Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierce and The Damned Don’t Cry.  While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey.  I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs.  The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal.  By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles.  Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way.  It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.

A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress.  Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband.  Well, that and the murders.  Her main crime is probably the murders.  The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her.  The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself.  It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear.  Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously.  She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever.  I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.”  The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it.  Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy.  In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.

There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment.  Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness.  Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions.  Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging.  Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn.  She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy.  As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here.  I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #136 of The Swampflix Podcast: Citizen Kane (1941) & Major Personal Blind Spots

Welcome to Episode #136 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss major personal blind spots from the AFI Top 100, starting with Orson Welles’s industry-changing debut, Citizen Kane (1941).

00:00 Welcome

02:20 The Brady Bunch Movie (1995)
08:30 The Prince of Egypt (1998)
09:35 Bo Burnham: Inside (2021)
14:20 White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
17:40 Collateral (2004)
20:50 Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2021)
23:15 The Human Voice (2021)
25:10 Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980)

30:00 Citizen Kane (1941)
53:00 The Maltese Falcon (1941)
1:14:14 Sunset Boulevard (1950)
1:29:31 Cabaret (1972)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on  SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTube, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2021)

I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo.  Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog.  While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere.  Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles like Phoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down.  That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time.  Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.

At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to.  A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference.  When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met.  And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination.  She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes.  Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.

Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema.  Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now.  It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms.  It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others.  If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.

-Brandon Ledet

Clockwatchers (1997)

Even as a curmudgeonly thirty-something, I’m one of the youngest people working in my office.  By a lot.  Most of the staff has been haunting this building for decades, a kind of professional longevity that tends to encourage inconsequential, interpersonal resentments that have been simmering on a low flame for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  Such is the joy of bureaucracy, where someone taking the wrong parking space or forgetting to remove their coffee pod from the communal Keurig machine is equivalent to a war crime.  It’s an absurd dynamic to witness as a newcomer just trying to survive the daily shift so I can get back to Real Life, but Office Drama means the world to the poor souls ensnared by it, and I’m scared that I’ll inevitably be able to count myself among them.

While I was still just a middle school dweeb with delusions of one day becoming a Famous Writer (as you can guess, I eventually settled for Hobbyist Blogger), the Sundance sleeper Clockwatchers already perfectly captured the ugly, grey heart of those workplace resentments in a genuine, existential way.  Clockwatchers is an absurdist, subtly heartbreaking workplace satire in which Toni Colette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow play a collective of disgruntled office temps embroiled in a meaningless scandal over stolen office supplies.  It blows up petty, pointless office drama to a tragicomic extreme, wryly observing both the outsized importance of workplace resentments among the long-established people it matters to and the absurdity of it among newcomers who find it soul-crushingly inane.

In what should be a surprise to no one, it’s Toni Collette’s lead performance as a shy, lonely office clerk that affords the film most of its devastating pathos.  She starts off at her temp job’s typing pool following instructions like “Sit there until someone comes and tells you what to do” with a literal-minded obedience, failing to assert or draw attention to herself at every turn.  It’s exciting to see her meek demeanor corrupted and steeled by Posey & Kudrow’s more proudly obnoxious behavior as the film goes on, but she doesn’t fully transform into a who-gives-a-fuck office badass until it’s too late.  To survive the petty stolen office supplies conflict that drives the plot, the temps need to operate collectively, with strength in solidarity.  Watching her struggle to muster that strength is genuinely heartbreaking, especially in comparison to Posey’s loudmouth iconoclast, who has bravery to spare.

It’s probably not the most attention-grabbing achievement a movie could pull off, but Clockwatchers perfectly captures the unnatural, mind-numbing tedium of a day’s work in the life of an anonymous bureaucrat, something I can unfortunately attest to with plenty personal experience.  It would make for a great double bill with Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls or Kitty Green’s The Assistant, although it’s much, much lighter in tone than either of those blood-chillers.  The context of Clockwatchers’s scandalous typing pool might be less severe than either of those pairings’, but they each touch on similar themes of meaningless, soul-destroying office labor.  Watching these all-time-great actors collect dust in the blank, white-void walls of their excruciatingly ordinary office—”trying to look busy while there’s nothing to do”—is a very familiar strain of existential crisis.  And then someone has the nerve to make their days even more pointlessly excruciating over accusations of stolen staplers & paperweights?  It’s the absolute height of human cruelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

