Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast: Top 5 Spielbergs & Predestination (2015)

Welcome to Episode #52 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-second episode, James & Brandon count down their top five Steven Spielberg movies with film blogger, mixologist, and stand-up comedian Jeff Culpepper.  Also, Brandon makes James watch the Spierig Brothers’ time-travel thriller Predestination (2015) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn


The Esoteric Suicide-Epidemic Media of Bridgend (2016) & Suicide Club (2002)

It was bound to happen sooner or later: Brandon picked a flick for Movie of the Month that I simply didn’t care for. It’s not the first time we weren’t all in agreement on the MotM; Black Moon was a slog for me personally (although it’s one that I admit I might have enjoyed more if I had been in a different mood), as was Hearts of Fire, and I’ve picked a clunker or two (like My Demon Lover) or something that simply didn’t appeal to everyone (Alli hated Head Over Heels), but usually Brandon and I are pretty much on the same page. Not this time, however. It’s not an issue of subject matter, either, as teen suicides (well, staged suicides) are an integral part of my favorite movie of all time, Heathers; nor is it an issue of cultural differences, as I love the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa like Charisma and Cure, both of which are obvious influences on this film. But, boy, was this one a hard one for me to stay awake through.

So, too, was Bridgend, a more recent film about a rash of teen suicides in the small Welsh town for which the film was named. Starring Hannah Murray of Skins and God Help the Girl fame (or Game of Thrones, I suppose), Bridgend is directed by Danish documentarian Jeppe Rønde and focuses on the real town of Bridgend, where nearly eighty people hanged themselves in the years leading up to 2012, most of them teenagers. Sarah (Murray) and her father Dave (Steven Waddington) have moved back to the area so that he, as the new leader of local law enforcement, intends to get to the bottom of this seeming madness. A lonely girl, Sarah is immediately recognized as having attended school with the local hooligan teens upon her return, and falls in with them, much to her father’s violent and overwrought consternation.

I originally discovered this film after binging on the Amazon Prime series Fortitude, an absolutely stunning Nordic-Brit co-production set in Svalbard. I wanted to find more Danish media and Bridgend appeared in a Netflix search. My roommate and I started the film, but he was so bored by it that we turned it off, even though I’m always at least a little bit invested in a movie that features a lot of attractive people going skinny dipping. After watching Suicide Club, I went back to the film to restart and finish it, but absence did not make the heart grow fonder. This is still a dreary film, and not just because of the subject matter. The direction and cinematography has been praised for its realism, with most reviewers noting the director’s background as a documentary filmmaker as the reason for Bridgend‘s lingering shots and invested depth of field. And while that’s likely true, the film’s similarity to non-fiction film-making is also its greatest failing.

At times throughout the film, we’re shown short glimpses of the teens’ interactions with their respective parents that paint them in an unfavorable light. Jamie (Josh O’Connor)’s interactions with his father (Adrian Rawlins), the town vicar, are strained, and there is one line that even seems to imply that there is sexual abuse at play in their relationship. This seems to be borne out in the way that the teens’ apparent leader Danny (Aled Thomas) embarrasses Jamie sexually when he discovers that Jamie and Sarah intend to run away together, but it’s never made explicit. There’s also the fact that Thomas (Scott Arthur) kills himself after a raging party in which his own mother sleeps with his mate Angus (Jamie Burch). And Sarah’s relationship with her father grows from notably cold and distant to outright abusive over the course of the film with little provocation and no explanation. There’s no insight into any of these relationships provided by the editing or any other filmic language; it’s all just presented as a series of vignettes with no thematic connection. That’s a great tack to take when you’re making a documentary, but not when making a narrative fiction film, as it leads to an overall sense of frustration and difficulty in investment.

I can see why this seemed like a good idea. No one knows why the kids in Bridgend keep hanging themselves, and to make a movie with a definitive statement that the cause is poor parental relationships or peer pressure is insulting and in poor taste at best. But if that’s going to be the case, why insert potential issues at all? Why make this film about Bridgend’s suicide trend, instead of creating a fictional town in which similar events take place and set your broody, somber, bathetic melodrama there? Suicide Club did much the same, and even though I was left unfulfilled by it, at least it didn’t pretend that it had something deeper on its mind.

What Bridgend does have over Suicide Club is a greater sense of visual cohesion, even if its narrative cohesion is only slightly higher. For one thing, it benefits from focusing on one character and her admittedly unclear journey, instead of being a series of scenes that are only barely connected thematically before introducing a police procedural element deep in the first act, and then moving to a woman who is (I guess?) our protagonist somewhere around the third hour of the film halfway through the second act. Bridgend, at least, maintains a consistent color temperature and depth of field and focus throughout. You’re not going to get whiplash as you move from a comically scored group suicide to an atmospheric creepy hospital at night to a genuinely eerie school rooftop mass suicidal leap to a parody J-pop music video. There’s going to be a lot of sighing, some head shaking, and you may even shout “Yes, but why?!” when Sarah frees her horse in order to avoid being sent to a riding school (not only is it completely lacking in subtlety as a metaphor, but it also is the only metaphorical moment in the movie, highlighting its absurdity and lack of imagination).

Neither film works for me, but one or both might for you. We can’t all agree about everything. Bridgend is on Netflix.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Bonheur (1965)

My earliest exposure to Agnès Varda’s work was as an intently unfussy documentarian. Her recent films Faces Places and (my personal favorite) The Gleaners & I are heavy on ideas and light on meticulous craft. Varda has a punk, D.I.Y. sensibility to her recent docs that embrace the affordability & portability of digital camcorders, freeing her from the struggles with financing that have cramped her entire career. It was jarring, then, to see a film from Varda’s past that deliberately recalls the overproduced artifice of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor “women’s pictures.” The 2014 digital restoration of Varda’s 1965 melodrama Le Bonheur (supervised by the director herself) is a gorgeous, over-saturated indulgence in Spring & Summertime textures. The film is so rich with color that the screen is often filled with a single, opaque hue: red, green, blue, white, purple. Its idyllic Eden setting is a true immersion in Natural delights, a far cry from the sickly digital realms of Varda’s recent D.I.Y. docs. However, the political subversion & playfully abstract humor of her documentary work is still strongly represented just under that flower-carpeted surface. Le Bonheur is much closer to the Sirk-riffing bitterness of punk works like John Waters’s Polyester or Russ Meyer’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! than it is like Sirk’s studio lot work itself. She just happened to get there a decade before Meyer or Waters, delivering her own caustic subversion of the All That Heaven Allows era before that inspiration even had time to cool.

