Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

The Death Kiss (1932)

Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Dracula a year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.

Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.

Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

-Brandon Ledet

The Overlook Film Festival 2019, Ranked & Reviewed

Last year’s sudden appearance of the Overlook Film Festival on the local calendar was an unholy, unexpected blessing. There are only a few substantial film fests that are staged in New Orleans every year, so for an international horror film festival with world premieres of Big Deal genre movies to land in our city was a major boon, almost too good to be true. I attended the festival as a volunteer, catching three artsy-fartsy creature features (all directed by women) and a couple live podcast recordings over the course of a few days, hungry (bloodthirsty?) for more. This year, Swampflix attended Overlook with legitimate press credentials, meaning we were able to cover even more films playing at the fest, which was majorly exciting.

There were 23 features and 18 shorts from 11 different countries screening at the festival over the course of a single weekend in early June. It was overwhelming. Self-described as “a summer camp for genre fans,” The Overlook was centrally located, corralling all of its movie screenings to just a few venues: Le Petit Theatre for its more prestigious premieres, the UNO Performing Arts Center for a repertory screening of The Faculty (with Robert Rodriguez in attendance), and what is now the ghost of the old Canal Place theater for the bulk of its heavy-lifting. It was wonderful to be able to take fuller advantage of this super cool genre film extravaganza, especially considering that Canal Place’s closure might persuade them to leave us for another city, which would be a total shame.

Listed below are all eleven features we were able to catch at The Overlook Film Festival that weekend ranked in the order that we most appreciated them, each with a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. For a more detailed recap of our festival experience beyond these reviews, check out our podcast discussion of the fest.

1. In Fabric “Wholly committed to over-the-top excess in every frame & decision, whether it’s indulging in an artsy collage of vintage fashion catalog advertisements or deploying a killer dress to dispose of a goofball victim entirely unaware of the occultist backstory of their sartorial selections. It’s both funny and chilling, beautiful and ludicrous. It’s perfect, as long as you can tune into its left-of-the-dial demonic frequency.”

2. One Cut of the Dead “So much of One Cut of the Dead is on shaky logical ground because of the limitation of its filmmaking resources, but horror fans who are inclined to watch low-budget, high-concept zombie movies in the first place should be used to making those allowances. What’s brilliant about the film is how it transforms those awkward low-budget details into something brilliantly executed & purposeful. Revealing how it performs that miracle in a review would be a crime that I’m not willing to commit. You just have to afford it your attention & trust long enough to see it for yourself.”

3. Ma “It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.”

4. Paradise Hills “This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.”

5. Come to Daddy “As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.”

6. Greener Grass “Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.”

7. Knives & Skin “Filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.”

8. The Vast of Night “The film chooses a very difficult path in distinguishing itself, relying more on the strength of its performances & written dialogue than its sci-fi chills & scares. It’s more akin to intimate walk & talk dramas like Dogfight, Before Sunrise, or My Dinner with Andre than the sci-fi horror tones you’d usually expect from an alien invasion story template.”

9. Gwen Gwen looks, sounds, and feels like Elevated Horror™. Its monochrome portrait of a family in crisis is illustrated mostly by the grey hues of soot & snow. There’s very little dialogue & no musical score to speak of, somewhat mistaking total quiet for atmospheric dread. Those drab, miserable textures lull the audience into a foggy calm, only to be shocked out of our seats by loud, violet stabs of lightning, medical fits, and nightmares of self-mutilation. This movie has genuine jump scares! But it’s not horror.”

10. Satanic Panic “It may not be the pinnacle of joke writing or emotional drama, but it at least knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to over-the-top ultraviolence & softcore sexual mania.”

11. Porno “When most comedies fail to make you laugh, they leave you very few opportunities to be entertained otherwise. To its credit, Porno entertains throughout by relying on the most tried & true attractions in the entertainment business: sex & violence. Even if you’re impervious to its proper Jokes, there’s still plenty of blood-soaked juvenilia to keep you occupied.”

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/11/19 – 7/17/19

Here are the few movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week, including some high-brow art cinema and some dumb-as-rocks summertime trash.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Crawl The killer shark genre has already been revived in recent summertime trash titles like The Shallows & 47 Meters Down, so we’re far past due to bring back an even cooler killer creature from schlocky cinema past: the alligator. There’s no telling whether Crawl will stack up to killer-gator classics like Alligator & Alligator People, but our trashy, swamp-dwelling asses are going to be in those theater seats opening weekend no matter what.

