Endgame: New Nerd America

I was several weeks behind the curve when I finally caught Avengers: Endgame on the big screen. Thoroughly spoiled on which characters were going to die and filtered though several cycles of praise & backlash for its merits as either A. the greatest film of all time or B. just another superhero sequel, I was predisposed to a fairly lowkey moviegoing experience. Ultimately, I did have about the same reaction to it that I did with last year’s less-loved Avengers film, Infinity War: I was tickled by the components of the MCU that already tend to tickle me and bored with the characters & storylines that always tend to bore me. That high-floor/low-ceiling quality of this series leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander, especially when stretched out over a three-hour downer of an “action” film that is very light on action. What I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout Endgame was how inconceivably popular it is, and profitable. Making over a billion dollars in its first weekend and still packed to the walls in our spacious Faux-Max theater many weeks into its run, Endgame is a mind-bogglingly popular film – one that’s even gunning to become the #1 box office earner of all time. How, then, is it possible that what was playing out on the screen in front of me was so deeply, incurably nerdy?

It wouldn’t really be going out on a limb to suggest that nerds have won the culture war. Considering the regularity with which the box office is dominated by superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, and all other Disney-owned properties within that spectrum, it’s been clear for years that nerd culture is popular culture. You can no longer infer any general characteristics of a person who says they’re “such a nerd” because they’re into Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Everyone is into Marvel & Star Wars to some degree. They’re the foundational pillars of our Disney-owned monoculture. Still, there was something uniquely extreme about Avengers: Endgame that felt like the arrival of a new paradigm in modern pop media. I was no longer sharing theater space with moviegoers who were being slowly, gradually indoctrinated into watching “nerd-ass shit” by way of handsome movie stars delivering snarky one-liners to reinforce how above-it-all & non-nerdy the characters & creators actually are. I was in the deep end. Endgame is a very long, deeply sincere film where the (supposedly) relatable smartass of the group that holds audiences’ hands with nerdery-deflating jokes dies onscreen and you’re supposed to cry over the loss. I got the distinct sense during our screening that I was now sharing theater space with a New Nerd America. The snarky training wheels are off. Our transformation is complete.

It’s not just that Endgame is long or overly serious, either. It’s also that it follows a complex sci-fi plot most audiences would balk at if it were in service of an original property. This is a time travel film in which several teams of costumed superheroes travel through distant times & places throughout the galaxy to retrieve the Infinity McGuffins necessary to undo their failure from the last nerdgasm. All the usual time travel paradoxes from sci-fi nerdery past arise during this mission – including the implication that their actions could be creating alternate timelines throughout Avengers history (that, of course, can be dealt with in future adventure$ on platform$ like Di$ney+). A few dismissive, smartass jokes about the absurdity of the heroes’ “time heist” reassure the audience that what we’re watching is still Cool & With it, but for the most part it’s treated like a dead-serious genocide prevention mission staged across the vast nerdiness of space-time – one that’s largely met with genuine, heartfelt tears from its loyal, global audience. What’s especially bizarre about that reaction is that it’s evoked by scenes from the audiences’ own indoctrination into the New Nerd America paradigm. When the Avengers time-travel back to their Infinity McGuffin-encrusted past, they’re also traveling to the milestones of the monoculture’s gradual nerd transformation, fully displaying how far we’ve come in the ten years of MCU culture domination.

Sequels that time-travel back to their previous installments to observe & alter their own lore aren’t an entirely new plot phenomenon. It’s been done before in Back to the Future II, Terminator: Genisys, Happy Death Day 2U, and probably several others I can’t name offhand because I’m just not nerd enough. What’s different here is that Endgame has twenty-one pervious films in its own franchise it can choose to revisit, an oceanic wealth of #content. Revisiting those past franchise entries, especially the first Avengers team-up from 2012, is a stark reminder of how far off the nerd-culture deep end America has truly gone. This is a time-travel sci-fi picture where superheroes square off against their own doppelgangers in a world-threatening conflict you have to watch nearly two dozen previous pictures of homework before you can fully understand. It sounds exhausting in the abstract, but so many people have kept up with the series so gradually that we hardly had time to step back and consider just how elaborate & convoluted it has become. It’s an engagement with pop media that has become common in the American household: binging on over fifty hours of a single story (usually on television) to keep up with talk at the watercooler, even in instances when you’re told that the story only “gets good” after the first twenty hours or so. I’m not the first person to compare Marvel movies to television, but it definitely wasn’t lost on me that at the exact same time this film was eating up the nations’ screen-space at the theater, the same audience was ravenously digesting the swords-and-dragons show Game of Thornes at home, over seventy hours into its run. Nerds.