One of the most striking things about Le Bonheur is what it pretends to be: a judgement-free, matter-of-fact portrait of polyamory & extramarital romance. For most of the runtime, the film follows a chipper family man with the ideal wife-and-kids home life and just enough contract work as a carpenter to keep their world afloat. Without any malice or harm intended to a wife he dearly loves, he thoughtlessly slips into a sexual affair with a nearby postal worker whose childless, youthful life in the city excites him. As he describes it to his mistress, “My wife is like a hearty plant. You are like an animal set free. I love Nature.” For a while, Le Bonheur appears to agree with his naïve assertion that he can love both women equally to neither’s detriment. It initially presents itself as an idyllic French New Wave advertisement for the virtues of polyamory & the dissolution of traditional monogamous bonds of marriage. All that proto-Sexual Revolution moralizing is deliberately undone in the final fifteen-minute stretch. Seasons change. Lives are destroyed. The desire to maintain simultaneous relationships with a wife and a mistress under the blatant power imbalance of men’s freedom to skirt domestic responsibilities is exposed as an impulse of selfishness & entitlement. Is the wandering husband really so full of love that he can maintain simultaneous relationships with multiple lovers or is he merely a selfish, privileged lush who treats women as disposable, replaceable household appliances? Le Bonheur doesn’t decisively answer that question, but does allow it to hang bitterly in the air.

Although the surface details of Le Bonheur recall 1950s studio-made melodramas/”woman’s pictures,” Varda subverts that perception with experimental film editing techniques of the avant-garde. The washes of opaque color appear to mark subtle changes in relationship dynamics & mood over time, but with no concrete correlation that could be expressed in words. The pastel voids of interior domestic spaces recall the intense wall paper realms of the candy-coated musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg & Young Girls of Rochefort (both directed by Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy). Speaking of extratextual, real life romances, the married leads of Le Bonheur (Jean-Claude & Claire Drouot) were a real life couple as well, a kind of reality vs artifice tension that informs weirdo passion projects like A Woman Under the Influence or, more recently, mother!. Varda’s flair for expressionistic, art house filmmaking is most readily felt in her experiments in abrupt jump cuts. The film opens with an upsetting alternation between a symmetrical & an asymmetrical sunflower. A romantic tryst is depicted through quick shots of tangled, exposed flesh, confusing which details belong to which body. A dizzying dance scene is disoriented by partners swapped during a wedding celebration and telegraphsthe anxiety over the interchangeability of sex partners that later upends the plot. In its early honeymoon period, Le Bonheur resembles a Springtime Polaroid, a rigidly framed document of idyllic, Natural growth. Varda subtly disrupts, subverts, and rots that first impression as the film’s shifting romantic dynamics settle into a consistent groove, prepping her audience for the last-minute rug-pull that distorts any perceived advocacy for undisclosed polyamory.

Agnès Varda herself describes Le Bonheur as a “beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” That kind of social & political subversion lurking under the surface of what first appears to be a breezy delight seems to be consistent with the documentary work she’s buried herself in recent decades, which are way more fun to watch than their themes & subjects might suggest. What distinguishes Le Bonheur is how extreme of a delight its surface appears to be. The floral, color-soaked Eden where she stages her adultery-suspicious morality play is a Douglas Sirk-level indulgence miraculously achieved on a French New Wave scale & budget. Her protopunk subversion of that Sirk melodrama mindset is a little subtler than what you’ll find from Waters, Meyer, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so much so that it’s plausible to miss its criticism of men taking women for granted as domestic & emotional laborers entirely if you let your mind wander before the final minutes. The subtlety of that subversion is just as potent as the film’s flair for the avant-garde, though, an apple-gnawing worm that’s all the more effective for catching you off-guard in a sun-drenched Eden.

-Brandon Ledet

The Gleaners and I (2002)

In the post-Katrina 2000s, I was an idealistic college student with a very silly (and very sloppy) punk band called Trash Trash Trash. It was kind of a concept art project involving politically absurdist songs about art & trash, hazmat suit costumes decorated with crude finger paint, and VHS cassettes of images that alternated between camcorder documents of crude art & piles of garbage we would find around New Orleans. As a group, the eight of us were a total, incohesive mess, but could passably put on a fun show while conveying a highly specific (even if abstract) political philosophy. A decade or so later, it was mind-blowing to see that exact philosophy projected back at me on the big screen, especially in a documentary that preempted Trash Trash Trash by several years.

Watching Agnès Varda’s trash-obsessed documentary The Gleaners & I was like gazing into a time-traveling mirror, back to where my mind was in the early 2000s. The French New Wave innovator gushes early in the film about the affordability & portability of digital camcorder technology. She addresses the significant overlap between trash & art and how the excess of capitalist runoff is reabsorbed as a kind of Natural bounty that can be harvested for sustenance. She dumpster dives with French crust punks, tickles herself with silly puns, and (no joke) fucking raps about the politics of trash in a key montage of broken televisions. The only component of Trash Trash Trash missing from this prophetic vision is the finger-painted hazmat suits, but I must admit I was so overwhelmed by the other similarities that I may have missed them. The punkest thing about all this philosophical overlap is that she not only beat us to it, but she did so in her 70s, not as some idealistic college student.

In a way, The Gleaners & I is more of an essay film than it is a traditional documentary. The thesis Varda posits is that modern trash-digging (whether for found art objects, rescued furniture, “expired” food, or otherwise) is just a natural extension of ancient traditions of harvesting. French law allows for people to collect left-behind fruits & vegetables after farmers’ proper harvest season, so that left-behind food does not go to waste. It’s a long-established (and traditionally feminine) practice known as “gleaning.” Varda documents the myriad of ways the practice of gleaning has evolved in modern life. She interviews the few (largely destitute) communities who still glean in a tradition sense, the farmers who either encourage or deliberately hinder their activity, lawyers who protect its legality, and so on. Once she extends these interviews to the homeless people, crust punks, and artistic weirdos who dig through urban garbage for their own modernized form of gleaning (as well as interrogating her own impulses to rescue found objects from the trash) the political point she’s laying out about modern capitalist excess becomes more esoteric & philosophical, but also much more distinct & cinematic.

