Varda by Agnès (2019)

I remember thinking that Agnès Varda’s recent collaboration with French photographer JR, Faces Places, was an excellent crash course in the director’s professional history as an artist. The way that project synthesized Varda’s past work in still photography, art instillations, and the blending of documentary & narrative filmmaking felt like a succinct summation of everything she had accomplished in her lifetime as a titan of cinema. That take on Faces Places feels a little premature in retrospect now that I’ve seen Varda’s latest—and, sadly, final—feature: Varda by Agnès. As the title suggests, this final documentary is a much more direct, comprehensive retelling of Varda’s career in the auteur’s own words. It covers the major milestones of everything she accomplished on movie screens, in art galleries, and in outdoor instillation pieces as its central declared topic, whereas Faces Places only referenced that portfolio in relation to how it influenced her work with JR. This film is the Agnès Varda crash course, the career overview that guides each viewer to their personal blindspots in her oeuvre and provides further anecdotal background info for Varda scholars already deeply in the know.

True to her playful, intellectually considerate approach to filmmaking, Varda addresses this indulgence in self-academia head-on by allowing the subject to shape the film’s form. Varda by Agnès is presented as an interlocking series of lectures, where the director herself orates from a proper stage to several live audiences. The entirety of the picture is narrated by Varda, with illustrative film clips & still-photograph slideshows fleshing out each touchstone of her sermon. Instead of starting with her very first film (La Pointe Courte) and chronologically trudging along to her most recent project (Faces Places), Varda instead allows the story of her career to gradually take shape as she naturally follows the flow of topics that have informed her work over the years, as if having a casual (and one-sided) conversation with her audience. She’s teaching us everything she knows about filmmaking (or “cinewriting,” as she calls it) by looking back to the major touchstones of her career, but she somehow never takes on an authoritative or professorial tone. Instead, it feels as if she’s leveling with us as equals; it’s a humble & empathetic sharing of everything she’s learned over a half-century of filmmaking, so that we can utilize that knowledge for more & better art once she’s gone.

While its initial premise suggests that it’s merely a career overview of Varda’s work in particular, Varda by Agnès functions just as well as general advice from the auteur on the processes & philosophies of filmmaking at large. She breaks down the art of “cinewriting” into three basic processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. The contextual info she provides for her own films is consistently informed by those three tenets, and she uses that structure to deliver meaningful advice to the young artists who will outlive her. Larger topics like radical politics, the subjectivity of time, and the ability of a creator’s empathy to transform mundane subjects into transcendent Art arise naturally as the movie pauses on various projects from Varda’s past. Varda by Agnès may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture. Varda’s body was failing her as this project took shape, and she died before it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It’s a wonder the film exists at all, much less that it’s as intellectually sharp & creatively fluid as it is, even if its physical staging is limited.

The world did not deserve Agnès Varda. Yet, she gave us everything she could muster anyway. Even in her dying year, she gifted us a concrete way to say goodbye & to memorialize everything she accomplished while alive. Most aging auteurs of her stature don’t get that chance, and even fewer would go about their very public retirement in such a humble, uncurmudgeonly way.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 3/12/20 – 3/18/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

The Hunt A Blumhouse cheapie thriller that updates the frequently adapted short story “The Most Dangerous Game” for the MAGA era. This is the kind of throwaway genre schlock that would normally be released DTV with little to no fanfare, but it somehow became an alarmist talking point for Fox News last year – a nontroversy that ultimately delayed its release for months, earning it (likely exaggerated) cultural cachet as Dangerous Art. Playing wide.

The Invisible Man Elizabeth Moss reroutes her Olympian acting showcases from artsy-fartsy projects like Her Smell & Queen of Earth to enhance a Blumhouse horror cheapie in the Universal Famous Monsters tradition. In this case she’s the gaslit, traumatized target of the titular Invisible Man – reshaping the typical purpose of the source material to center the villain’s female victims instead of his own leering persona. Directed by Leigh Whannell, who recently killed it with his technophobic action thriller Upgrade. Playing wide

Wendy Nearly a decade after sneaking the (surprisingly divisive) arthouse fairy tale Beasts of the Southern Wild into mainstream distribution & Oscars consideration, local film dweeb Benh Zeitlin is back with a proper follow-up: an abstracted interpretation of Peter Pan. Playing wide.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous thriller in the style of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects – much to the frustration of her overly controlling family & doctors. Our favorite movie we caught at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest and CC’s favorite movie from 2019, full stop. Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Céline Sciamma’s latest is an 18th Century lesbian romance that builds towards an explosively emotional climax on a foundation of silent glances & subtle, electric body language. Everything Sciamma touches is gold, and this is no exception. Playing only at The Broad Theater.

