, if only for a moment. “It’s very important to be intentional with all types of work,” she reflects, “but there is always something out of your control. You always end up leaving certain things to chance.” Here, as in pictures, Carroll seems most comfortable letting the pseudo-diaristic, but never completely confessional, nature of her work speak for itself.