I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. I can’t match the emotion or enthusiasm of Boomer’s five-star review, but it was pretty alright. I also enjoyed the twenty-first Marvel film that preceded it – another sci-fi action film titled Captain Marvel – which is so recent that it’s still playing in theaters simultaneous to Endgame. I also stayed after the credits of this three-hour epic that I kinda-sorta liked to watch a spoiler-loaded advertisement for its next follow-up, Spiderman: European Vacation, out this summer. I don’t know, I guess you could say I’m a total nerd that way. Or, more accurately, you could say that I’m a totally average, unexceptional American consumer, just counting down the days until our official form of currency is converted to Disney Dollars. The culture war may have been lost a long time ago, but Endgame has offered its casualties a rare opportunity to step back & observe how nerdy we’ve become, like live frogs gradually being brought to a boil.

-Brandon Ledet

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Teddy Bomb (2014)

Earlier this year, I purchased two Blu-rays of backyard film productions from Toronto as a means of sending financial support to a podcaster I admire. Of Justin Decloux’s two directorial credits, I was much more enthusiastic about the more recent feature, Impossible Horror – an uncanny slapstick splatter comedy about loneliness & outsider art. It’s an incredibly dense, ambitious picture for a no-budget horror on its scale, one that adapts Sam Raimi-style exaggerated camerawork to tones & themes that aren’t typically tackled in its Regional Horror genre. Decloux’s earlier film, Teddy Bomb, is something much more typical to the backyard horror aesthetic: a practical gore splatter comedy that aims more for over-the-top camp & gross-out hyperviolence than anything nearly as sincere or ambitious as what the director would later accomplish in Impossible Horror. However, even as a relatively average backyard horror comedy (with a few moments of genre film splendor in isolated gags), I do think there is a very specific circumstance in which catching up with Teddy Bomb is practically mandatory: if you’re at all a fan of last year’s sci-fi body horror Upgrade.

I was a huge fan of Upgrade myself; it made my Top 10 films of the year list last year and became a favorite of mine to rewatch with friends who hadn’t yet seen it as the year went on. A major part of the film’s appeal was the way it reimagined the basic outline of RoboCop (possibly my favorite sci-fi film of all time) as a satire on modern fears of self-automated technology instead of a satire on the privatization of law enforcement that was already on the horizon in the 1980s. I was a little surprised, then, to see a microbudget filmmaker from Toronto claim that their own work was direct, unacknowledged inspiration for Upgrade, a film already so undeniably indebted to RoboCop. Having now seen Teddy Bomb for myself, I totally get it. In the film, a bumbling beer delivery boy is in over his head when he steals what appears to be a cute teddy bear but is actually a high-tech weapon of mass destruction. Like with the STEM tech in Upgrade, the teddy bear telepathically communicates with his unprepared user, instructing him on how to kill the terrorists who wish to repossess the cuddly weapon. He often closes his eyes while the “teddy bear” does the nasty work of disposing of baddies, which is the most consistently rewarding gag in Upgrade as well. It’s all uncannily familiar.

Since I’m talking about two films that follow well-worn genre templates, it’s difficult to parse out exactly what’s parallel thinking vs. what’s unacknowledged “inspiration.” Besides Upgrade’s obvious debt to RoboCop, it’s a film that also saw its own uncanny parallels in a bigger-budget descendent with last year’s Venom, just months after its own release. Teddy Bomb itself feels like it borrows elements from other horror properties wholesale: Sam Raimi’s live-action-cartoon camerawork, George Romero’s signiature zombie disembowelings, the 8-bit romance of Scott Pilgrim, etc. The difference is that Teddy Bomb is very upfront about where it pulls its ideas from, even setting several scenes in a video rental store where Decloux himself appears as a side-character store clerk who practically points to the titles that most influenced his work. If Upgrade pulled direct influence from Teddy Bomb (and there is some convincing evidence it did, despite this being a microbudget splatter cheapie), it’s a shame that it didn’t do the same in turn. The titular weapon is Teddy Bomb’s most distinctive, exciting invention – one that adds to the genre film conversation instead of merely echoing it – so it’s frustrating to see it “borrowed” for a better-funded work without proper credit. I still believe Upgrade’s satirical vision of a self-automated future is distinct & funny enough on its own terms to justify its praise among similarly-styled works like RoboCop, Venom and, apparently, Teddy Bomb; that’s what telling stories within a genre template is all about. Still, it’s only right to acknowledge your direct influences, especially if you’re appropriating inspiration from self-funded artists far below your weight class who could use the boost.