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family.  Returning to The Prytania Theatre for a one-week run.

-Brandon Ledet

Sibyl (2020)

I’m becoming increasingly tickled by the Charlie Kaufman-esque story template in which Writer’s Block leads an increasingly unraveled protagonist down an absurd rabbit hole at their own peril. Between Ismael’s Ghosts, Staying Vertical, and now Sybil, France has gradually emerged as the #1 exporter of these bizarro psychological thrillers about frustrated writers, which rarely earn great critical accolades despite constructing some of the most unpredictable, confounding plots in cinema. Overall, Sibyl doesn’t revolutionize the structure or purpose of the Writer’s Block thriller in any significant way, but it does reshape the (admittedly loose) genre’s usual tone by casting a woman in the central writer’s role. Typically, these post-Kaufman psych-thrillers profile Macho Academic types in a moment of Mid-Life Crisis, so it’s a relief to see the genre shaken up with a woman’s internal fixations & sexual urges for a change. Otherwise, Sibyl behaves just as you’d expect given the Writer’s Block-driven downward spiral its protagonist suffers. It’s just an acquired taste I’ve personally acquired with glee.

The titular Sibyl is a frustrated psychiatrist who’s decided to pull back from the professional demands of her clientele to re-focus on writing novels – only to be confronted by the dreaded Blank Page. She’s then pulled back into her psychiatry practice by a new patient in crisis, an actress whose affair with a famous co-star is causing an on-set meltdown (as the man is also sleeping with the film’s director). Sibyl verbally protests that she cannot become involved in this young, chaotic woman’s life, but she’s clearly addicted to the drama that unfolds. Her avoidance of writing a new novel fades as she chooses to write about this soon-to-be-famous (or soon-to-implode) actress under a pseudonym, becoming more & more involved in the young woman’s life under the guise of “research.” It’s clearly addictive behavior that’s linked directly to her addiction to work, her addiction to past sexual partners, and—most explicitly—her alcoholism. At the start of their relationship, the psychiatrist is protesting that she cannot become involved in the actress’s personal drama. By the end, she’s practically directing the movie herself as her life falls apart outside the boundaries of her newest, singular obsession.

As with the best of these Writer’s Block psych-thrillers, Sibyl is excitingly playful in its style & narrative structure. It begins with a chilling piano score & 70s grindhouse typeface, as if it were a remake of Halloween instead of an intellectual drama. It also later teases swerves into De Palma-era erotic thriller territory, but those genre throwback touches are more stylistic flavor than they are narrative substance. The narrative itself is more guided by tabloidish obsession with “celebrity” criminals like Robert Durst & Casey Anthony than anything recalling De Palma or Carpenter, to the point where Sibyl’s only connection to those genre traditions is in her shameless voyeurism (most amusingly depicted in her late-night laptop binges on junky clickbait headlines). The movie itself is tickled with the farcical adultery configurations of its central cast, but it’s most concerned with creating a fractured portrait of its doomed alcoholic writer as she spirals out. The sordid details of her involvement in her patient’s life is less important than the addictive, self-destructive impulses that lead her there – freeing the movie to have a laugh at her exponentially absurd downfall even when it’s at its most excruciatingly grim.

The only major fault with Sibyl is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions. Beyond its obvious Kaufman ancestry, Double Lover & Persona both come to mind. Otherwise, it’s an admirably solid Movie For Adults, the kind of thoughtfully constructed erotic menace that used to be produced by Hollywood studios at regular intervals but now only seeps quietly through European film festivals. The movie works best when it’s clearly having fun with the absurdity of its unraveling premise, like when it frames Sibyl pensively vaping out a window in a Writerly way or in its casting of Toni Erdmann star Sandra Hüller as scene-stealing comic relief. It also takes the sexual urges & self-destructive behavioral patterns of its protagonist seriously enough that its central conflict never implodes into comic oblivion either. We’re fully invested in the manic downfall of this frustrated writer, even if not quite as much as she’s involved in her patient’s.