Varda’s recent Oscar-nominated Faces Places is a great reminder that she’s still a playfully subversive political mind who can deliver high caliber cinema without any of the fussy snobbery associated with the art form. I loved being introduced to her aesthetic through that endearing work, but its D.I.Y. punk ancestor The Gleaners & I hit me much closer to my heart. I can’t believe that there was this succinct of a summation of my personal philosophies as a silly-ass, trash-obsessed punk idealist in my youth floating around in the ether and I completely missed it until now. I went into The Gleaners & I respecting Varda as a kind of mascot for unfussy, D.I.Y cinema with a genuine subversive streak, but left it believing her to be more of a kindred spirit, someone who truly gets what it means to live among the capitalist refuse of this trash island Earth. I’m too much in awe of her very existence to say much more.

-Brnadon Ledet

The Late, Great Planet Mirth VII: A Distant Thunder (1978)

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Hello, dear ones. Can you believe it’s been over a year since we last checked in with Patty, the apparent protagonist of the Thief in the Night series? We were barely a month into the Trump Administration the last time I had the strength to watch one of these endearingly dated films about the Rapture, and as more and more bad news rolled in, I couldn’t find it in me to investigate further into the science fiction fantasies of the same group of people who put him in office, in spite of what their actual scriptures say about his kind (if you read Luke 16:19–31 and imagine anyone other than Trump as the rich man in this parable, then get out of your church because it’s lukewarm as shit).

We’re in a bad spot, America. Support for queer people just decreased for the first time. Immigrants are being seized by I.C.E. in the middle of their green card interviews, with the possibility of being held indefinitely, and Jeff Sessions’s rollback of Obama-era civilian-protecting statutes has troubled even notorious asshole Clarence Thomas, who wrote that creating a situation in which police can “seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” This, combined with Sessions’s signalling that white supremacy is A-OK with him means that American Fascism isn’t just an abstract concept anymore, it’s the real deal, and we’re not looking down the barrel—the barrel is in our mouths, and the safety isn’t just off, it’s broken. White supremacy detaining people, confiscating their property, and holding them indefinitely without the possibility of release . . . why does that sound so familiar?

How did we get to the point where a propaganda film about starving people in post-apocalyptic Des Moines being submitted to the rule of the Antichrist is actually escapist fiction, because at least the Christians in this movie can recognize the face of evil and resist it? I mean, I know why, but what the hell, America?

Back over in post-Rapture 1978 Des Moines, our old friend Patty (Patty Dunning) lies on a cot in a church that has been converted (no pun intended) into a camp for those who have not yet taken The Mark. Tomorrow, the group that is captive there will be trotted out and given the final choice: take The Mark or be executed. Despite the fact that she dreamed about the Rapture and most of the occurrences from her dream have come to pass, Patty is still in a panic because she hasn’t “received Christ as her Savior”*, and despite the protestations of her friends, she’s still not ready to do so. Patty’s a bit of an idiot, frankly. I’m pretty sure that Richard Dawkins himself would have gotten on his knees and said the magic words by now if he had witnessed the Rapture with his own eyes. Patty is joined by Wenda (Sally Johnson), who attempts to comfort her, and Kent (Kent Wagner), who tells her that she can find peace in Christ. Wenda’s younger sister Sandy (Sandy Stevens) tells the others to leave Patty be, but Kent and Wenda convince her to relate the story of how she came to be in this camp, in the hopes that it will help her calm down.

We then flash back to that fateful morning from the end of Thief in the Night, when Patty awakens from her nightmare about the Rapture to her new living nightmare of, um, the Rapture. Unbelieving at first, she flees to her pious best friend Jenny (Colleen Niday)’s house, only to find her missing, the radio still on and a stand mixer continuing to spin. From there, she makes her way to the home of her Christian grandmother (Jean Berg? Murial Hunt? As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of photos on the film’s cast page, more than half of the cast is not connected to a character, and if you follow the links, most of these people only ever appeared in this film or one of its sequels). Granny is also Raptured and gone, so Patty returns home; since she can’t afford the mortgage, she invites Wenda and Sandy to come live with her in Granny’s house, which they accept.

A world away (and far beyond the eye of this film’s camera crew), miracles happen. Two men who preach like Elijah and Moses appear in Jerusalem, and there are mass conversions of what Granny calls, in flashback, “sealed witnesses” (144,000 of them, in fact). One of these witnesses (surprisingly hunky Tim Doughten, son of screenwriter Russell Doughten Jr.) happens to appear to the women during one of their horseback outings, and Wenda accepts receives Christ as her savior. Patty’s friend Diane and her husband Jerry (Maryann and Thom Rachford) help the women out by using Diane’s position in a food bank to smuggle food bars to their home, in spite of Patty’s continual hysteria whenever she meets them, a holdover from when she dreamed that they turned her over to the Antichrist’s forces.

Wenda also befriends an older man named Jonathan (Curtis Page? Jim Ites? Who knows!) who wanders by a barn in which the trio is just, like, hanging out one day. She witnesses** to him, but is unsuccessful. She and Sandy are captured by the Antichrist’s forces, UNITE (see the second footnote in the Thief review), but Wenda manages to call Patty and warn her to flee the house. Patty then manages to not only disarm one of the two guards sent after her, but to bluff his partner into dropping his own weapon before she steals their van and gets away. For someone who spends 95% of this movie shrieking and in the most obtuse denial ever committed to film, Patty manages to be a bit of a badass here. She calls Diane to ask for help, only to arrive where she was directed to find that they want her to take The Mark.

We’re all caught up to the frame story now, where the captives have been huddled into the church’s nave and called in groups of four to either take The Mark or be executed. Sandy and Kent are taken, and Wenda makes a final attempt to get Patty to just pray already, but she’s still on the fence***. They are called next and taken outside, where we see the method of execution: a guillotine****. Diane, Jerry, and Sandy (Gasp! She took The Mark! And it was she who betrayed their little trio to UNITE!) appear to try to convince Wenda and Patty to take The Mark and spare themselves this death, but Wenda goes to her execution with quiet dignity. As the blade descends, we are once again left with a cliffhanger, as we freeze frame on Patty’s screaming face. What will she choose? What will you choose?