If you want a concise comparison of the two films side-by-side, this tweet from Decloux lays out a fairly convincing case in two minutes’ time. Fans of Upgrade should really check out Teddy Bomb in its entirety to make up their own minds on the parallels, though. If nothing else, the back-to-back viewing experience makes for an interesting look at what two genre films following the same story template look like on drastically different budgetary levels.

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

I’ll admit upfront that I was highly skeptical of the new “live-action” Pokémon movie when it was first announced. It’s not the Pokémon property itself that had me rolling my eyes. To the contrary, I was excited to see a CG Pikachu go on a seedy urban adventure in the real world, encountering a vast array of fellow pocket monsters along the way. It was the announcement of Ryan Reynolds’s casting as the voice of Pikachu that had me worried. Detective Pikachu is specifically adapted from a Pokémon videogame in which the electric-rodent yokai is voiced by a hard-boiled detective, finding humor in the contrast between his cutesy appearance and his tough-guy demeanor. Personally, I’d much rather see these same CG characters & world designs treated with a straight-forward, genuine sentient true to the series’ kawaii beginnings. Covering up those cutesy impulses with a joking, above-it-all snark from the most sarcastic wisecracker in the business seemed like preemptively apologizing for making a Pokémon movie in the first place, as if it were embarrassing that adults would want to see something so cute & nerdy without a smartass celebrity there to hold our hands and reassure us that it is Cool. Basically, I was afraid that Ryan Reynolds was going to transform Pikachu into Lil’ Deadpool.

I’m happy to report that Reynolds’s mood-ruining smartassery only distracted from Pikachu’s cuteness to a minimal degree. This is a movie where Pikachu makes sex jokes (including an alarming one about people nonconsensually sticking fingers inside of him), refers to strangers with pet names like “Sweetie” & “Doll,” and constantly pressures his human partner to flirt with women. I would have much rather had the electro-rat in question only say its own name in cutesy Pokémon tradition to the annoyance of a tough-guy human detective partner (as if its Who Framed Roger Rabbit? lineage couldn’t be any clearer), but you take what you can get. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a compromise for everyone who dares enter. No one who is disinterested in Pokémon’s inherent kawaii appeal is going to give the movie a short based on Ryan Reynold’s voice acting, nor based on the film’s Baby’s First Noir plot in which a young teen finds himself (and his missing father) in a futuristic Tokyo. Those inconveniences are just obligatory concessions to get a Pokémon movie greenlit by studio executives in the first place, so that the already-converted could all get a gander at our favorite pocket monsters on the big screen (and, in my case, in 3-D). I do think the concessions are worth the effort, though. No matter what you must put up with to get a look at them, the pokémon themselves remain very, very cute.

Detective Pikachu is pretty damn cute overall, but in every single frame where there weren’t any pokémon I was thinking “Where’s the pokémon?,” so I guess it could have been cuter. Squirtles, Psyducks, and Mr. Mimes (along with pokétypes I’ve forgotten the names of in the decades since I really enjoyed this stuff as a kid) all get their chance to shine alongside brand-ambassador Pikachu, but I greedily wanted more. The movie starts off in the deep end of pokélore with references to Mewtwo, the personality differences been fire & water types, and all kinds of other series-specific jargon that would confuse anyone outside A Certain Generation who grew up with this nonsense. It even eventually follows Pokémon movie tradition in claiming themes against the capture, subjugation, and battling of pokémon despite those morally bankrupt practices all being essential to series lore (to the point of referenced in its theme song). Still, it ultimately settles into a serviceable, but forgettable neon & synths noir that distracts from its higher purpose: parading as many cute-as-fuck pokémon across the screen as it can in under two hours. The absurdity of enlisting Ken Watanabe for its pokénoir proceedings was amusing, but I even would have traded that living legend for another few seconds of pokémon cuteness, preferably without Lil’ Deadpool’s incongruous horniness spoiling the mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 5/23/19 – 5/29/19

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Booksmart I’m a huge sucker for films like The To Do List, Blockers, and Wetlands that reclaim the (traditionally macho) gross-out teen sex comedy for a freshly femme perspective, and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut promises to be an exciting new entry in that canon.