Ash is Purest White A Chinese crime thriller & class-conscious melodrama that competed at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2018 to outstanding reviews. Catch it on the big screen now so you’re not scratching your head when it pops up on Best of the Year roundups in December. Playing only at Chalmette Movies.

Babylon (1980) – A British cult classic about class disparity & racism in Brixton, starring members of the London reggae scene and featuring their music on the soundtrack. The film initially competed at Cannes in 1980, but never saw an official theatrical release in the US until this recent restoration. Playing for one week only at The Broad Theater.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

The Wizard of Oz (1933) – Return to the pinnacle of Technicolor by watching this intensely, wonderfully artificial fantasy-musical on the big screen in the city’s oldest running movie theater. Screening Friday July 12 through Wednesday July 17 as dual programming for The Prytania’s Classic Movies series and Summertime Kids’ Films series.

Midsommar  Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is yet another lengthy, morbidly funny meditation on grief, but this time wrapped around the folk horror template established by The Wicker Man. It’s a divinely fucked up melodrama about empathy, gaslighting, breakups, and finding your flock – whether they be academia bros or bloodthirsty cultists.

Child’s Play (2019) – Although it’s a drastic deviation from the 1988 original in terms of plot & tone, this decades-later remake feels like the kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on late-night cable – the exact too-scary-for-children-but-too-silly-for-adults dynamic that made the early Chucky movies cult classics in their own day.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #86 of The Swampflix Podcast: Border (2018) & A Mid-Year Return to the Best of 2018

Welcome to Episode #86 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-sixth episode, Britnee, Brandon, and James discuss the most noteworthy movies from last year theyve seen in the six months since they made their respective Top Films of 2018 lists, with a particular focus on Border, Burning, and The Road Movie. Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas, James Cohn, and Brandon Ledet

Braid (2019)

Braid exhibits both the greatest charms and worst faults of all directorial debuts: it’s tonally chaotic, unnecessarily showy, and overflowing with far too many ideas than what could comfortably fit in a single picture, yet those very qualities all amount to something that is undeniably fun & exciting. Hyperactive camera work tears through every color filter, image texture, and aspect ratio it can manage, as if this were a hand-held skateboarding compilation instead of a feature film. Concerns like logical consistency, tonal control, and purposeful pacing are all tossed out of the window in favor of gorgeous costumes & sets and over-the-top shocks in a twisty “plot” that’s too stoned & scatterbrained to possibly land anywhere solid. It’s the best kind of dirt-cheap indie production: the kind that just shoots a few fully-committed actors in an interesting locale and attempts to push those resources to their furthest possible limit in every single frame, logic be damned. It’s a total mess, but also a total blast.

Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a wealthy but mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. While in hiding (and searching the home for her cash-stuffed safe), they must play along with the friend’s house rules: Everyone must play; no outsiders allowed; nobody leaves. Their respective roles as Mommy, Doctor, and Daughter in this make-believe heist dynamic sledgehammers away at the border between fantasy & reality, and all three women rapidly backslide into the mania & trauma of young girls at play. As many horror premises as I’ve seen repeated over the years, “What if you had a friend who was still playing House and taking her role very seriously?” is a pretty unique story structure I can’t remember encountering onscreen before. The closest appropriate comparison might be to call the film a Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era, with all the obsessive psychosexuality & fetish for brightly colored fashion that descriptor implies. Given the music video freak-outs, detours into torture porn, and disorienting repetition of the game’s core setup, however, no 1:1 comparison could ever fully cover what transpires here. There’s a lot going on, and it’s kind of all over the place – but it all feels delightfully, excitedly new.