A Distant Thunder is both better and worse than A Thief in the Night. That same layer of seventies earnestness and, believe it or not, inventive filmmaking that made Thief so memorable is on full display here. I’ve seen and reviewed a lot of cheap, shot-for-nothing horror movies from this era (Cathy’s Curse from 1977, Mark of the Witch from 1970, The Love Butcher from 1975, and Abby from 1974 just to name a few), and the production value in A Distant Thunder is equal to or greater than each of these. There’s an unconvincing but impressive earthquake scene in which an entire set is shaken apart while Patty runs around it panicking, a legitimately thrilling car chase, and a truly magnificent barn fire, all of which combined probably ate most of the film’s budget. As someone who loves the minutiae of filmmaking, there are also places where I can see the film’s desires butting against its cost, and director Donald W. Thompson shows some real ingenuity in shooting around these monetary limitations to give the Rapture and its follow up events a sense of scale. Notable shots include Patty driving to Jenny’s immediately after the Rapture and dealing with a couple of different road blocks caused by accidents (presumably because the cars were unmanned, or because the unmanned vehicles killed and maimed unbelievers), including one vehicle turned on its side. As Patty pulls up to Jenny’s house, we see another “roadblock” manned by uniformed officers, but we only see the sawhorse barrier and the back of the police cruiser, “showing” this other accident solely through implication. It’s a tiny thing to find so praiseworthy, but demonstrates a level of competence in filmmaking that wasn’t very common for that era even among mainstream wannabe filmmakers, and which would be largely lost by the time Cloud Ten came along and made Apocalypse.

Part of this is the result of political changes. As someone raised deep, deep in the world of Evangelical Christianity, I can tell you: the people who grow up in or join these churches are fed a doctrine of constancy of ideology that does not align with historical reality. There’s an anti-factual devotion to the precept that Evangelical Christianity in its current form—culturally isolationist, politically involved, nationalistic, dogged by confrontational rhetoric using words like “war,” “battle,” and “soldiers”—is uniform across time, ignoring the fact that while most of the “movers and shakers” of American history may have been people of faith, they kept their personal and private lives separate. It wasn’t until the Reagan era and the GOP’s genius (and evil) move to predicate their political platform on drawing out the “silent majority” of Christians while also subverting that religion’s altruistic and utopian aims that we saw the beginning of the stark divisions that are omnipresent in political discourse now. This goes above and beyond the way that Christians are misled into believing that a party that is largely anti-Christian (as it is anti-poor, anti-minority, anti-tolerance, anti-immigrant, pro-wealth, pro-usury, etc.) somehow represents their beliefs as followers of Christ, it creates a rhetorical space of presumed correctness that lacks humility and is permeated with smugness.

Like Thief before it, A Distant Thunder is a film made as a preaching tool, yes, but one that was crafted with the explicit desire to render spiritual aid; the creators want you, yes you, to be saved now, because what’s coming for you if you don’t is going to be bad fucking news, and they genuinely want you to be saved from that fate. Compare that to the rhetoric of Kirk Cameron, the Left Behind series, and the various films that Pure Flix has been pumping out: these are products characterized by smug self-satisfaction, using the opportunity to “witness” to instead rub the noses of non-believers in how wrong they are. Cameron and his ilk don’t want you to be saved: they want the schadenfreude that comes from getting taken to heaven and then watching all those atheists and intellectual elitists suffer for being mean to them (that is to say: not agreeing with them immediately, not being won over by their fallacy-riddled argument techniques, having a different opinion, and refusing to go along with the idea that sodomites should be lynched).

I could spend hours and hours telling you about the different things that were forbidden to either me or other kids I knew who had similar home situations (as was almost always the case, the homeschooled kids I went to church with had it the worst), all in the name of further building a wall to separate Christian homes from The World, that evil place outside where Satan was putting kissing homos on television and Murphy Brown was having a child—without a husband! The rhetoric of 1990s Evangelicism was about building walls, while, intentionally or not, the 1970s Rapture fervor was about constructing bridges. And an inseparable part of this is the fact that the makers of the Thief series, since they hadn’t completely walled themselves off from the larger culture, actually knew something about film and filmmaking.

Director Donald W. Thompson may not be the best example of this, given that Thief was his first film and his body of work is largely in other Christian propaganda flicks, but I have no doubt that as a first time director, he was mentored by co-writer Doughten. Doughten was an un-credited co-director on 1958’s The Blob (according to this interview with his son Tim, mentioned above, Doughten was directly responsible for the casting of Steve McQueen in the lead role) and went on to direct 1967’s The Hostage starring Harry Dean Stanton, Don Kelly, and John Carradine, as well as 1968’s Fever Heat, one of the final film roles for Nick Adams. After that, his work seems to be solely in the realm of Christian cinema, but this background in, for lack of a better word, “real” movies gave him abilities that far surpassed the filmic Rapture doomsayers of later decades. Compare him to, for instance, Apocalypse director Peter Gerretsen, who only had two previous films under his belt, both of them apparently religiously themed and whose filmmaking incompetence is almost confrontational. Revelation, Tribulation, and Judgment, despite their varying qualities, were all directed by André van Heerden, whose previous work consists solely of “documentaries” with titles like Racing to the End of Time, The Mark of the Beast, Last Days: Hype or Hope?, and Startling Proofs. Based on the fact that his post-Judgment career has seen him return to these “documentaries” (Between Heaven and Ground Zero, 2012: Prophecy or Panic?, Dragons or Dinosaurs?, and Shadow Government), he seems like someone who believes in what he’s making but who follows the directions of his producers pretty closely. That’s the only way I can explain how he manages to make films with such wild variance in the basics: he’s a workman, not a craftsman. And those writers? Brothers Peter and Paul LaLonde, who appear to have never written anything that wasn’t about the Rapture, which explains why their films have non-Christian characters use terminology that only people who subscribe to their worldview would say; they’re so deep in the scene that they have no idea their jargon isn’t shared outside of their circle.

Other than the aforementioned workarounds to make the world of the film feel more fully realized, there are other visual flourishes in the movie that are well done and occasionally even subtle. There’s a dissolve to flashback at one point that finds Patty inspecting a porcelain statue of a white horse in Diane and Jerry’s house; the next time we see a similar transition, the camera lingers on an ornate red knight on a chess board, and only then does it become apparent that the film is tracking the passage of time with iconography of the Four Apocalyptic Horsemen. It’s a deft touch that is a credit to the direction of the film. There’s also a macabre elegance to the way that the characters herded into the chapel and presented with the choice to accept The Mark or die is a kind of infernal altar call, with the same nonthreatening cadence and vocal inflection as the ones you would see at Bethany World Prayer Center or The Rock Church that I attended in my youth; Patty ruins this a little by lampshading it, but it’s still a rather nice touch. It’s also a good choice to have those who take The Mark be kind and normal; the Apocalypse series (other than Judgment) shows those who accept the Antichrist’s mark as being either possessed by evil or cowering under it. Jerry and Diane actually seem like genuinely nice people, even if they think Wenda and Patty are going a little kooky out there at Granny’s house, and when they trick Patty into showing up at a Mark distribution center, they’re not trying to trap her but create a way for her to get the psychiatric help that, from their point of view, she desperately needs. The film does its best work in these small, intimate moments, like when Wenda and Sandy are taken to an Antichrist medical facility and see a woman begging for someone to feed her baby, but being turned away because she doesn’t have The Mark and refuses to get one. I also really like how the dam that Patty ran across (and from which she was eventually pushed) in her dream in Thief plays a significant role as a focus of the film (although I laughed out loud when she stopped the car there on the way out of town and told Wenda and Sandy that she wanted to “Show [them] what happened in [her] nightmare).