Rafiki A lesbian love story that was temporarily banned in its native Kenya “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” Only screening at Zeitgeist.

Shadow A new historical martial arts epic from the legendary wuxia director Yimou Zhang, best known for Hero & House of Flying Daggers. Only screening at Zeitgeist.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

The Godfather Part II (1974) Surely, you’ve seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscars-sweeping mafia epic by now, but have you ever seen it projected on the big screen? Maybe so; I don’t know your life’s story. Screening Sunday 5/26 & Wednesday 5/29 as part of The Prytania’s Classic Movies Series.

Long Shot A formulaic Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron romcom that’s funny & cute in all the traditional ways you’d expect. What’s really interesting about the film, though, is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most by-the-books romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu A very silly neo-noir blockbuster in which Ryan Reynolds voices a wisecracking Pikachu. Not everything onscreen works but, no matter what you have to put up with to get a look at them, the Pokémon themselves remain very, very cute and worthy of your patience.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast Movie Report: Detective Pikachu (2019) & Long Shot (2019)

For this week’s new-releases podcast report, Brandon and CC discuss the last two movies they caught in theaters: the live-action pokénoir Detective Pikachu (2019) & the unusually political romcom Long Shot (2019). Enjoy!

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

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Filth & Divinity at the Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel in downtown New Orleans is a very strange space. It’s a clean, trendy, expensive hotel I couldn’t possibly afford if I ever needed to spend a night in the CBD, but it’s still a facility I find myself utilizing fairly often. The fresh oysters in its seafood restaurant are refreshing & addictive; they have a decent coffee shop & bar; and, most importantly, it’s an abnormally comfortable place to mooch free Wi-Fi downtown – a service I abuse often. The most surreal experiences I have at the Ace, however, are when the building functions as an art space. Whether it’s a New Orleans Film Society screening, a brass band set, or a mixed media art instillation, it’s always strange to see the bougiest hipster-prone space in town play host to something that’s actually, genuinely cool. I had the most extreme art vs. venue dissonance I’ve ever experienced at the Ace just a couple weeks ago when the venue played host to a local drag show. Not only was it the kind of drag revue we’re used to seeing at dive bars & dimly lit cabarets in much cheaper corners of the city; it was also a show dedicated to the honor of a drag queen whose persona was the spiritual antithesis to the Ace Hotel’s upscale cleanliness: Divine.

As part of Harlequeen’s Honor Thy Mother series, the Ace Hotel played host to a local Divine Tribute Show drag revue in early May. Seven performers paid tribute to various milestones in Divine’s career throughout the show – lip-syncing to her disco hits, restaging scenes from her appearances in John Waters films, and – in one of the more inspired gags of the evening – reading beat poetry in her voice. It was a lovely evening in a pristine venue that was meant to honor a performer defined by Filth & Chaos. There was a dissociative effect between the vile acts being pantomimed onstage & the general chic, professional atmosphere of the venue. The show was cheap; the performers were consistent to the depravity they’d stage anywhere else in the city. Still, it was bizarre to step into a “late night” drag revue that was well-lit, punctual, relatively sober, and frequently disrupted by a straight-girl bridal party (okay, maybe that last part was fairly typical). The venue’s clean-cut hipsterdom was in sharp contrast to the various visions of Divine that graced the staged and smeared it in filth, which only made the experience more surreal. It was like the difference between seeing Divine rip through the trashier sets of early films like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos and the later films like Polyester & Hairspray where she irons clothes & pretends to be a suburban mom: it was almost even more perverse through the contrast.

Regardless of the ambiance, the performers did an excellent job paying tribute to Divine without stepping on each other’s heels in overlap or repetition. Tarah Cards & (Krewe Divine member) CeCe V DeMenthe did traditional lip-sync routines to Divine’s disco hits, but in entirely different tones; Cards filtered her interpretations of the original numbers through the Mink Stole temper tantrums of Female Trouble, while DeMenthe nailed the music video originals with impeccable accuracy in her attention to detail. DeDe Onassis & mistress of ceremonies Franky gently mocked the high-brow venue where the show was staged with the classic glamor of stage musicals & Torch Light singers, respectively. It was Mary Boy & Puddin’ Tain who really leaned into the absurdity of staging a Divine-themed drag show in the early-evening sobriety of the Ace Hotel, though. Puddin’ Tain’s first number was well behaved enough in a Lust in the Dust-themed foot fetish routine. It was her second number in a beatnik mutation of the classic Babs Johnson flamenco dress, now topped with a black sequin beret, that truly had the room in tears. Listening to her perform a beatnik poem about a meatball sub (in honor of Dawn Davenport) to a chorus of appreciative finger-snaps really felt like witnessing something special. For their part, Mary Boy went full carnival geek with two gross-out routines: First, a very literal homage to Eat Your Makeup. Then, a gag where they liquefied cash money in a blender and drank the contents in front of our horrified eyes. I’ve never been more hyper-aware of what I was watching and where I was watching it then I was in that moment.