I wonder if anyone’s ever put together a definitive list of The Most Floridian Films of All Time.  If so, I’d like to nominate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar for inclusion in that canon.  While other recent Florida-as-Fuck movies like Magic Mike, The Beach Bum, and The Florida Project have understandably centered their stories on the beach state’s burnout locals, Barb and Star dares to explore its function as the nation’s largest tourist trap.  The hotel tiki bars, by-the-hour boat rentals, boardwalk souvenir shops, and Lisa Frank color palettes that overwhelm the screen are all hyperspecific to Floridian tourism.  The authenticity of that setting includes the characterization of the titular tourists as well: two clueless but sweet rubes from the Midwest with absurdly superficial notions of what a getaway vacation adventure should look like.  You could remake this entire film on a cruise ship without having to change many of its gags or locations, which is how you know it perfectly captures the tacky surrealism of the modern tourist industry.  This is the fantasy version of Florida presented in all-inclusive vacation package pamphlets, and it’s wonderfully bizarre to see actual human beings navigate those flamingo pink waters.

Of course, the main concern of this absurdist buddy comedy is neither to capture the spirit of Floridian tourism nor to drum up tension in its superfluous sci-fi espionage plot.  It’s simply trying to make you laugh, and it ably succeeds.  Kristen Wiig and frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo co-lead as Barb & Star, a pair of middle-age, Midwest besties whose co-dependent life together has hit a spiritual rut.  In search of a “soul douche” meant to rediscover their inner “shimmer”, the gals head off to the gift shop-lined beaches of Florida.  There, they learn to have fun without hanging onto each other 24/7, thanks to the help of a sexy himbo staying in the same hotel (Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan) and an exponentially out-of-place terrorist plot orchestrated by a James Bond villain (also played by Wiig).  It’s a delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore, where a pair of Good Buds bounce inane in-jokes off each other, unaware of the deadly-serious crisis that orbits around them.  I’m thinking of titles like Zoolander, A Night at the Roxbury, Dude Where’s My Car?, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Re-Union Like all those previous examples of its ilk, it’s destined to gradually build a cult audience, one that will likely outlast the cultural impact of Wiig & Mumolo’s previous, more commercially successful screenplay collaboration, Bridesmaids.

If I have one complaint about Barb and Star, it’s that it’s one song performance short of being a full-blown musical.  Why stop at two break-from-reality musical numbers?  A third one would have really rounded out the show, especially a grand musical blowout finale.  And no, Richard Cheese’s cameo as a boobies-obsessed lounge singer does not count.  Otherwise, it’s a perfect, traditional buddy comedy – one bolstered by its excessively Floridian set design, which strives to outdo The Birdcage‘s commitment to that pleasure realm aesthetic in every new locale.  This might even be the best vehicle yet for the normcore-parody comedic sensibilities Wiig honed on SNL, considering that most of her film work since that show has been focused on darkly funny indie dramas (give or take a MacGruber).  Any minor complaints about where it falls short in its musicality or narrative structure are entirely besides the point.  It’s simply fun.  Or, in the movie’s own words, it’s “a real tit-flapper”.

-Brandon Ledet

Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)

If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max.  Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.”  In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair.  In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary.  The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure.  It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers.  That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge.  There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.

Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch.  We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom.  Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice.  It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence.  Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera.  Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks.  It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.

Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto JubileePepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life.  Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated.  Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same.  Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them.  The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks.  Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street.  And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline.  It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.

I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise.  I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile.  You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”.  Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach.  The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget.  Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop.  Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.”  If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Eating Raoul (1982)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss Paul Bartel’s swinger-culture sex comedy Eating Raoul (1982).

00:00 Welcome

03:40 Thoroughbreds (2017)
04:20 Free Fire (2016)
08:20 Crazy People (1990)
10:25 The Lost Boys (1987)
12:00 Little Joe (2019)
15:20 The Stuff (1985)

18:30 Eating Raoul (1982)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Chicken People (2016)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Chicken People (2016).

Hanna: The United States loves to kill chickens. It’s the most popular meat in a country of meat-lovers, and we produce more than any other country in the world; in 2019, the US slaughtered and sold about 9 billion chickens. Between 50–90% of them were raised on large industrial farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are famous for imposing physical and genetic misery on their animals for the sake of efficiency. It’s hard to get a clear picture of the standard conditions in the poultry industry, but at worst, broiler chickens (raised only for meat) are packed into dark, cramped pens for the entirety of their lives, crippled by their own weight, and repeatedly exposed to infection. In short, the key stakeholders in the industrial agricultural complex do not care about the lives and fates of their number one meat product.