-Brandon Ledet

Matthias & Maxime (2020)

The New Orleans French Film Festival’s screening of Xavier Dolan’s latest feature was announced to be its US premiere. It initially felt exciting to watch a fairly significant new release without any already-ingrained critical consensus informing the experience – a rare treat these days. Except, the movie did arrive with its own pre-checked baggage even coming fresh off that international flight, thanks to the general divisiveness of Dolan’s flashy, bratty oeuvre at large. Even going in as cold as possible, I felt the exact same about Matthias & Maxime as I have about the other stray few Dolan movies I’ve happened to catch over the years (some at the very same fest): it was wildly uneven & in need of a shrewd trim, but also too stylistically bratty & refreshingly Gay to dismiss. At only 30 years old, Xavier Dolan has already firmly established a recognizable, idiosyncratic groove with a decade’s worth of routinely distributed feature films behind it. I greatly respect that level of professional & creative ambition in that young of a filmmaker, even if my own routine experience with his work is finding it Impressive but glaringly Imperfect.

Matthias & Maxime’s premise is so #OnBrand with the rest of Dolan’s career to date that it practically feels as if he’d already wrote it six or seven screenplays ago and was banking on audiences forgetting that it isn’t new. Dolan costars with Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas as the titular Max & Matt, respectively: two lifelong best bros who kiss on camera at a party after losing a bet and must deal with the aftermath of being very much Into It. The fallout of this revelation—that the presumed-straight macho dirtbags’ close friendship has an unspoken erotic undercurrent—plays out in two rigidly segregated settings: in tedious snapshots of their troubled home lives and in frantic, vibrant party sequences where the film periodically comes alive. True to form, Dolan punctuates his best moments with excitingly unpredictable needle drops & finely observed body language, but he also allows the story to drag on at least 20 minutes past its natural point of conclusion. Whether you’re enthusiastically on the hook for what Dolan regularly delivers or find it eyerollingly inane, Matthias & Maxime is eager to serve it up in heaps. It’s purely, precisely his usual thing.

I don’t mean to sound negative on this film’s value as an isolated work. If nothing else, I think Matthias & Maxime is incredibly observant about macho bonding rituals & typical group dynamics among basic bros – especially when parsing out what’s considered Normal male-on-male touching vs. what’s considered Gay. It’s just a shame that same thoughtful consideration didn’t extend to knowing how to trim the movie down to its best, most efficient shape. Like the few other Dolan titles I’ve caught, it’s frustrating because it has so much potential to be Great yet stumbles just enough to settle on being Good. It was exciting to walk into the film without a clear critical narrative warning me to expect more of the same from the director instead of a rare 5-star knockout. In typical Dolan fashion, watching it teeter on that tightrope was a significant aspect of its appeal.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020)

I really think that I would have liked Emma. a lot more if it hadn’t come right on the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m reaching a saturation point on period pieces, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the title character is one of the least likable of all of Jane Austen’s protagonists. While waiting outside the bathroom for the two friends with whom I went to see the movie, I overheard a family of four—mother, father, middle school daughter, 13/14ish son—discussing the movie. The boy said he thought it was “boring” and there were “only like two funny parts.” And honestly? I didn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge him this feeling. If I were a teenage boy, I probably wouldn’t have seen much of myself in the film either. My companions emerged shortly after, laughing; inside, one had asked the other (a huge Austen fan) whether the film had encouraged him to like Emma more as a character, and the answer was “No.”

It’s not a completely unique opinion. According to A Memoir of Jane Austen, the author herself wrote that, in creating Emma, she would craft “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” To that end, the opening lines of the novel (and the film) are thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition [had] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the sense and intent of the era, this meant that Emma was unusual: handsome (stately and elegant, but not “cute” in a traditional sense), clever (to quote this review of the book, “not ‘accomplished’ or ‘intelligent'”), and rich (as opposed to less judgmental synonyms like “affluent”). Emma is, as a character, spoiled sweet, and is possibly the first example of the archetype, which makes it possible to read her as less kindly as other examples.