You can see a picture of the full cast below (courtesy of Michael Meads) for reference, as well as a poster that includes a portrait I took of CeCe V DeMenthe in her first year “marching” with Krewe Divine. I don’t think either of those documents fully capture the absurdity of that evening though. For the full effect, I’d encourage you drop by the Ace hotel in the next time it sounds like they’re hosting something especially raunchy & uncouth in one of their various art venues (the next Honor Thy Mother event may even be a good start). Whether it’s a risqué art film, a series of nude photographs, or a drag show dedicated to the undisputed Queen of Filth, there’s something about that building’s buttoned-up, bright-eyed atmosphere that accentuates the depravity of art that does not belong there. It’s good to know they’re worthwhile for more than free Wi-Fi & a decent cup of cold brew, even if most of us could never afford to stay the night.

-Brandon Ledet

Glen Pitre vs. Hurricane Katrina

There are many large-format movie screens spread across the city’s too-plentiful AMC multiplexes that profess to be “IMAX” theaters. It isn’t until you visit the city’s only true IMAX screen at the Aquarium that you realize how blatant of a lie those faux-MAX screens are by comparison. I was most recently confronted with that contextual reminder myself at a New Orleans Film Fest screening of the gross-out romantic body horror Are We Not Cats?. Watching the full hideous majesty of that film’s trichophagia & self-surgery on a skyscraper-scale movie screen was a memorably horrific experience, one that makes me wonder why that cinematic resource isn’t put to better use more often. Instead of regularly projecting similar artsy-fartsy monstrosities like The Neon Demon, Climax, or We Are the Flesh on the city’s biggest movie screen, it’s a resource that’s wasted on bullshit nature documentaries produced by tech nerds like Greg MacGillivray. Having developed three new cameras specifically designed to optimize the IMAX format himself, MacGillivray is seemingly more personally passionate about technical accomplishments than cinematic poetry. His movies boast titles like Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Arabia 3D, and Greece: Secrets of the Past. They’re more concerned with format than they are with content, using the IMAX tech he helped develop more as an amusement park attraction than a theatrical tool. To me, the biggest offense in this waste of local theatrical space is that our one IMAX screen is regularly used to relive the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for visiting tourists, as if that event were just another Coral Reef Adventure, ripe for entertainment. It’s also an offense that directly concerns our current Movie of the Month.

When Glen Pitre directed Belizaire the Cajun in the mid-80s, he seemed poised to graduate from making low-budget, Cajun-French “gumbo Westerns” for local markets to directing much bigger indie affairs for legitimate festival distribution. Belizaire the Cajun’s presence at high-profile festivals like Sundance & Cannes offered a much wider platform for Pitre’s Cajun-fried indie movies, and you can find pictures of the former Cut Off resident rubbing elbows with the likes of Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch while working that circuit. Those bigger productions never materialized, though. After a couple ignored thrillers & made-for-TV productions, Pitre retreated from the narrative feature format and sought to preserve & promote Cajun culture in a different way: by making documentaries. Pitre has dedicated the last few decades of his career to documentaries on local Nature & local culture, with a special focus on the dangers of wetlands erosion. That’s how Pitre found himself in collaboration with California tech nerd Greg MacGillivray. With funding from The Weather Channel to produce a program on Climate Change and funding from The Audubon Institute to educate tourists on the dangers of wetlands erosion, Pitre wrote and co-directed a 40-minute documentary for MacGillivray titled Hurricane on the Bayou. If the documentary short were made at any other time in Louisiana history, it would have been forgotten by now – no more worthy of discussion or easy to access than any of Pitre’s other nondescript local docs. Unfortunately, it began filming three months before the coast was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it’s been playing in constant rotation in the city’s only legitimate IMAX screen for almost fifteen years now. Hurricane on the Bayou is, for worse or for much worse, the most easily accessible Glen Pitre film in terms of both theatrical and home video distribution.