Chicken People, a documentary directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes and distributed by CMT, follows the small and intense community of competitive poultry shows – a community that cares very much for the lives of their chickens. The documentary focuses on the lives of three competitors in particular—Brian Caraker, Brian Knox, and Shari McCollough—in the months leading up to the Ohio National Poultry Show, which is the largest of approximately 300 poultry shows in the United States. Chicken People makes it clear that competitors take the circuit seriously: they rigorously study The American Standard of Perfection (the chicken equivalent of the American Kennel Club’s standard dog breed guide) and meticulously breed their chickens for just the right waddle hue and feather clarity. Brian Knox is the Gregor Mendel of the group; he’s raised thousands of chickens, and his systematic breeding program tracks each individual lineage so he can pair chickens with complimentary traits. Brian Caraker, a musical theatre performer, treats The Standard like a Bible and sprays his chickens’ feathers with a glossy polishing spray, which “changes a farm chicken into a show chicken.” Shari McCollough spends multiple hours a day grooming her little Silkies into puffy white clouds.

Obviously, the chickens are the stars of Chicken People; these birds are masterpieces. All kinds of chicken breeds and varieties—Silkies, Wyandottes, Brahmas, Sultans, etc.—are represented in the chicken exhibitions, and some of them are shockingly strange and beautiful. I could stare at those vivid, high-contrast chicken shots with the black background for hours. I’m also totally fascinated by this subsection of American pageantry that honors, glamorizes, and obsesses over the cheapest, blandest staple of the industrial agricultural complex. The documentary is interspersed with mini interviews à la When Harry Met Sally, which mostly involve other contestants gushing about their beautiful chickens, and their unassailable love for these dumb birds that we eat every day fills my heart with joy.

The part of this documentary that I struggle with the most is the treatment of the subjects. I thought Haimes focused a little too much on the personal problems of the three main competitors to emphasize that “Chicken People” are a fringe group, especially when they went into detail on Shari’s history of addiction. It didn’t feel exploitative, exactly, maybe a little condescending. I also just wish it had focused a little more on the history of poultry and agricultural shows in the United States, and I wanted 1000% more chicken content. Britnee, how do you think the documentary treated the “Chicken People” as subjects? Do you think she was fair to the competitors? Is there anything you would have changed about her focus?

Britnee: Chicken People does a great job of highlighting the uniqueness and quirkiness of its three human subjects without feeling exploitive. Documentaries that are similar in subject are typically gross for how they make fun of how “weird” the stars of the show are, and I was concerned this one would go that route. I love that it remains focused on the chicken people’s passion and dedication to their feathery friends. It’s so endearing. Haimes also manages to do a fantastic job of balancing the focus on each of them without making one seem more important or entertaining than the other. They each had their own individual journeys, but all somehow felt equal. 

However, I do agree with you, Hanna. I wish there was more chicken content. I love the parts of the film where pages from The American Standard of Perfection took over the screen, explaining what made certain breeds of chicken perfect, and I especially enjoyed learning about how they are dolled up for competitions. I never really saw chickens as being beautiful before. I thought they were cute, but never really truly beautiful. After watching them so closely, I was truly stunned by so many of them. I’m definitely not going to be a chicken person or chicken owner anytime soon, but I have a newfound appreciation for their beauty and grace.

Boomer, I’m not sure what your experience is with chickens, but do you feel different towards chickens after watching Chicken People? Did the documentary spark an interest in the chicken universe?

Boomer: There’s a moment in Chicken People in which Brian Caraker says of his parents, “[They’re] not chicken people. I’m chicken people.” Well, dear readers, I’m not chicken people. But my mother is. 