As with all of these films, however, there’s still much to criticize. Patty the actress is doing a damn fine job here, but Patty the character is intolerable, which makes sense when you consider the way that Evangelical Christians conceptualize non-belief: from their point of view, the reality that their understanding of the universe is accurate and factual is just so obvious (ignoring that, if the evidence was really so evident, the very concept of faith would be completely meaningless). Thus those who “don’t believe” actually do believe, they just refuse to admit The Truth™ because then they would have to give up their sinful ways or stop being mad at God for killing their mother when they were a kid (or, more succinctly: atheists don’t exist, only anti-theists who hate God because of a personal trauma or a desire to be “wicked” do). The budget shows through at certain points too, largely because of the reuse of actors. The man playing the Evangelical pastor who was a guest speaker at Patty’s church pre-Rapture*****, and whose lecture she flashes back upon multiple times, also plays a patient at the aforementioned medical center; the younger Doughten plays a doctor in the background in the same sequence, made obvious by his gravity-defying hair and general hunkiness. The “Jewish Missionary” (which is a problem in its own right; check out these three articles from Fred Clark that tackle the weird Anti-Semitism of some PMDs*****) also shows up in the church being prepared for either decapitation or The Mark, which seems like it might be further evidence of the under-sized cast. He’s just hanging in the background, but that giant Star of David pendant is unmistakable, and it’s a plot point earlier in the film that Wenda’s contact with a missionary is the reason for her abduction since the Antichrist, here called “Brother Christopher,” is trying to stamp out evangelism. It could be the same character and he was captured, or it might just be a goof. I also couldn’t help but laugh when Patty drove to Jenny’s house and, after discovering how her friend was taken in the twinkling of an eye, she finds a framed headshot of Jenny, which segues into a flashback (within the larger flashback) to Jenny warning her about the Rapture and what would come next. She then drives to Granny’s house and discovers a framed photo of her, which likewise fades into a flashback to Granny making gingerbread men and issuing a similar warning. At that point, you find yourself wondering if the whole film will consist of Patty just discovering people’s photographs and remembering them; it’s comical, but also fails to follow the law of threes, which ends up feeling a little frustrating.

Another thing that A Distant Thunder has over the other films that I’ve covered is one of the most exciting: DVD bonus features! There’s a commentary from Doughten and Thompson, which doesn’t span the whole film, but does cover the first 33 minutes or so, and it’s pretty dull, although there are a few gems in their discussion (most notably their explanation of why they chose to make the whole film a flashback—it makes it easier to follow for those who didn’t see the first movie and don’t know who Patty is). There’s also an interview with Patty Dunning in which she’s obviously struggling with the inevitable weight gain of old age. She looks fine, but she mentions being a gymnast in her younger age and being thankful for weighing so little during a previous film that required a stunt, and she talks about how she’s endeavoring to take good care of the vessel that God gave her. It’s meandering and sadder than you would expect. There’s also a feature where you can choose to have Dunning lead you in a prayer for salvation, which is fine.

The real gold, though, is in the “Answers” menu, which contains some frequently asked Rapture questions like “When is the Rapture coming?” and “What are the signs of the Rapture?” as well as other general freshman philosophy questions like “If God is so good, why does he allow bad things to happen?” Each of these features an answer from various Biblical “scholars,” almost all of whom look absolutely ghoulish, like centuries old monsters that were dug up for the purpose of shooting these videos and refused to allow themselves to be made up with cosmetics so as not to look like a sissy (here’s a tip to the maybe three of you left alive: film requires makeup, period). My favorite of these is Manfred Kober, who stands in front of his own Tribulation map on an easel (it differs from the one in the film only slightly) with a pointer that he stabs at the image hilariously when babbling some heresy about how this verse and that verse were meant to be connected thematically to create a picture of the Tribulation. Kober has a minimal internet presence, but you can check out his RateMyProfessor page, if you’re so inclined. The shortest of these clips is in answer to the question of what happens to children in the Rapture. It comes in at less than a minute long; the experts admit that they don’t know but that there are “implications” that children are sanctified by having a parent who is a believer. The issue that they don’t raise is that said passage says the same of spouses, which pretty much gives the lie to the various married couples who are split up when one of them is Raptured, a recurring element in these narratives (Jim and Patty here as well as Wenda and her husband*******, the protagonist of Revelation and his Raptured wife and daughter, and, of course, Rayford Steele and his departed Irene in Left Behind).

All in all, A Distant Thunder works, both as a film and an evangelism tool. Its focus on individuals and their choices instead of big elaborate spectacles separates it from the silliness, callousness, and destruction porn that make up later Rapture flicks. Clocking in at 75 minutes, it seems a lot longer, not because it’s slow (although it is that at times) but because it’s chock full of ideas. After the opening exposition, they hit the ground running and don’t look back, and the film is worthwhile for it. And as a metaphor for stubborn ignorance in the face of an obvious and grotesque evil, it is perhaps the most lucid demonstration of modern Evangelical Christianity, if only accidentally.

* This is a pretty strange turn of phrase, to be honest. In the church in which I was raised, one was said to have either “accepted Christ” or not. “Received” almost seems theologically incorrect, since, within this worldview, grace has already been received, but it’s up to the individual to accept it.

** For those of you unfamiliar with Christian terminology, this means “proselytize,” although how aggressive/annoying/genuine it is varies from denomination to denomination and person to person.

*** Even though modern Evangelicals are the ones most responsible for the election of Trump and they are supposed to see themselves reflected in the character of Wenda, who dutifully accepts her fate as a martyr and never wavers in her faith, Patty is the character that they are most like. She’s so fucking stubborn in the face of overwhelming evidence, but she just can’t bring herself to make the right decision because she can’t let go of her pride and admit that she is capable of being wrong. Trump could admit in a tweet tomorrow that he kidnaps babies to drain their blood for Melania’s baths and all your ignorant Facebook friends would spend weeks talking about how “lamestream media” is blowing it all out of proportion and that Trump is God’s sword on this earth (*ahem*). The irony is so thick that you can’t cut it with a knife, but it could crush the life out of your body.

