Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet

The Exotic Ones (1968)

I don’t know how useful this review of the 1968 creature feature The Exotic Ones (aka The Monster and the Stripper) will be to anyone reading it, since the film is very precisely my exact personal brand of trash. This locally-set novelty attempts to combine the Roger Corman rubber-suit monster movie with the post-Russ Meyer nudie cutie into one perfect swinging-60s trash pile. It has so much fun establishing a nonstop party atmosphere on its French Quarter strip club set that it goes to Matt Farley levels of effort to delay the inevitable disruption of its horrific monster – almost a full hour into its 90-minure runtime. This movie has nothing on its boozy, lingerie-clad mind beyond ogling as many burlesque performers as it can before it must sober up and deliver the horror genre payoffs promised on its poster. It’s a sloppy, horny, locally flavored party film with no clear themes or purpose beyond the cheap, simple pleasures of Bourbon Street hedonism; it’s also my new best friend.

Bourbon Street mafia types abduct a swamp-dwelling sasquatch known as The Swamp Thing from the Louisiana bayous (played by rockabilly musician Sleepy La Beef) and force him to perform onstage as part of a cheap strip club act. In color! You can pretty much guess how the story plays out once the “monster” (a shirtless, hairy oaf with vague caveman features) is displayed for the public, assuming you’ve seen any monster-in-captivity movie released since 1933’s King Kong. The Exotic Ones delays those tedious plot concerns for as long as it can manage, though, saving the entirety of its creature feature narrative for its final half hour. Everything that precedes that third-act genre shift is just a parade of go-go dancers, burlesque performers, and various other salacious sideshow acts. Some slight attention is paid to fabricating a rivalry between the club’s newest act (a shy R&B singer who’s reluctant to strip for tips) and its long-established queen bee (a daredevil stripper with flaming titty tassels and drag queen eyebrows), but it doesn’t amount to much. You can guess which one the monster falls in love with once he arrives to the scene, can’t you? And which one taunts him into a rage? You’ve pretty much already seen this movie, outside the specific quirks of its strip routines, and the producers wisely pack the screen with as large of a variety of them as possible to keep you alert & entertained.

The Exotic Ones very quickly won me over as a fan with its opening newsreel-style introduction to New Orleans as a city – a rapid-fire montage that was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s strip club “documentary” Mondo Topless. Machine gun-paced cuts of strippers & French Quarter storefronts assault the audience as a beat-reporter narrator invites us onto “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night.” It’s not exactly hyperbole when he describes Mardi Gras as “a time of reckless abandonment,” but the monologue is still deliciously overwritten & tonally chaotic – harshly juxtaposing a “Get a load of this filth!” moralism with tantalizing shots of naked, gyrating flesh. I personally loved seeing local 1960s sleaze-joints documented with the same reverent, drooling eye that was typically reserved for notorious prostitution hotspots like Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” or New York City’s 42nd Street porno theater strip. I don’t know that a New Orleans-specific remake of Mondo Topless disguised as a dirt-cheap monster movie is exactly the movie most audiences needed in their lives, but it is exactly the one I needed in mine.

Judging by most genre nerds’ boredom with the Ed Wood-penned Orgy of the Dead (a film I’m personally fond of, to my discredit), this movie’s 5% monster mayhem, 95% strip routines mixture will likely not win over everyone. The go-go strip routines and the surprisingly gory violence are both far more enthusiastically wild & erratic than those in Orgy, but you must already be on the hook for that genre imbalance for the formula to work on you. It seems that even the film’s own producers—June & Ron Ormond—weren’t entirely sold on the artistic merits of this kind of amoral hedonism. Shortly after The Exotic Ones‘s release (and a life-threatening plane crash) the couple shifted into making fire & brimstone Christian propaganda meant to scare audiences away from the temptations of Hell. Oh well. I personally could have watched a hundred Bourbon Street monster movies in this same vein, but no party lasts forever – not even the “reckless abandonment” of Mardi Gras.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream in New Orleans This Week 4/2/20 – 4/8/20

As you likely already know, the governor has ordered the indefinite closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. That decree makes our weekly What’s Playing in Town report something of a sham, but I thought I’d continue to share weekly movie recommendations anyway (all in an effort to maintain the fictional veneer of Normalcy). I’ll just be shifting into Online Streaming options as a substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Ikiru (1952) – From my review: “An alarming portion of Ikiru is dedicated to satirizing the boring, ineffective, passionless lives of government bureaucrats as they waste away behind desks affecting no measurable change in the world. As a professional bureaucrat who is currently wasting away behind a desk stacked with paperwork as I write this, my instinct is to balk at the accusation, but I can’t deny that it’s true..” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel & Kanopy.

Knife+Heart (2019) – One of our favorite films of the 2010s! From Boomer’s review: “A neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus.” Currently streaming on Shudder & Kanopy.