Growing up, we had chickens for almost as long as I can remember. Every couple of years, once the last generation stopped laying, Mom would put in an order for a new dozen at the co-op for the coming spring, and when April came, the new chicks would come home. For the first few weeks of life, they resided under a heat lamp in a box that had a dedicated spot on top of the dryer in the trailer, and then atop the freezer chest once we built and moved into the house. At that stage of life, their downy chickfeathers were so soft that they seemed more mammalian than avian. The first group were Rhode Island Reds; the following generation was a mix of Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons. Later still we even had an Ameraucana or two (the most common chicken that lays green-tinted eggs). As soon as they were able, they were moved to the coop; it was my job to let them out of it every day after school so that they could roam and eat the various insects of the field, collect their eggs, feed them their pellets, and clean and refill their water fountains. When recalling my childhood (to call it a “reminisce” would be remiss), it’s impossible to extricate those memories from their accompanying odors and the tactile sensation of the squish of chicken shit between my toes. And that’s not even getting into the eggs. I was 16 when I went off to boarding school, and it was a solid decade before I would again consume an egg with anything other than revulsion. As a result, the people with whom I felt the most sympathy or identification in Chicken People were not any of the competitors; while watching the elder Carakers miserably wash a chicken fountain, I had a full on Proust Remembrance. I tell you the truth: Orpington roosters are such fucking assholes

Well, that’s not entirely true. We lived—and my parents still live—in a place that was, paradoxically, deep country but not so rural that it was too far for city folk (for a given definition of both “city” and “folk”) to drop their old, unloved, or merely mutty hounds on our road. Near the end of Chicken People, recovering alcoholic Shari talks with a fellow competitor about the latter’s loving, gentle turkey that was killed by the neighbor’s dogs. Most of the time, when people came to abandon their animals, it was usually about a half mile away, at the bridge across the nameless finger of Redwood Creek that intersected our road. As such, there was never a lack of new, hungry, lost dogs in search of a meal. There was no love lost between me and those chickens, but it sure did break my mother’s heart to lose one, and no matter how much we fortified that coop and the pen, every few years, there was a massacre, throwing Mom into a depression for weeks, or even months. She grew up on a dairy farm and although our long, skinny 5 acres didn’t allow for even one cow, those chickens meant a lot to her, just like their fellow foul did to the Brians and Shari. 

I guess that’s where I have to part ways with the consensus so far; although both Britnee and Hanna wanted more chicken info, I was much more interested in the people who were drawn to chickens and driven by their love of them. I was particularly interested in Shari’s family, especially since we clearly saw them over a period of time, given that one of her daughters leaves home for college and is seen visiting later in the film, although I guess that’s just my personal biases at play. We learned a lot about the families of both of the Brians, but solely through the eyes of their parents and grandparents, as neither has children or a wife/husband (Brian Knox at least had a lady friend at one point, and they’re still friendly, which is nice), who are surprisingly supportive and kind, perhaps because of their own hobbies, like drag racing and miniature trains. If this were fiction, I’d expect to see more ambivalence or mixed feelings on the part of Shari’s kids, given that becoming a chicken lady helped their mother with her drinking problem, but her sober crutch also meant less room for them in her daily life, one would think. 

Personally, I’m generally distrustful of any media that ascribes human emotions, morality, and ideologies to animals. There’s a lot of anthropomorphization happening here on the part of the participants, who characterize their birds as “preparing to fight for [their] mate[s]” or  taking pride in their appearance, etc. On a recent episode of the Lagniappe podcast, I expressed my annoyance at the filmmaker behind My Octopus Teacher for his similar narrative actions; the interesting thing that’s happening there isn’t that the octopus has become his friend, but that he sees the action of the octopus and perceives it as being of a kind with his own complex emotions. For its part, Chicken People doesn’t have that same kind of anthrocentric understanding of animal intelligence, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it, as that’s where one gets the insight into the people, who are more interesting to me than the chickens. Brandon, what are your thoughts? Did you think there was sufficient time spent with the competitors? Were there any of the competitors who participated in the shorter “talking head” sections that you would have liked to see more of in the body of the film proper?

Brandon: Like Hanna and Britnee, I also found the exquisitely bred & manicured show-chickens to be more fascinating than their imperfect human masters.  The most outright cinematic touches to the film are in the fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  If there was any further narration or talking-head interview footage missing for me, it’s in the film’s potentially amazing Werner Herzog commentary track.  Herzog has a great talent for un-anthropomorphizing nature’s most peculiar beasts, and I’d love to hear him expand on his already stellar 2012 monologue about the disturbing nature of chickens into a feature-length philosophical rant.  I was particularly thinking about his horrified, abstracted reaction to chickens in the final sequence at the Ohio National Poultry Show, wherein a massive convention space echoes the continuous screams of hundreds of chickens for hours of unrelenting cacophony.  It’s a bizarrely hideous sound that no one in the room thinks to acknowledge, because they’re just used to being submerged in it.  Herzog’s always great for pointing out the strangeness of those kinds of horrifying experiences that have become normalized & familiar only through repetition.