In the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde and stylized as Emma., period and all, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in the film’s opening moments creating a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of her dear friend and governess, Anne (Gemma Whelan), who is preparing to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She doesn’t clip the flowers herself, of course, but selects them. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), complains that the house shall be empty soon, given that Emma’s older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has married, and that it will only be a matter of time before Emma follows her example. Emma repeatedly declares that she has no interest in marrying, but considers that she finds matchmaking a pleasant enough enterprise, as she aided in the courtship of Anne and Mr. Weston. When she learns that a new young woman—of indeterminate breeding and ancestry, which is important because this is the Georgian regency—named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) has arrived at the local school, Emma decides that she is best matched not with Robert Martin, a local farmer who reciprocates Harriet’s interest, but with vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Emma’s meddling invites rebuke from George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s brother in law (his brother married Isabella), who lives at the nearby Donwell Abbey and oversees its farms, one of which belongs to the Martin family. He is proven correct when Elton reveals that he has no interest in marrying someone as “low” as Harriet and instead seeks to climb the ranks of society by courting Emma, who rejects him outright. Emma herself is enamored of the unknown but oft-referenced Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), son of Mr. Weston who was adopted and raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle while Mr. Weston was serving in the militia. He finally appears in the town of Highbury not long after the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Miss Bates, the widow of Highbury’s last vicar, was born into relative wealth and now lives in genteel poverty, dependent upon the largesse of her more affluent neighbors. The orphaned Jane has long been suggested as a proper friend for Emma, but Emma rejects this, although if it is because Jane is of a lower social station (which is true) or because she is more talented than Emma herself in the areas on which Emma prides herself, like music (also true) is unclear. Miss Bates herself is considered a nuisance by Emma, who finds her to be a prattling bore, but her politeness (almost) never falters.

Austen adaptations are a tough business, and I’m not sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma, given that Clueless did all of the work 25 years ago, but as adaptations go, this is a decent one. It’s extremely faithful to the source material, down to phrasing and monologues—Knightley’s dressing down of Emma after she unthinkingly insults Miss Bates is a particular highlight—but there’s just something … off. Taylor-Joy seems to be incapable of providing anything less than a perfect performance, and although there are moments where Emma’s blindness to her own privilege is actually more frustrating and enraging than in the text (such as when she defines the Martins as being too high on the social ladder for her to think about them as charity cases, but too far below her station to be considered as peers), Taylor-Joy imbues those scenes with such innocence that you can see that she truly is a good person possessed of horrible (and period accurate) ideas about social class.

Emma.‘s biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be. The film is also held back by the aforementioned fact that Emma the novel is sparsely read and even more rarely enjoyed. The trailer set a high bar for the film’s energy and pacing, and I was cautiously optimistic about whether that kind of energy could be sustained over the length of a feature, especially given that it is de Wilde’s first film after a career largely consisting of helming music videos (although we’re talking about “Big God” and “Rise Up With Fists” here, so nothing to scoff at). The film itself is less chaotic than the trailer would have you believe, which is not to its detriment; the pacing is instead pitch perfect. Ironically given de Wilde’s past, my major complaint about the film as a film (as opposed to a transposed complaint about the source material) it would be the score. It’s not bad per se, but the hymns which accompany Emma. pale in comparison to Portrait‘s silence, periodically punctuated with musical moments as well as Alexandre Desplat’s lively piano compositions for Little Women. The music is unmemorable, which is unfortunate when adapting something as slavishly as this film adapts the novel; it’s one of the few areas in which there is room to embellish or create, and that possibility is squandered here.

Emma. is not a bad film. It’s not a great film, either. There’s a lot of conversation about class but very little commentary on class, which is something that a modern Austen adaptation really ought to address. Compare this, for instance, to the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, which took great pains to show servants hustling and bustling about in the background of virtually every scene; here, we see virtually no servants at all save for a few faceless coachmen and Mr. Woodhouse’s two footmen, who are only “dissatisfied” with their lot in life so far as it extends to catering to Woodhouse’s hypochondria and not, say, their frustration with having to perform useless and silly manual labor in a society where birth determines everything about one’s station in life. Instead, everyone is happy and content in servitude or gentility, which makes the film feel more dated than Persuasion, which, lest we forget, came out 25 years ago. I foresee Emma. becoming one of those pieces of media that, like the 1978 Peter Hammond version of Wuthering Heights or Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is used as the most triumphantly faithful adaptation for students to watch before test time if they procrastinated. That’s not high praise, I know, but it does put Emma. in good company, and it’s a fun little movie to have with tea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

“Thou hast made the furies weep, Orpheus. This is unheard of.” So says Persephone in one of the best retellings of the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Special #1. “Thou hast made the furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that.” The three leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) read and discuss this myth near the middle of the film and take from it different interpretations. It’s a well-known myth: Eurydice, beloved wife of the poet/musician Orpheus, is bitten by a viper and dies; Orpheus’s musical mourning so moves the spirits of the earth, the Furies, and even Hades himself that Eurydice is allowed to return with Orpheus to the world of the living, so long as he does not turn around until he has emerged from the Underworld. At the last moment, Orpheus turns and sees his beloved for but a moment before her spirit is pulled back into the world below.