**** From what I can tell, this is the first time that we see guillotines in Rapture fiction. Revelation 20:4 does mention the beheading of believers, but I find this particular methodology fascinating, as the intention with the invention of the guillotine was to find a more humane method of execution in comparison to other killing machines (specifically to replace the breaking wheel), and was created over a millennia after John’s Revelation. It’s curious that the Antichrist would go for the more humane option over, for instance, Stark-style (or, if you’re a paranoid Islamophobe, Islam-style) beheading with a sword. But this seems to set the tone for what’s to come, since we’ll also see death by guillotine show up in the Apocalypse series, and in Left Behind.

***** He even has a Tribulation Map that he pulls out and discusses, with a timeline. Get your own, only $12.95!

****** Pre-Millenialist Dispensationalist. It’s been a while, I know.

******* Wenda finds out that her husband got saved from a letter that arrives post-Rapture and which she reads on the way to Patty’s grandmother’s house; she actually freaks the hell out at this news because after her baby was taken in the Rapture, the only thing holding her together was the hope of seeing her husband again. It’s one of the more emotionally resonant scenes, since the primary audience will know that her grief is misplaced, but Wenda herself is understandably upset. Again, this reflects a depth of understanding of human nature and its nuances that the authors of Left Behind could never even pretend to have.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ethereal Technophobic Horrors of the Early 2000s: Suicide Club (2002) & FearDotCom (2002)

One of my pet favorite subjects in horror cinema is the evils of technology. I’m especially tickled by internet-age technophobia, which makes me more of a sucker for titles like Nerve, Sickhouse, and #horror than most audiences tend to be. This might help explain how I made two technophobic horror selections for our Movie of the Month conversations in a row, Unfriended & Suicide Club, without even noticing the pattern until it was too late. As a pair, the two films do represent the pinnacle of the subgenre to me, though, especially in the way they simultaneously feel like a part of a cultural trend and standouts among their contemporaries. Unfriended, for its part, is a mainstream found footage horror that doesn’t stray much from the modern, Blumhouse style of dirt cheap genre filmmaking, but looks like the technophobic horror Citizen Kane when compared to its German-produced contemporary, Friend Request. It’s hard to believe with a film so aggressively bizarre, but Suicide Club was part of a trend as well, riding the technology-obsessed J-Horror wave that followed in the wake of the breakout success of Ringu & its American remake, The Ring. That tagalong formula of applying Ringu’s technophobic horror to early 00s internet culture did little to limit madman Sion Sono’s imagination, though; I’d even argue that Suicide Club far surpasses the creative heights of the haunted VHS J-horror film that helped inspire it. For a sharp point of contrast to see just how imaginative that ambitious deviation was, you need to only look to its mainstream American contemporaries that similarly adapted The Ring’s technophobic aesthetic to the Evils of the Internet. One German-American coproduction in particular feels exactly like the Friend Request equivalent to Suicide Club’s Unfriended – its dumb, ugly cousin.

2002’s FearDotCom is, objectively speaking, a terrible film. I’m still incurably tickled by it. Much like the bewildered cop who can’t crack the mystery of a haunted, suicide-inspiring website in Suicide Club, Stephen Dorff stars as an NYC detective struggling to solve the mystery of a haunted website that kills its visitors with Ebola-like symptoms after 48 hours of exposure (not unlike The Ring’s one-week cycle). The film arrived during mainstream horror’s horrendous nu-metal/torture porn period, so its plot mostly amounts to a Flash Art animation take on Videodrome, where an Internet Ghost infects viewers who watch torture for pleasure and attempts beyond-the-grave revenge on the evil doctor who killed her. Once Dorff & his supermodel Health Inspector sidekick (Natascha McElhone) accept the reality of the internet ghost & their dwindling 48 hours of relative good health, their focus shifts to taking down this wicked torture-doctor (The Crying Game’s Stephen Rea) at the industrial hideout where he webcasts his evil deeds. The movie is narratively convoluted, technically inept for a mainstream production, and laughably awkward in its poorly written, weirdly dubbed dialogue. Worse yet, it’s outright morally vile in the way it sensually frames dead & dying women’s bodies as if it were softcore pornography for teenage nu-metal shitheads (something I was personally guilty of being in 2002, sadly). Women strapped to torture devices with just their nipples covered by the leather belts; women jumping out of windows only for their bodies to appear postured for fashion model shoots upon impact; women stabbed to death to German language nu-metal as if in a music video: FearDotCom’s greatest sin is that it’s misogynist trash. It’s also hilarious trash, though, especially in its ponderings on “the secret soul of the internet,” flash art ghosts, furiously scribbled 1’s & 0’s, and cheap camcorder digital grain. You probably have to be a huge fan of ludicrous, internet-obsessed horror to get past its ugly soul and enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s a deeply silly movie that only becomes more peculiar with time.

For all its blatant, mainstream modes of horror filmmaking, FearDotCom occasionally reaches for the ethereal weirdness of Suicide Club’s similar internet-horror preoccupation. While Suicide Club provokes its audience with existential questions like “What’s your connection to yourself? Are you connected to you?,” FearDotCom attempts a similar mysterious air, but (as to be expected) does a much less impressive job of it. The torture-doctor rambles to his latest victim, “The internet offers birth, sex, commerce, seduction, proselytizing, politics, posturing. Death is a logical component.” What the fuck does that mean? Granted, the meaning of the “If you die, will you lose your connection to yourself?” line of questioning in Suicide Club is equally difficult to pin down, but it at least raises further questions & provokes thought, whereas the empty Internet philosophy of FearDotCom doesn’t linger in the mind at all. The film’s nightmare montage imagery of bugs, camcorders, albino children at play, and abandoned nuclear stacks also attempt a fractured narrative similar Sion Sono’s hyperactive vison in Suicide Club, but amounts to little substantive effect as a gestalt. Sono also had the good sense of making his (thankfully fewer) scenes of violence against women repugnant & difficult to watch, as opposed to the seductive gore & torture in FearDotCom that was seemingly aimed directly at misguided teen boners. The most essential difference may be that Sono actually had something to say about the erosion of self-identity & meaningful engagement with the physical world in the digital age, as ethereal as that point may have been, while FearDotCom merely used early 00s internet culture as a colorful backdrop for what was then by-the-numbers mainstream horror filmmaking. Either way, they both used the ethereal nature of the internet to detach their narratives from real world logic, both to entertaining effect (even if entertaining for vastly different reasons).