Braid is going to be a huge turnoff for a lot of viewers. Not only is it a chaotic sugar rush that pulls the rug from under you so many times that there’s nowhere left to stand, but it’s also deliberately off-putting in its drama & politics. This is a film where one woman grows up to be a dominatrix because of her traumatic childhood, another spends the majority of her screentime dressed like a fetishized schoolgirl, and the third is supposedly driven mad by her own barren womb’s inability to carry child. I personally didn’t find myself getting too hung up on its more #problematic choices, though, mostly because I didn’t have the time. This is an 80 min whirlwind that spins you around until you’re vomitously dizzy and then chases you down the hallway with a knife. It’s an avalanche of pure candy (as long as you appreciate a certain sinister femme sensibility), and my head was swooning with too many pure-sugar pleasures to take notice of anything bitter: Madeleine Brewer in Grey Gardens drag, dollhouse miniatures with their own dollhouse miniatures nested inside, brightly colored silks & lace (sometimes splattered with gore, when necessary), etc. I don’t have much room left in my head for concerns with plot logic or politics when the other wares on display are this sumptuous, so I mostly just can’t wait to see whatever bonkers monstrosity new-comer Mitzi Peiron delivers next.

-Brandon Ledet

Piercing (2019)

Piercing is A Strange Movie, both in pretension and in practice. It’s a tightly wound, carefully mannered character study that titillates with deadly violence & sexual kink for a purpose neither its creators nor its audience can ever quite fully figure out. If the overall goal of the film is to humorously parody the roleplay of adult kink scenarios through the societal manners of buttoned-up dramas from the past, it’s an effect that’s been archived much more convincingly in recent titles like Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy. If it’s simply trying to titillate & amuse voyeuristic onlookers with no further purpose, though, it’s living up to its full potential admirably. Sex & violence are entertaining enough on their own merits, whether or not they serve a greater purpose, and Piercing has plenty of fun with the shameless voyeurism & throwback genre payoffs its buttoned-up kink play parody affords it. It may be a little weird-for-weird’s sake, but it still at least passes for pleasant, playful entertainment – though not quite fun for the whole family.

Halfway between a giallo throwback and a snazzy Euro heist like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Twelve in an aesthetic sense, Piercing is largely a two-hander detailing the deranged sexual & violent impulses of two star-crossed combatants. Christopher Abbott stars as an uptight, sexually frustrated husband who plans to channel his violent resentment towards his wife & baby into murdering an anonymous sex worker with an ice pick. Mia Wasikowska costars as his potential victim – an S&M equipped prostitute who threatens to self-destruct before he has the chance to kill her himself. The film is constrained to stage play-scale settings & act structures as their mysterious, clashing plans play out to disastrous ends. Like all seasoned kinksters, the uptight murderous husband gets most of his thrills from planning & anticipating the act, only to find that reality doesn’t exactly match up with his fantasy. The prostitute proves to be a wild variable that chaotically derails his thoroughly detailed plans in the heat of the moment – perhaps to his own peril. As with Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy, the exact power dynamics of those two sly combatants become the central mystery of the story being told, as they conceal as much of their true selves as they can beneath a falsely calm, civil surface.

Your own appreciation of Piercing may depend on your appetite for these cheeky 70s genre throwbacks in general. If your patience was tested by High-Rise, Free Fire, or Hotel Artemis, for instance, there’s even less fun to be found here despite the allure of the sex & violence in the premise. Its genre nostalgia is blatant, expressed through VHS tape warping in its opening credits, Goblin needle-drops on its soundtrack, and its high-rise apartment exteriors being digitally constructed as impossible miniatures. Still, puzzling your way through the hidden motivations & strengths of its two leads can be wickedly fun. Is the wife giving her husband permission to murder this unsuspending sex worker or is that his auditory hallucination? Is he into auto-erotic asphyxiation or just practicing his choking skills? Is he going to stab his own baby with an ice pick or just having a lark? Watching the film yourself won’t provide any clearer answers to these questions that you could derive from reading this review. Questioning the intent, motivation, and meaning in this violent kink scenario is the entirety of the entrainment value offered here – whether or not it’s been achieved before in better, more meaningful works.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 44: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is referenced in Life Itself: Because Ebert wrote the screenplay for the film himself in collaboration with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the title is referenced several times throughout the book. On page 212 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls that “Although Meyer had been signed to a three-picture deal by Fox, I wonder whether he didn’t suspect that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might be his only shot at employing the resources of a studio at the service of his pop universe of libinous, simplistic creatures. Meyer wanted everything in the screenplay except the kitchen sink. The movie, he explained, should be simultaneously a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of what the opening crawl called ‘the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never officially “reviewed” the film, since he wrote it himself, but he did make the following observation in a piece written for Film Comment to commemorate its tenth anniversary in 1980 – “Remembered after 10 years, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems more and more like a movie that got made by accident when the lunatics took over the asylum. At the time Russ Meyer and I were working on BVD I didn’t really understand how unusual the project was. But in hindsight I can recognize that the conditions of its making were almost miraculous. An independent X-rated filmmaker and an inexperienced screenwriter were brought into a major studio and given carte blanche to turn out a satire of one of the studio’s own hits. And BVD was made at a time when the studio’s own fortunes were so low that the movie was seen almost fatalistically, as a gamble that none of the studio executives really wanted to think about, so that there was a minimum of supervision (or even cognizance) from the Front Office.”