Hurricane on the Bayou was originally conceived as a hypothetical “what if” scenario, warning gravely of the damage a high-category hurricane might cause without a healthy wetlands barrier protecting the coast. From what I can gather from the “Making Of” featurette produced by The Weather Channel, the film was already in post-production when Katrina hit. What had previously been filmed for IMAX theater distribution was a tidy educational film in which a baby-faced, Disney Channel-ready Amana Shaw took the audience on a tour of our actively disappearing wetlands inbetween narrating a fictional familial drama played out by real-life alligators and staging awkward fais do-do jam sessions with fellow local musicians Tab Benoit & Alan Toussaint (R.I.P.). Besides its large-format Nature footage, the other major showcase of IMAX tech lied in its Rescue 911-level dramatic reenactments of a 1950s Hurricane disaster, complete with CGI simulations of what a modern storm might look like – which is what I assume drew MacGillivray to the project in the first place. After Katrina hit, the tasteful thing to do would’ve been to abandon the project entirely and eat the loss. Instead, the crew retuned from Los Angeles to fight past local blockades and sneak their way back into the city to shoot large-format misery porn. Where MacGillivray’s projects would usually capture the majesty of swimming dolphins or some other screensaver bullshit, he instead hauled expensive, ginormous cameras around a flooded New Orleans to capture a city in emotional turmoil (including a now emotionally devastated Amanda Shaw). He then slapped a few paragraphs of narration from Meryl Strep on top to afford that exploitation an air of prestige. It’s gross. The project never should have been completed, much less have been allowed to play on continuous loop for fifteen years so that drunken tourists have a place to escape the sun for an hour of passive, air-conditioned entertainment.

I don’t think any less of Pitre for participating in this NOLAsploitation documentary. Watching the ”Making Of” featurette, it’s clear his heart was in the right place. Pitre gets incredibly choked up recounting the hell of filming in post-Katrina floodwaters, describing the roadside corpses & decimated cityscape as if he had navigated a warzone. The stated purpose of the documentary was to promote “good stewardship of our habitat” in the context of preserving wetlands (this was before Katrina floods were recontextualized as a man-made infrastructure disaster, another reason why this film should disappear forever), but Pitre is much more truthful about its actual effect. He explains that “people need to see it” on the biggest screen possible, since Katrina’s full impact isn’t truly felt on small-screen TV news reports. The way that documented misery clashes with the cutesy Amanda Shaw tour of the city & CGI disaster porn filmed before Katrina doesn’t sit right with me at all, but I at least empathize with his motivations to see the project through. Still, catching a glimpse of Pitre sporting a Belizaire the Cajun promotional t-shirt while guiding his Los Angeles collaborators through the swamp makes me incredibly sad. Why isn’t that the kind of movie being screened at the city’s only IMAX theater, along with other underserved local productions like Dirty Rice or Cane River? At the very least, this far out from Katrina we should have a more updated, nuanced documentary on the wetlands erosion topic screening in that format. Or, better yet, MacGillivray could supply us with a localized version of his Coral Reef Adventure frivolities – maybe one where gators & turtles swim around in swamp water for 40 minutes to zydeco music (which is exactly how Hurricane on the Bayou begins). After recently seeing A Real Movie in that impressive venue, it’s just such a shame to know that this miserable, exploitative dreck is what’s eating up its screentime – almost exclusively to the benefit of tourists. It also being the only readily available Glen Pitre film, as opposed to something like Belizaire the Cajun, is only the bitterest of lagniappe.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997).

-Brandon Ledet

Saboteur (1942)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.

In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.

Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.