If you want a glimpse of how cheap & absurdly mishandled FearDotCom’s version of supernatural, technophobic horror is without actually having to, you know, watch the movie, just visit the film’s (NSFW) website. With the tagline, “What to see a killer website?” and an interactive DVD menu that directs you to visit Feardotcom.com, you’d think that Universal Pictures would bother to renew those domain rights into perpetuity. Instead, the address seems to be in use by a scammy advertisement for a British escort service. Meanwhile, the actual fear.com is currently a dummy website that reminds visitors that Donald Trump only has a 26.8% chance of winning the 2017 presidential election (there’s still hope!). This is a major studio production that has been abandoned by its major studio, now only to be found in used DVD stacks in New Orleans area thrift stores (that’s where I found my copy anyway). By contrast, Suicide Club is equally hyperkinetic & willing to come off as silly (especially in its J-Pop music videos and declarations like “I’m Charlie Manson of the Information Age!”), but is much more confident & purposeful, maintaining its reputation as a hidden gem art film from a prolific auteur. Just as I enjoyed the Facebook witchcraft idiocy of Friend Request, but found it only made Unfriended’s merits clearer in juxtaposition, I feel like the glaring faults of FearDotCom are just as entertaining for their own sake as they are illustrative of what makes Suicide Club a superior film. Both works may have been riding a technophobic horror wave in the wake of Ringu/The Ring, but their accomplishments within that aesthetic paradigm are remarkably disparate. Just compare the FearDotCom.com web address to maru.ne.jp from Suicide Club to make that distinction even clearer. The Suicide Club website has also lapsed out of studio control, but is operated by a respectable-seeming Japanese communications technology firm, with no references to British escorts or Donald Trump or anything.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

4 Days in France (2018)

How much explicit gay sex would be reasonable to expect in a French drama bout Grindr? My answer going into 4 Days in France was “a lot,” which is likely a significant factor in why the film underwhelmed me. This is far from the dramatic-cruising exploits of Stranger by the Lake, although just as gravely serious in tone. For all the film’s fragrant Grindr-scrolling & amusement with filthy bathroom graffiti, 4 Days in France is relatively tame in its depiction of same-sex hookups, which feels disingenuous to its basic conceit. I’m not saying the movie was obligated to function as a gay porno, or even an extensive exercise in titillation, but it’s certainly reasonable to expect more sex in a movie about a seedy sex app.

A young, affluent man films his sleeping lover’s body before hitting the early morning road without saying a word (cue Fastball’s “The Way”). Armed only with a small car & the aforementioned Grindr app, he aimlessly wanders through provincial France for the following four days, racking up a series of melancholy Life Experiences. His worried partner tracks him through Grindr by pretending to be a stranger looking for a hookup. Their paths do eventually cross, but in the meantime a series of lowkey interactions with hitchhikers, small town nobodies, and potential sex partners steers his daily wanderings. There is some sex indulged in and life lessons learned long the way, but nothing too significant on either count. As with a lot of French drams, the story told is mostly just aimless & sad.

There are isolated details of 4 Days in France that work well enough in their own allotted time: the line “France is full of men, full of possibilities,” is admirably succinct as a kind of mission statement; there’s a gorgeous exterior tracking shot outside a retirement home that impresses as an exercise in craft; the humor about raunchy bathroom graffiti & the comically complex driving instructions necessary to facilitate provincial hookups land with full impact, and so on. At 140min in length, though, I’m not convinced those details are enough to make the ordeal worthwhile. 4 Days in France could likely be edited down to a satisfying enough 100min picture, but its aimless meandering is too numbing at its current length. This is a picture about anonymity, melancholy, and ennui, which aren’t exactly visually compelling subjects on their own merit. Maybe it’s simple-minded of me to posit that, because the plot is driven by a series of Grindr hookups, a More Explicit Gay Sex edict is the adrenaline shot the film needed to feel alive & worth the effort. Either way, it was certainly missing something and more gay sex in this movie about a gay sex app might’ve been worth a shot.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fantastic Woman (2018)

It was absolutely heartwarming to see A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean drama about a trans woman’s struggle to overcome the death of a long-term boyfriend, win Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It was even more of a godsend for the film’s lead actress, Daniela Vega, to be included in the broadcast as one of the presenters. The moment reminded me of the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, where Mya Taylor won Best Supporting Female for her performance in the Sean Baker film Tangerine, the first trans woman to ever win an award on that show (in any category). Obviously, the Oscars have a much wider audience reach than the Independent Spirit Awards, so its boost of A Fantastic Woman‘s & Daniela Vega’s profiles is an even bigger deal. Not only did the nomination help push the film into wider distribution (I’ve been waiting for it to reach New Orleans for months), but its win was a huge victory for promoting media where trans characters are actually portrayed onscreen by trans people, a concept that should not be as novel as it is. When you think about Oscar Bait dramas about trans issues, the characters in peril are always portrayed by cisgender performers: Dallas Buyers Club, Boy’s Don’t Cry, The Danish Girl, etc. Daniela Vega’s platform as the lead of an Oscar Winning™ film about a trans woman’s romantic grief is a welcome corrective to that antiquated tradition. Unfortunately, the film itself is antiquated and phony in its own ways, not quite the transcendently lyrical or matter-of-fact authentic document of real life experience I’d hoped it would be. It’s all too easy to see how Tangerine was the punk rock political disruptor that stole the heart of the Indies, while A Fantastic Woman was more palatable to the stuffier members of the Academy.

Daniela Vega is a wonder to watch as A Fantastic Woman‘s titular lead. She’s introduced as a nightclub singer with a loving, older boyfriend and a side job waiting tables. As is necessary for a drama, this domestic stability does not last long; the boyfriend dies of a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night, a harsh end to a tender birthday celebration. This is where the authenticity of daily life is diluted with the same queer misery porn we’ve been watching onscreen for decades. Marina desires to be included in the burial & mourning of her deceased partner, but his bitterly transphobic family and an equally unjust legal system lock her out of the process. That conflict is totally believable, but the ways their disapproval of her gender expression manifest are unconvincing & relentlessly dour. Marina is misgendered, deadnamed, addressed with slurs, accused of being a sex worker, investigated for crimes she obviously didn’t commit, pressured into invading physical examinations, sexually harassed, and physically bullied. It’s tough to watch, but also frequently phony-feeling, particularly in a scene where she’s assaulted with Scotch tape instead of fists. Surely, a modern society treating Marina as if her very existence were “a perversion” feels authentic, but the way the film expresses transmisogyny through constant, blatant attacks personally aimed at her recalls the way racial discrimination is handled in Oscar Worthy dramas like Crash & Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (poorly). It’s so overtly & recognizably evil that it more or less lets the audience off the hook for their own subtler, internalized discrimination, making us feel like better people by comparison to the monsters onscreen. By the time Marina’s singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” alone to herself on a midday drive, the whole thing feels too embarrassingly on-the-nose to possibly be representative of any real life experience, which wouldn’t be a problem if portraying real life experience weren’t obviously what the film was aiming for.