I’ve already written extensive praise for the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, way back in our first year of blogging for this site. I even singled it out as my favorite film from legendary schlockteur Russ Meyer, a dirty old man whose bonkers version of smut is admittedly something I admire more than I should. Not much has changed in my opinion of the film in the four years since I first reviewed it; it’s still the exact type of go-for-broke, sex-crazed nonsense I crave when I’m searching for gems in the trash. Something has changed about the film itself, though: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is now a Disney-owned property, thanks to the company’s recent terrifying acquisition of 20th Century Fox. This is now Walt’s happening and it freaks me out. In an age where gigantic companies like Disney, Amazon, and Apple are gobbling up the entire market of film distribution, I can’t help but worry about the future of weirdo smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Along with fellow X-rated disasterpiece Myra Breckenridge, this is a film that only exists because of a fluke fad when 20th Century Fox attempted to crash in on the loose moral boundaries of The Sex Revolution, back when porn was threatening to go mainstream. A half-century later, we’ve somehow backslid into more protective, Puritanical attitudes toward sexual content, all in the name of being Family Friendly. Major blockbusters are being scrubbed of all overt sexuality so they can be broadly exported to all foreign markets; Apple has been hands-on in censoring sex & violence during production of televised content for its upcoming streaming platform Apple+; human trafficking laws like SESTRA have been used as a flimsy excuse to boot porn from social media sites like Tumblr (and sex workers from the internet entirely); and now the squeakiest of squeaky clean corporate conglomerates own the rights to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Of course, there’s a deliciously transgressive quality to Russ Meyer’s tongue-in-cheek exposé on “the oft-times nightmare world of Show Business” now being in the same canon as Family Friendly #content like Frozen & Moana. By Ebert’s description, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “a camp exploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding,” which might instantly qualify it as the most fascinating specimen in Disney’s collection. Written in a sweaty six-week rush, Ebert & Meyer’s vision of the Hollywood party scene is a nonstop hedonist orgy where “everybody’s a freak.” They pack the screen with every boundary-testing transgression they can muster: open homosexuality, rampant drug abuse, suicide, abortion, public sex, mocking spoofs of the still-recent Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate; etc. Its enigmatic antagonist is an intersex maniac who collects a coterie of horned-up acid freaks and announces things like, “You will drink the back sperm of my vengeance!” Unapologetically horny women recruit potential sex partners with come-ons like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d love to strap you on sometime.” Meyer described his approach in this full-on, shameless commitment to hedonistic excess as “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience,” but even in all of that sensory overload you can clearly make out Ebert & Meyer’s personal, shared fetishistic fixations: mainly gigantic breasts (like, comically large) & classic car grills. This film is everything Disney’s boardroom-directed Cinematic Properties aim to avoid: shameless, alienating smut with deeply problematic moral implications & intimate insights into the personal ids of its creators. That’s why it’s both fascinating and terrifying that it’s now under their control – a conundrum that I’m sure will only become more frequent as they gobble up more of the market.

Ebert gradually distanced himself from the delirious smut of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as he grew older & more tempered (and, not to mention, sober), but I doubt he or Meyer would have been happy with this film landing in Disney’s greedy, culture-crushing hands. One of the wildest indulgences of the film involves 20th Century’s Fox’s theme music scoring a violent beheading during the climactic pansexual orgy, and Ebert’s “Screenplay By” title card accompanies one of the sleaziest images in the film to follow: a sleeping woman forcibly fellating a gun. No matter how much he gradually cleaned up his act, I don’t believe that anti-corporate, pro-provocation rebelliousness ever left him, certainly not enough to support Disney’s flagrant disregard for anti-Trust laws. As thing are, Disney owns adult-oriented platforms like Hulu in addition to its planned “family friendly” Disney+ platform arriving later this year, so I don’t’ think they’ll be locking Beyond the Valley of the Dolls away in the dreaded Disney Vault anytime soon. It’s scary how much transgressive art they could lock away if they chose to do so, though, especially considering how far outside their usual parameters over-the-top smut like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gleefully treads. At the very least, I doubt they’ll be greenlighting many feverishly over-sexed, direct-from-the-id visions like this in the foreseeable future, and the more screenspace they eat up around the globe the duller the world will be for trash-gobblers like us.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