Local Legends (2013) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Streaming VOD

Cabaret (1972) – From my review: “In a best-case-scenario where our current bout with Nazi ideology is stomped out before it gains any more momentum, there will still likely be a quiet fascist contingent to keep at bay as the most vulnerable among us simply try to live fulfilling lives without having to constantly fight off oppressive bullies. In that way, the themes of this film are just as evergreen as the excitement of its stage musical cinematography, the drunkenness of its rapid-fire editing, and the sartorial pleasures of its sparkle-crotch tap costumes. That might not be good news for the world at large, but it speaks well to Cabaret’s value as a feature film adaptation, a work that’s apparently remarkably effective no matter how familiar you are with its source material or its real-world thematic substance.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) – From my review: “It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

In Fabric (2019) – From my review: “Wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mondo Trasho (1969) & Bootleg Drag

Welcome to Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss three dirt-cheap, no-budget films starring drag queens, starting with John Waters’s debut feature Mondo Trasho (1969).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Dark City (1998)

I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.

Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.

If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.

Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.

The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.

-Brandon Ledet

A Return to Panic in the Streets (1950) in the Time of COVID-19

Last Spring, Shotgun Cinema projected the 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House, as part of that season’s Science on Screen series. As a shot-on-location noir set in New Orleans and an Elia Kazan-directed procedural drama, Panic in the Streets proved to be a solid genre entry, but not much more. As a historical act of local people-watching, however, it carried a lot of clout as something exceptional, and I was glad to have shared that experience with a live, local community. There was a warm, electric feeling in that room as the movie offered a time-machine vision of our city’s past in an entertaining genre film package.

Once the movie concluded, however, the crowd gradually disbanded before the screening was officially over. The Science on Screen series included a post-film lecture and Q&A with specialists on each particular movie’s topic, and as that night’s guest scientist began their spiel the once-enraptured crowd gradually trailed off into the night one at a time, out of apparent collective disinterest. In retrospect, we all should have stayed & listened to that lecture. Hell, we all should have been taking notes. Panic in the Streets is specifically about a plague spreading through the streets of New Orleans, where current new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high, and the lecture was about how epidemics of that nature tend to spread through communities like ours. We had all gathered that night to marvel at a vision of our city’s distant past, but we were also unknowingly looking into our not-too-distant future.

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s & 90s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target were especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The prospect of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the New Orleans locale in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors (that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years) and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique.

The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film down here for the tax credits. It may not do much to document what the city itself looked like in the 1950s, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people. The local cast & crew sported neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here and it was nice to hear a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect). Even without that local connotation, though, there’s just a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing at the movies.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero lawmen vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre, but the film ultimately still adheres to those tropes. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat.

There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but those confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about Jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

At the time of last year’s screening, I thought of Panic in the Streets as a curio that would only be of interest to locals, but I’ve seen a huge increase in outside audience’s interest surrounding it in recent weeks. Of course, most of the film’s draw all these months later has nothing to do with its ability to satisfy noir genre beats nor its value as vintage New Orleans tourism. In the time of COVID-19, many audiences are scrambling to uncover older film titles that explore the horrors & social mechanics of large-scale health epidemics. If the goal of these coronavirus-inspired excursions into plague cinema past is to cathartically indulge in the scariest possible fallout scenarios of our current global health crisis, you’re probably better off watching a modern thriller like Contagion or Outbreak instead. If anything, Panic in the Streets’s depiction of a citywide viral contamination is almost reassuringly quaint compared to our current circumstances. Containing the epidemic is just as simple as catching a few low-level criminals who’ve been passing it around among themselves, which is antithetical to how we understand the seemingly uncontainable, exponential spread of contamination that’s playing out in charts & graphs on the news this very minute.

Speaking even as someone in New Orleans (where new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high thanks to massive Mardi Gras gatherings’ ominous presence in the not-too-distant rearview) who recently watched it in a crowded room, this movie is a comforting vision of an easily conquerable epidemic. I very much wish our current real-world crisis could be boiled down to just a few no-good scoundrels who need to be cornered at the Mississippi River docks. There’s a comfort to that simplicity. Instead, we’re in a much more complex mess of irresponsible disinformation campaigns, economic exploitation, and the deaths of our communities’ most vulnerable comrades – one where there cannot be a clear, decisive victory over the enemy when this is all “over.” A few dozen movie nerds remaining in their seats for the full lecture after that Shotgun Cinema screening wouldn’t have been enough to prevent these current helltimes, but it couldn’t have hurt for us to enter them better informed.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream in New Orleans This Week 3/26/20 – 4/1/20

As you likely already know, the governor has ordered the indefinite closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. That decree makes our weekly What’s Playing in Town report something of a sham, but I thought I’d share some movie recommendations anyway (all in an effort to maintain the fictional veneer of Normalcy). I’ll just be shifting into Online Streaming options as a substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine. It’s just a grab bag of a few movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Phantasm (1979) – From my review: “Its ‘Let’s put on a show!’ communal enthusiasm & D.I.Y. approximation of nightmare-logic surrealism is the exact kind of thing I’m always looking for in low-budget genre films. Its trajectory of starting with familiar regional slather locations like suburban cul-de-sacs, dive bars, and graveyards before launching into a fully immersive nightmare realm of its own design is a perfect encapsulation of how it somehow turned low-budget scraps into cult classic gold in the real world as well.” Currently streaming on Shudder and for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi & Vudu.