A Fantastic Woman works best when it breaks itself free from real life representation and enters a more lyrical realm. Waterfall mist, intense nightclub lighting, impossible gusts of wind, and the boggy voids of public saunas transcend any dramatic cliché to reach for something more memorably singular. The film’s use of mirrors is especially fascinating, whether they’re used to obscure, abstract, distort, detail, or amplify Marina’s appearance, both for herself and for the audience. Because we don’t spend much time with the couple before the boyfriend’s death, the daydreams where his visage reappears in physical spaces like Marina’s car & apartment are also essential to understanding her inner life and how devastating the loss is for her. Early on, we watch Marina and the boyfriend go on one perfect, intimate date and indulge in some sensuous lovemaking, but the way he physically haunts her daily thoughts says so much more about what he meant to her and how significant it is that she cannot formally mourn his passing. This line of dramatic conflict is more emotionally effective than most of the transphobic oppression that surrounds it, largely because it’s more specific to the character as an individual person than it is meant to be representative of a larger, daily trans woman experience. It’s also, frankly, just cooler to look at. A Fantastic Woman would have been better served by leaning into the fantasy suggested by its title. Its most breathtaking sequence is a nightclub fantasy that leaves the audience’s heads spinning in synchronized dance, glam makeup, and tinsel pompom blouses fit for Carnival, only to crash us back down to a clichéd shot of Marina crying in the rain. That harsh transition is the film in a nutshell: intoxicatingly lyrical insights into Marina’s inner psyche violently interrupted by unwelcome dwellings in the phony misery of her daily life. The character is underserved by the trials the film drags her through by the hair, but still enough of a wonder to watch that the movie feels worthwhile (largely to the credit of Daniela Vega’s performance).

A Fantastic Woman‘s Oscar win is a positive sign for the future of trans characters actually being portrayed by trans performers, but it’s also a reminder that the stories we’re telling about those characters need an update as well. It’s probably unfair to fault the film for being a part of a long-running tradition of well-respected dramas about the misery of daily queer existence, but there are too many kinds of trans stories that are just not being told onscreen in the meantime. For a start, it would be great if we could see a widely-distributed film with a trans lead that wasn’t about gender identity at all. A Fantastic Woman‘s moments of lyrical escape & romantic grief are a welcome nod in that direction, but too much of the film is familiarly miserable in the drama it pulls from queer societal oppression for it to feel like a unique breakthrough. Some of its visual language makes it a standout in the queer misery genre, but the film’s greatest accomplishment is introducing its audience to Daniela Vega’s immediately apparent talents as an onscreen presence. Let’s just hope that the next lead role she lands is more worthy of her (or, more practically, let’s hope that one will ever exist at all).

-Brandon Ledet

Ismael’s Ghosts (2018)

When I recently reviewed Alain Guiraudie’s bizarro drama Staying Vertical, I described it as a feverish plot driven by the desperation of writer’s block instead of any real-world logic. I wrote, “It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudie needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Charlie Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.” Let’s go ahead and add Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, to that list of absurdist French dramas continuing the Kaufman tradition of writer’s block mania narratives. Like Staying Vertical, Ismael’s Ghosts follows an increasingly frazzled artist as they avoid the completion of a creative project to the point where their ever-growing list of obligations surround them like wolves (literally, in the case of Staying Vertical). Greater thematic purpose is near impossible to pinpoint in these works, as they’re driven mostly by the anxiety of being obligated to create. It’s like the filmmakers are pulling the audience into their own personal anguish of having to tell a story onscreen in the first place, making the immense pressure felt by the creator just as much of an emotional burden for the consumer. The results of these writer’s block meta experiments can be uneven (and even at times tedious), but they can also lead to fascinating, unpredictable places.

A long-successful filmmaker prolongs the process of writing & directing a feature about his estranged younger brother. He tends to his aging father-in-law, who shares the emotional pain of the filmmaker’s wife’s disappearance over two decades in the past. His current girlfriend is understanding about the ongoing emotional grief that lingers from this disappearance, but unsure of their relationship (and her own sexuality) in more general, intangible ways. The longer the screenplay & subsequent film go unfinished, the more absurdly disastrous these conflicts become. The brother becomes even more irrevocably distant as his fictional movie-within-the movie avatar strays further from the truth. The movie’s production becomes stalled & exponentially more expensive by the day. The father in law’s mental & physical health plummet at an alarming rate. Most significantly, the filmmaker’s wife, who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades, reappears in his life to blow up his current romantic relationship from the inside. The progression (or, perhaps more accurately, regression) of these events & relationships don’t make much logical sense, a fact that only becomes more increasingly obvious as their circumstances deteriorate. Somehow, though, you get the sense that everything would return to a healthy, balanced normal if our crazed, drunken antihero would just finish the damn movie he started writing. It’s his procrastination that threatens to unravel the very fabric of reality just as much as it’s his narcissistic self-absorption.

Ismael’s ghosts, as referenced in the title, are a brother, a wife, and an adopted child, all missing form his current life. These hauntings from the past aren’t a source of grief so much as a piling-on of anxiety: crazy-making sources of obligation that make his inability to complete the film he started writing even more stressful. The true conflict that drives the film is the desperation of writer’s block under the pressure of audiences waiting for a finished product. This creative desperation fractures the narrative into an array of opposing genres: spy thriller, Guy Maddin-style art piece complete with double exposure photography, melodrama about amnesia, a Persona-style psychological thriller (played out by French heavyweights Marion Cottillard & Charlotte Gainsbourg at a beach house), absurdist comedy, and so on. Ismael describes this hellish break with reality in the line, “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up,” but the truth is that he could wake up any moment if he would just finish the movie he promised his producers. In the meantime, the audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.

-Brandon Ledet