42nd Street (1933)

Thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series that we regularly attend on Sunday mornings, I recently got to see my very first Busby Berkeley musical . . . on the big screen! Berkeley’s elaborate, geometrically patterned choreography style is something I’ve known about since I was a child, as it’s often featured in highlight reels as the typifying example of Old Hollywood extravagance. The choreographer’s style involved onscreen audiences watching a stage play where a Rockettes-type chorus line kicks & twists rhythmically in an increasingly elaborate pattern that would be impossible to stage outside the dreamlike ream of cinema, only for the audience to applaud at the end as if they had collectively hallucinated the act. The common interpretation of this choreography’s popularity is that it offered a fantastic escape for real-life audiences during the lean times of The Great Depression. The geometric patterns of torsos & limbs twisting in unison like an organic kaleidoscope would be beautiful in any context, but its extravagance is said to have been especially alluring for Depression Era audiences who would have been forcibly acclimated to finding only minor, stripped-down joys outside the cinema. What I didn’t know until I saw one of these spectacles for myself is that Berkeley & his major studio collaborators were likely popular for an entirely different reason than their era’s dire economic circumstances; they, along with their audience, were horny as fuck.

Busby Berkeley is a fetishist and his obsession is stockinged gams. It’s a sexual fixation apparently shared by the director & studio heads that helped bring the first of Berkeley’s classic musicals to the screen, but the wag of their own tongues does little to match the way lady’s legs are lustfully presented in Berkeley’s choreography. There isn’t much to 42nd Street plot-wise that you wouldn’t see in any other backstage musical. This is the story of an emotionally and professionally exhausted Broadway producer who wants to put on One Last Show to secure his legacy as an entertainer. We watch as the mad perfectionist pushes his theatre company to the brink of physical & emotional destruction as the opening night of the show nears. Then, at the last minute, his star is injured and must be replaced by a naïve chorus girl who’s just getting started in the biz. The show (or at least the Berkeley-choregraphed hallucination) goes great and the new star is a hit, but the producer is still bummed & unfulfilled. None of this really matters, of course, at least not nearly as much as the film’s true obsession: Dem Gams. Casting directors command young actors to lift their dresses so they can get a better peak at the walking sticks beneath. Conversations are frequently staged under staircases so the audience can watch gams climb their way upscreen instead of focusing on dialogue. Berkeley’s big musical-number climax is a twisty, kaleidoscopic orgy of gams! gams! gams!, all wrapped in sheer dancers’ stockings. The film is shamelessly fetishistic, as is all the greatest art.

This overt, shameless horniness for women’s barely covered legs was no subconscious mistake, either. 42nd Street arrived in a pre-Code era when shameless tongue-wagging was a Hollywood norm. Sexuality is an explicit, purposeful presence in nearly all the film’s dialogue. Women boast names like Anytime Annie, openly discuss landing Broadway jobs through casting-couch politics, encourage total-pervert producers to invest in their art, and sport the same Power-Top tuxes that Blake Lively wore in A Simple Favor. The film is a little coy in directly depicting onscreen sexual contact (and in explicitly acknowledging the homosexual desire that’s barely concealed by its heteronormative surface), but for the most part it proudly wears its horniness on its sleeve as a badge of Dishonor. As a lifelong lover of Pretentious Smut, I found all this fetishistic fervor to be a most pleasant surprise. I entered 42nd Street expecting a respectable, traditional backstage musical with some early glimpses at the extravagant choreography that made Busby Berkeley a legend. What I found was a technically gorgeous porno about women’s stockinged legs, a film that was much more interested in the infinite potential ways those body parts could be displayed & arranged than it was in the inner lives of the women attached to them. It’s shameless smut hiding behind an artistic pretense and has been historically lauded due to its Depression Era context; in other words, it’s a gem.

-Brandon Ledet