Blood and Donuts (1995) – From Britnee’s review: “It’s basically a film about a vampire that frequents a local donut shop, but it’s such a beautiful movie. It takes place almost exclusively at nighttime in what appears to be a single, smoky neighborhood in a small city. The ambiance is so trashy and beautiful. It makes me feel dirty and clean at the same time.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Smithereens (1982) – From my review: “It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Streaming VOD

Doctor Sleep (2019) – From Boomer’s review: “This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Mike Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly.” A $5 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Parasite (2019) – From Boomer’s review: “Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.” A $5 rental on all major VOD platforms.

The Cell (2000) – From my review: “On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames the high-fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise this movie has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of those high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, though. It sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Invisible Man (2020)

The last movie I saw in theaters was Leigh Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. Normally, documenting the last movie I saw in theaters wouldn’t be worthwhile, since I go so often that it would be outdated information before I could publish a review. These are not normal times. I watched The Invisible Man on the big screen a few days before all Louisiana cinemas were ordered to close indefinitely by the governor, as a response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As you already know, it’s been an incredibly long & complicated couple weeks in a way that fuzzes up the memory and distorts our relationship with time. I saw The Invisible Man a relative eternity ago. Even as a traumatizing work that tackles very real, very harmful cycles of abuse, it was a welcome distraction from the hellworld outside – a mode of cinematic escape that no longer currently exists and already feels like it’s been missing in my life forever.

Whannell reinterprets The Invisible Man’s traditional lore from Universal’s Famous Monsters era the same way a lot of horror filmmakers have been revitalizing the genre in the wake of Get Out: by reassessing who we select as the genre’s villains. Most variations of Invisible Man lore—from the original 1930s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel to its slimeball offshoot Hollow Man in 2000—dwell on the implied voyeurism & lack of criminal consequences that accompany public anonymity. Rather than avoid the most sordid implications of that power, Whannell makes it an explicit part of the text. The Invisible Man is not the hero of this story. He’s a millionaire brat who uses a self-funded invisibility suit invention to invade the privacy of and further abuse his former girlfriend, who’s been traumatized by his controlling behavior to the point of seeking shelter outside his home. It’s like a reinterpretation of Batman where billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne using his extraordinarily expensive gadgetry to beat up jobless street criminals is framed as a horrifying act – which is to say it’s a realistic, politically engaged interpretation.

The only responsible way to convey The Invisible Man’s function as an abusive villain is to tell the story from his victim’s perspective. Elizabeth Moss stars as The Invisible Man’s long-abused ex-lover, a woman desperate to move on with her life after the trauma of living with the brute but continually haunted by his presence. He is reported to be dead by his own hand, but his presence still terrorizes her in both concrete & intangible ways – including literally gaslighting her by turning up the gas on the stove while she’s cooking breakfast. No one believes her that this reported-dead man is now invisible and tormenting her in anonymity, of course, at least not until his presence is unignorable because it is outright lethal. Watching this woman suffer a series of escalating, privacy-invading microaggressions that no one else takes seriously until it’s far too late has a genuine, deeply upsetting connection to how abuse manifests in real life – as does the metaphor of her post-trauma recovery being hindered by her abuser’s lingering presence. On a pure conceptual level, the movie is brilliant.

This is a much quieter film than Whannell’s previous effort, the technophobic action thriller Upgrade. He trades out that preceding film’s exciting, body-mounted camera work & pulsating synths for the cold, oscillating sweeps of security cameras and the quiet terror of an “empty” house. Casting Elizabeth Moss in the central role was a genius move, as that eerie stylistic restraint essentially makes The Invisible Man a one-woman show – something Moss is overqualified for, considering the Olympian acting feats of titles like Her Smell & Queen of Earth. Whannell’s skill for action-horror payoffs eventually comes to the forefront in the rapid escalation of the third act, once the titular villain’s cover is blown. Until then, the entire film rests in Moss’s more-than-capable hands and it’s hard to imagine an actor who could carry that responsibility as expertly as she does. If COVID-19-delayed movie releases continue to snowball in the coming months, she might even be able to turn that reduced competition pool into Awards Attention that most early-in-the-year releases couldn’t dream of. It would be deserved, no matter the context.

The Invisible Man opens with a coldly silent prison break, wherein Moss’s traumatized victim escapes her abuser’s home while he is sleeping, terrified to make even the smallest sound. I was hyper-aware of our theatrical audience’s presence during this sequence, especially the restless teens who were tittering and playing with their phones on the far end of our row. As the movie became increasingly tense, the teens quieted down and got lost in the experience of it – something I can’t imagine would have happened if they had watched it at home. Thanks to COVID-19 closures, The Invisible Man is currently available on VOD, months before it normally would have been released outside theaters. I won’t pretend that I know when cinemas will open again or what films will be available when they are, but I very much hope this disruption does not permanently upend the theatrical experience as a viable business. There’s an undeniable immersive, communal magic to the theatrical experience and—as great as it was—I very much hope that The Invisible Man is not the last time I get to experience that escapist joy.

-Brandon Ledet