Otherwise, I’m mostly satisfied with the balance of talking-heads-to-chicken-heads screentime ratio here.  As a Country Music Television production, Chicken People is closer to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, and it does a decent job of constructing a narrative for each of its three main subjects within that template.  If it had been stretched out into multiple seasons of television, there would’ve been plenty enough room for more insight into the lives of its color-commentary interviewees, but at just 83min I think it was smart to limit its scope to just a few competitors.  My only real complaint with that balance is the way it’s squeamish about elaborating on Brian Caraker’s romantic life, a critique I also saw echoed in Julius Kassendorf’s review of the film for The Solute.  While the other two contestants talk about their heterosexual romantic partners at length, Caraker is only allowed to make vague hints that he is gay without every actually speaking the word out loud or making direct references to his past relationships.  I don’t know if that was Caraker’s personal decision or a mandate from the Conservative-leaning higher-ups at CMT Docs, but it’s a glaring omission all the same.  I wish we could’ve gotten to know Caraker better without having to tiptoe around the concrete details of his personal life, especially in contrast to how his competitors are treated.

Then again, Caraker was also the most compelling of the three contestants to me in almost every way.  He’s the only one of the titular chicken people who could rival the actual chickens for pure entertainment value – especially in those cutaways to his otherworldly stage performances in Branson, MO.  I could have watched an entire movie about him without the other two contestants ever butting in and left just as satisfied.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I’m SO glad that Brandon brought up Herzog’s wonderful monologue on the barbaric stupidity of chickens. My second favorite chicken quote is from Joshue Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing: “Chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination. Death.” Such sweet little feathery canvases to project our mortal fears upon!

Britnee: The Modern Game Bantams may be my favorite breed of chicken featured here. They have long supermodel legs and it looks like they’re wearing little bike shorts. They make me so uncomfortable, but I can’t stop looking at them! I want a farm full of these little creeps.

Boomer: Orpington roosters are such assholes. I’d also like to note that Shari is missing a word in one of her interviews; she says (roughly) that “People think of chickens as dirty, smelly creatures, but that’s not true,” followed by a statement that “[she] spends 4 or 5 hours a day grooming her chickens.” There’s a big because missing right there in the middle. Chickens are dirty, at least from a certain perspective, as they do clean themselves in dirt, like a lot of birds. They absolutely do shit positively everywhere as well; look no further than the fact that so many talking head interviewees have extensive diapering systems for their chickens as proof.

Finally, it seems like Brian may have gotten his wish to open a farm, if this Facebook page for Caraker Farms is any indication (according to the info panel, they are “very responsive” to messages). He also has a Twitter account, although it appears to be largely inactive, given that his last tweet was from 2014, in which he expressed interest in a Mitt Romney candidacy in 2016.   

Brandon: As sweetly quaint as this documentary is, I do think Chicken People would also make a great title for a horror film, like the poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version here, the little edible dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature-feature monstrosities.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Stuff (1985)

I’ve watched the classic trailer for Larry Cohen’s The Stuff so many times on VHS & DVD rentals of other schlock over the years that I felt like I had seen the film before, but it was entirely new to me.  Well, not entirely new.  Not only had I been exposed to the film’s most sensational images over & over again (if not just from that trailer, then from horror genre docs like King Cohen and Horror Noire), but I also feel like I’ve seen its exact behind-the-curtain corporate villainy satire before in more widely canonized titles like They Live! or Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  As a result, it wasn’t the goopy practical-effects gore or cynical parody of Reagan-Era capitalism that bowled me over while finally watching the movie for the first time, as delightful as both those elements are.  Instead, it was actor-director duo of Larry Cohen and Michael Moriarty that really distinguished The Stuff as something phenomenal – the same chemistry that distinguishes Q: The Winged Serpent as one of Cohen’s very best.  There’s just something explosively entertaining about watching those two dialed-to-11 knuckleheads collaborate on a shared commitment to excess that Cohen struggles to match in his other works.  They’re perfect together.

