Physical Media Mafia

When Warner Brothers cancelled the release of their upcoming Batgirl film in post-production and then started scraping HBO Max exclusives from their servers last month, there was a lot of “I told you so” gloating from physical media collectors online.  I have a lot of admiration for the physical media freaks out there with endless towers of hideous plastic snap cases lining their home library walls.  Even if most of those movies just collect dust, unwatched, there’s an archivist’s spirit to that kind of obsessive collecting & cataloging that really does feel like an act of defiance, even if a consumerist one.  Charging monthly subscription fees for behind-a-paywall access to movies & TV shows that can be wiped from servers at any minute is a truly anti-democratic, anti-art distribution model, and I’ve got a lot of respect for collectors who are building personal libraries to combat that exclusivity & intangibility.  At the same time, I do not understand how most amateurs can afford the hobby. 

I heavily rely on physical media to keep my movie-nerd lifestyle affordable, but not in the way the loudest, proudest collectors do.  If I dropped $30 to $50 on every new Blu-ray release I wanted to own, it would financially devastate me in a matter of weeks, especially in our current boom of genre-focused boutique labels specifically designed to drain my bank account in particular.  Instead, I regularly borrow DVDs of new releases (and podcast homework titles) from the New Orleans Public Library, which is a surprisingly dependable, easily accessible resource.  When I do collect movies, I’m usually scooping up a handful of DVDs at a local thrift store, watching them once, and selling them back to a second-hand media shop for store credit so I can “buy” something I actually want to own.  This ritual isn’t in defiance of the streaming service subscription model, exactly.  It’s more in defiance of our failing local infrastructure.  I can power my home with solar panels during a hurricane outage, but I can’t power the regional cable company, which sometimes means I’m bored with no internet connection for a full week and only my thrift store DVDs to keep me entertained — let’s say about once a year, somewhere in the June to November range.

There doesn’t even need to be a hurricane for that stockpile to come in handy.  I arrived home from a sweaty bus ride a few weeks ago to an unexplained neighborhood-wide internet outage, courtesy of Cox Cable.  One cancelled podcast recording later, I had nothing to keep myself occupied with except the thrift store DVDs collecting dust in my watchpile.  So, I scraped together the best double feature I could out of that meager library, settling on a pair of quirky crime pictures about women at the outskirts of the Long Island mafia.  I doubt many film programmers have paired Jonathan Demme’s beloved 1988 crime-world comedy Married to the Mob with anonymous workman director David Anspaugh’s 2002 restaurant melodrama WiseGirls, mostly because I doubt many people even know that WiseGirls exists.  It’s the exact kind of movie you find on a Goodwill DVD shelf and then watch when the internet’s down on an otherwise excruciatingly boring evening.  And in that context, it ain’t half bad.

WiseGirls stars Mira Sorvino as a med school dropout who takes a minimum-wage job waiting tables at a mobster’s restaurant in her hometown on Long Island.  There, she finds life-changing friendship with her two fellow waitresses, played by the much more charismatic Mariah Carey & Melora Walters.  It’s a bizarrely serious drama, especially given how fun & flirty the marketing makes it appear.  The women deal with the same sexist bullshit most waitresses suffer — pinched, groped, berated, infantilized, and slapped while they’re just trying to run a plate of spaghetti to table 7.  Working for a mobster restauranteur adds some extra challenges on top of that industry-standard misogyny, though, like so much freshly grated parmesan.  Sorvino cleans bullet wounds, dodges assassination, and is pressured into distributing heroin via tin-foil takeout swans.  It’s perfectly cromulent for a drama that premiered at Sundance then went straight to Cinemax. The only real surprise is how very great Mariah Carey is in this otherwise very mediocre movie.  Rival chanteuse JLo had to wait 16 years for Hustlers to complete her post-Gigli redemption arc. In contrast, Carey redeemed herself with an effortlessly charming, entirely naturalistic performance just one year after Glitter.  It’s a shame not enough people saw WiseGirls to come to her defense while those wounds were still fresh, and most of the press wasn’t about her performance but instead focused on a behind-the-scenes fight where she hurled a saltshaker at Mira Sorvino’s head.  Given how much Glitter lingers as a time-capsule punchline of the early aughts, maybe WiseGirls would’ve had more of a lasting impact if Carey was a disaster in it.  Too bad she’s really good.

The cast for Demme’s Married to the Mob is in no need of redemption or reclamation.  Michelle Pfeiffer stars the reluctant wife of a mobster, who uses her husband’s unexpected assassination as an excuse to flee the Family.  Pfeiffer is joined by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, Matthew Modine, and Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis in a full-charm offensive.  Behind the camera, Demme is joined by regular collaborators like cinematographer Tak Fujimoto & musician David Byrne, with Colleen Atwood on costumes and a cool-kid soundtrack featuring artists like The Pixies, The Feelies, Deb Harry, The Tom Tom Club, New Order, and Sinéad O’Connor while they were all still at their hippest.  All the prestige & pedigree missing from WiseGirls is overflowing out of this mainstream mafia comedy, which is somehow both much sillier and much more violent.  It feels like the exact ideal people are nostalgic for when they complain that mainstream comedies have lost their sense of visual style, punching up its goofball humor with vivid colors & complex camera moves. I can’t quite match the soaring enthusiasm of its loudest champions, but it looks great, everyone’s super charming in it, and Pfeiffer gets to wear cute outfits, which is more than enough for this type of broad comedy.  Its competency & sterling reputation can make it less interesting to pick apart than the aughts-era relic WiseGirls, but it’s undeniably the more thoughtful, better crafted movie about women who have to cater to & skirt around the macho mobsters of Long Island.  It’s also cute that the better respected movie of that pair is the one that features Modine & Platt as cops who dress in a series of Gene Parmesan-level disguises to spy on the mob.

You’d think that after Lorraine Bracco & Debi Mazar were so electrically entertaining in GoodFellas, these women-centered mafia stories would be less of a novelty, but WiseGirls & Married to the Mob still feel relatively rare in their choice of POV.  It was double bill that came together through happenstance, but they had plenty in common, including restaurants’ function as a meat market for mobster mistresses and cocktails tossed in those mobsters’ faces when they cross a line.  My solidarity with true physical media collectors is another happenstance.  While proper collectors are preparing for a pop media apocalypse where personal libraries and torrent sites will be the only way to access most films, I’m just trying to get by on a limited budget in a region with a crumbling infrastructure.  I’m mostly getting my DVDs & Blu-rays through libraries & thrift stores, not online distribution hubs like Amazon or Diabolik, but I very much appreciate that there are true collectors out there saving cinema & footing the bill.  I am but the WiseGirls to their Married to the Mob.

-Brandon Ledet

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