I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The common wisdom about Bugs Bunny is that he was modeled after Old Hollywood hunk Clark Gable; the only reason we even have the misconception that real-life rabbits love to eat carrots is because Bugs Bunny parodied Gable doing so in It Happened One Night and the image stuck. However, Gable’s slick, fast-talking, devilish pranksterism is just as much of a reflection of Studio Era sensibilities as they are a personal quirk. His rapid-fire dialogue delivery screams “Turner Classic Movies” more so than seeming specific to him, as if he were speaking a language called “Old Movie” that just happens to sound a lot like sped-up English. I’m saying this mostly because Bugs Bunny was the only thing I could think about while recently watching The Maltese Falcon for the first time, even though that’s a film that stars Humphrey Bogart, not Gable. The Maltese Falcon is a film with an absurdly prestigious pedigree: it’s the directorial debut of Studio Era legend John Huston; it’s cited as the first “major” film noir (as opposed to the smaller, independently produced noir pictures that preceded it); it’s one of the most defining examples of the MacGuffin as a literary device; etc. Still, all I could think about for the entire duration of the film was how funny Humphrey Bogart was in the lead role, and how much he reminded me of Bugs. Bogart is fluent in the same Old Movie language Clark Gable speaks (Bugsy Bunny also parodied him in the Casablanca poof Carrotblanca), and I feel as if I already owe the film a re-watch, not being able to keep up with each joke as fast as they were flying at me in Old Movie dialect.

As the film’s reputation of typifying a MacGuffin may suggest, the plot of The Maltese Falcon does not matter all that much. Bogart stars as a hard-drinking detective who gets sucked into a thieves’ quarrel by a dangerous dame (Mary Astor). At the expense of his partner, his freedom, and potentially his life, he aids this sultry stranger in their quest to obtain a highly valuable ornament ([whispering to my date while watching The Maltese Falcon when The Maltese Falcon first appears on the screen] “That’s the Maltese Falcon”) while avoiding the bullets of a small ring of thieves who also desperately desire to possess it. Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, The Killing’s Elisha Cook Jr, and everyone’s favorite pervert Peter Lorre round out the main cast as that trio of gun-toting thieves, each taking turns backing Bogart into a corner so he can promptly talk his way out of it. It’s Bogart lashing out in that fight-or-flight position that makes The Maltese Falcon such a consistently fun watch. Whether talking to the dame, the cops, or the crooks, Bogart’s hardboiled detective delivers long strings of uninterrupted sass at a machine gun’s pace. Bogart knows he’s being lied to & bullied from all directions, but he finds the danger & mystery of that set-up to be a gas, taking great delight in calling everyone out in their deceits as his hypersensitive bullshit detector goes haywire. When Sydney Greenstreet’s would-be criminal mastermind repeatedly tells Bogart, “You are a character,” out of a gamesman’s delight, it the most honest sentiment shared by any of the film’s various players. This is a film built entirely on Bogart being a comically oversized character, in the colloquial sense of the word.

I don’t want to oversell The Maltese Falcon as a laugh-a-second yuck ‘em up comedy. Based on a very serious crime novel, the second adaption after a 1930s original (Hollywood remake culture has gone too far!), the film’s surface-level details deliver everything you’d want to see in a classic noir. Our “hero” is a hard-drinking adulterer who inserts himself into deadly criminals’ schemes for amusement & personal profit. He dons the classic suits & fedoras combo that inspire those wretched “Men used to dress classy” MRA memes. He’s framed with the intense lighting & drastic angles of classic noir while simply rolling a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, a handsome personification of gruff masculinity. This is directly contrasted with the fey, sexually devious energy of Peter Lorre, playing a character explicitly described as homosexual in the source material. Bogart gets into some S&M play with Lorre (who is introduced practically fellating the handle of his cane), dominating him with some Kung Fu action and barking “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” There’s a serious, even tragic romanticism to this Alpha Male masculinity, typified by his fawning secretary’s plea “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” Unfortunately, that macho posturing was something that trickled down into the zeitgeist just as much as Bogart’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” pranksterism, influencing descendants as disparate as the wise-cracking meatheads of French New Wave staples like Breathless and 1980s action spectacles like Commando. There’s a danger in making your troubled antiheroes out to be such slick charmers; they end up being so lovable they’re practically children’s-entertainment cartoon bunnies.

At this point, you probably don’t need to hear from me or any amateur film blogger that The Maltese Falcon is well-made & worth seeing. Catching it for the first time on the big screen (thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series) mostly just confirmed for me what I had already assumed from its name recognition & its heavy rotation in corners like TCM: it’s a handsome, well-crafted noir with a talented cast & a distinct Old Hollywood charm. The only thing I didn’t know to expect was that it would be so damn funny. Even its score often reinforces the humor of the dialogue, with chipper flights of orchestral whims incongruously accompanying a murderous plot about greedy, gun-toting thieves. It’s practically the same accompaniment you’d expect to hear in a Merrie Melodies cartoon while Bugs Bunny cracks wise in an Old Movie cadence to talk his way out of getting shot by Elmer Fudd.

-Brandon Ledet