While Q: The Winged Serpent sets Moriarty loose as a proto-Nic Cagian madman, completely untethered from good taste or reason in his go-for-broke Acting Choices, The Stuff finds him uncharacteristically reserved – although just as bizarre.  He stars as a deceptively laidback Southern Gent, stunning his corporate-asshole opponents with a mixture of affectations borrowed from Columbo and Foghorn Leghorn.  Moriarty declares himself to be “an industrial saboteur”.  He’s hired to investigate and disrupt the production of a mysterious health-craze food item known simply as The Stuff, which has quickly dominated the marketplace with seemingly no FDA regulation.  In essence, The Stuff is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers update with the sinister aesthetic of 80s television commercials for overly processed foods.  The titular, yogurt-like substance is essentially an alien being that takes over and oozes out of its consumers’ bodies, turning world domination into an inside job.  Moriarty is humanity’s only chance for survival.  He takes down the evil corporations behind The Stuff’s production & distribution with an “Aww shucks, I’m just asking questions” Southern Charm that never stops being bizarre in the context of this otherwise aggressively modern horror comedy.  Whereas all the goopy gore gags and by-the-numbers plot points of the film are predetermined by the genre, every one of Moriarty’s Southern-fried line deliveries lands as a total, expectation-subverting surprise, and it’s his performance that keeps the film electrically engaging between the shocks of budget-busting gore.

While Moriarty can be counted on to keep The Stuff‘s faithful genre beats surprising from scene to scene, it’s Larry Cohen’s furious efficiency that allows that performance to shine.  The Stuff clocks in well under 90 minutes, and wastes no time jumping into the thick of its 80s-specfic corporate greed parody.  The seemingly alien substance of The Stuff is immediately discovered, consumed, and declared delicious in the first minute of the runtime.  A modern version of this film would feel the need to explain the step-by-step plotting how that substance landed on grocery shelves, and then to backtrack to detail its exact origins lest it be ridiculed for its “plot holes” on the dregs of YouTube.  Cohen wastes no time on such buffoonery.  He immediately jumps to the good stuff: the alarming omnipresence of the villainous product in people’s homes and the complete disregard for those people’s safety from government regulators.  By jumping right into it, he leaves way more room for his sinister TV commercial parodies and for specific potshots at real-life evil corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds.  More importantly, he also leaves plenty more room for Moriarty’s absurd Columbo Leghorn performance, of which there could never be enough.

The beautiful thing about watching Cohen & Moriarty collaborate here is that they seem to be working in two entirely different speeds.  Q: The Winged Serpent offers unhinged, sweaty excess from the two madmen from start to end.  Cohen’s still operating at that breakneck speed in The Stuff, seemingly because he can’t help himself.  Meanwhile, Moriarty has slowed his own lunacy down to a molasses-esque trickle, and it’s just as delectable as any of the film’s ooey-gooey practical effects.  I greatly enjoyed The Stuff as an efficient, vicious genre film with a fearless commitment to throwing punches at the worst offenders of Reagan Era greed.  I enjoyed it even more as a showcase for Michael Moriarty’s off-kilter excess as a deranged leading man.  Larry Cohen happens to be the best possible filmmaker to maximize both of those indulgences, and this one still lands as one of his best even if you feel like you’ve been overexposed to its broader details.

-Brandon Ledet

Army of the Dead (2021)

Thanks to the post-production remodeling of the mythical “director’s cut” of Justice League for HBO Max, there has been a ton of online critical reclamation of Zack Snyder’s artistry this year.  The “It’s pretty good, actually!” consensus on The Snyder Cut has earned him the same “vulgar auteur” status previously bestowed upon filmmakers like Tony Scott, Paul WS Anderson, and Michael Bay – real meathead types.  Personally, I’m not seeing the vulgar genius of Snyder’s work, at least not in relation to his absurdly expensive Justice League revision.  That 4hr superhero epic registered with me as the pinnacle of plot obsession in contemporary cinema, getting so mired in the connective tissue between action sequences that it transcends the medium altogether by becoming Television.  The Snyder Cut couldn’t be faulted for being erratic or messy like the previous edit of Justice League, but in smoothing out all rough edges on that compromised vision, Snyder created a pure-plot experience completely devoid of recognizable humanity or imagination. I almost admire The Snyder Cut for pushing the modern superhero picture to its obvious endgame (a $400mil TV miniseries), but I might just be telling myself that so that I feel like I got something out of the time investment.  Either way, it’s interesting as a cultural curio but aggressively mediocre as entertainment media, so that the director is only worth engaging with for the hype he inexplicably generates.  It’s less that the emperor wears no clothes; it’s that I don’t understand why everyone’s so ecstatically complimenting the emperor’s Ed Hardy t-shirt.

Even with my Snyder Cut skepticism still festering as an open wound, I can at least admit that 2021 has been a career-restorative year for the director in other ways.  His new straight-to-Netflix zombie epic (everything he makes is a dialed-to-11 epic) isn’t exactly a whiplash-inducing return to form after the exhaustion of Snyder Cut discourse, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, mildly entertaining follow-up.  I’ll take it.  Army of the Dead is easily Zack Snyder’s most enjoyable movie since his Romero-homage debut Dawn of the Dead (penned by James Gunn, who turned out to be the more talented voice in the room), by which I mean it’s Passably Okay.  It appears that the zombie flick is the only appropriate fit for Snyder’s obnoxious blatancy, from his boneheadedly literal soundtrack cues to his exhausting emphasis on every single scene as the most Epic, all-important moment ever.  Army of the Dead surely would’ve landed with more impact and novelty in the nu-metal aughts, when Snyder’s previous action-horror felt like a breath of fresh air.  It’s starting to become adorable that he’s somehow still stuck in that long-putrid era, though.  He’s been hacking away at the same dirtbag Godsmack aesthetic for so long that it’s pushed past tacky to become full-on kitsch.  I understand the temptation to reclaim him as a misunderstood genius in that context, if not only because it’s a funny gag.  In practice, though, his movies are way too draining to be worth the small flashes of enjoyment you can glean from them, even when they’re Passably Okay overall.

Dave Bautista stars as a superhuman burgerflipper who has survived the zombie apocalypse by laying low working the grill at a greasy diner.  He’s approached by a shady casino owner who hires him to break into the quarantined city of Las Vegas and recover an abandoned vault full of untraceable cash, guarded only by hordes of cannibal corpses roaming the otherwise empty streets & gambling halls.  From there the movie is a blend of militant zombie-shooting action horror and a self-amused heist film.  As those two genres run in tandem, there’s all the assembling-the-team montages, first-person video game gore, disastrous getaways, and witty interpersonal banter (mostly notably delivered by Tig Notaro as the resident wiseass) fans of either side of the divide could hope for.  And then there’s more.  And then more.  And more.  Army of the Dead‘s 148min runtime is an outright war crime, dulling all its genre-blending, Vegas setting fun with at least an hour’s worth of superfluous material that should have been lopped off in the editing room.  Like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, the film peaks during its opening credits, which squeezes in an entire zombie movie’s worth of exposition into a concise, bite-sized morsel of a montage (set to a Richard Cheese song, another Dawn of the Dead callback).  It’s the only part of the movie that could be considered concise, considering how unnecessarily weighed down and laborious everything that follows feels.  There’s a fun 90min movie buried somewhere in this macho, self-important excess, but Zack Snyder does not make those kinds of movies.  Pity.

If we can have a years-later Snyder Cut revision of Justice League, I think we also deserve an Un-Snydered cut of Army of the Dead.  I’m not saying we need to toss out all his unashamed meathead tendencies, where the initial zombie breakout is caused by roadhead and the years-later evolved zombies are referred to as “Alphas.”  Keep all the Gym Bro action horror you want, just make the damned thing zippier.  There’s a stripped down, streamlined, self-contained movie in here that absolutely rules, but you have to squint real hard through the Hoobastank fog to see it.  Snyder needs someone to push back on his All-Out Epic tendencies, especially when it comes to explaining each and every baby step in the plot.  Instead, like with The Snyder Cut, he’s allowed to turn the modern zombie movie into modern zombie television, something we’re all sick of after 29 seasons of The Walking DeadArmy of the Dead is already greenlit to spin off multiple prequels and animated side plot series on Netflix, the same way The Snyder Cut reconfigured Justice League into a 4-hour made-for-TV miniseries.  That mode of literal-minded, plot-obsessed Epic filmmaking is not some vulgar stroke of auteurist genius in the modern media landscape.  It’s just how big-budget “movies” are made now in a post-MCU world.  At least this one has its moments.

-Brandon Ledet