Let’s circle back around to that. Portrait relates the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been hired to go to an isolated island off of the French coast in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s the end of the eighteenth century, and Héloïse has returned to her home after spending some time in a convent; previously, the responsibility of marrying a wealthy man and ensuring her family’s continued financial status fell on Héloïse’s eldest sister, but with her death, that now falls to Héloïse herself. She has no interest in modeling for a portrait that is to be sent to a Milanese merchant to secure a proposal, and previously ran off the last painter by refusing to sit for him. As Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) explains, Marianne is to keep the true purpose of her arrival secret and pose as a kind of lady-in-waiting/hired companion for Héloïse on her walks. She is assisted in this subterfuge by maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who fills in the details about the history of the house and its inhabitants.

Héloïse and Marianne grow quite close, and we learn that Héloïse had loved the convent because there was music and books and art, and she wants nothing to do with the life of playing wife to a stranger and bearing him heirs. Marianne sympathizes, as she lives adjacent to the world of art and artists, with men as gatekeepers. Her father is likewise a painter, and although she will one day be able to live as a free agent by inheriting his business (and not be forced to marry for economic security), she is still forced to submit her paintings in his name in order for them to be displayed, and she is forbidden from painting male nudes. When asked why, she explains that the stated reason is for the sake or propriety, but that the truth is that the establishment wants to ensure that women are never able to break through into “real” art. This doesn’t stop Marianne, who paints the male form in secret. “It is tolerated,” she says — as long as no one knows. Eventually, when the Countess is away, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie try to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, and the three grow close as a result, with Héloïse and Marianne eventually admitting their love for each other and submitting to their growing passion.

Upon hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sophie proclaims it unfair to Eurydice, who was damned by the folly and insecurities of her husband and through no fault of her own. Another proffered interpretation is that Orpheus, ever the poet, found himself at a crossroads with the opportunity to live with and love his wife for the rest of their days or immortalize her and enshrine her in poetry forever, and chose the latter. Yet another interpretation is that Eurydice had all of the agency, and asked that her love turn to her one last time and resolved herself to the darkness of the Underworld voluntarily. It’s an effective demonstration of the power of story in general and mythology in particular: a single narrative, interpreted differently by three different women who are all bounded and informed by the horizons of their experience and expectation. Sophie, who has limited means of changing her social status and needs the assistance of others to get rid of her fetus lest the Countess turn her out, sees herself in Eurydice as the victim of circumstance. The artist in Marianne recognizes the artist in Orpheus and sympathizes with both his love and his potential for self destruction. Héloïse sees herself as Eurydice the defiant, who would rather live in a world of her choosing than follow a man, and as Eurydice the empowered, who would rather that the one she loves look upon her once and for all and see her as she is than live as a shadow of what she truly wishes to be.

This is a powerful film, haunting and beautiful. I wept openly at the film’s ending, and immediately told everyone I could that they must see it as soon as possible. When a friend first saw Call Me By Your Name, he messaged me to ask if I had seen it yet, and he said that it had left him “undone.” That descriptor stuck with me in the intervening years, and it finally applies to something for me in equal measure: I was undone by Portrait. It’s a story of a brief love, but one which inspects the brevity of love and the all-consuming power of obsession and delights in, rather than condemns, it. The genre of romance is one in which the “happy ending” of the story is one in which the happy couple overcome the odds against them and set off for a live together. In other words, romance as a genre is a lie. Falling in love is the easy part; people do it all the time, often with people who are no good for them. The reality of life is that getting together isn’t a finish line, it’s just a new starting position, and that the “race” entails work, compromise, understanding, and sacrifice. As much as Héloïse wishes that Marianne would ask her to do defy her destiny as a trophy bride for a foreign businessman, Marianne, with her greater knowledge of how the world works, knows that she can’t and won’t. For her, Héloïse is better enshrined, as she is in the title painting, even if she will never stop loving her. The world simply does not have room for them to live in it as themselves.

This is a sumptuous film, full of life and fire and pulsing waves. It is quiet, save for the murmur of voices and the omnipresent clack of boot against hollow wood floor, and the roaring of fires and music of the sea. Only three times do we hear music: when Marianne attempts to play Vivaldi’s Summer Presto for Héloïse, when a seaside group of women sing an acapella chorus, and at the end when Héloïse attends a symphonic performance of Vivaldi. Its music is purely of the soul and not the ear, but you can hear it in every moment.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #103 of The Swampflix Podcast: Yentl (1983) & WoMen in DisGuys

Welcome to Episode #103 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon discuss three films in which women disguise themselves as men to gain access to institutions they’ve otherwise been shut out of: religious academia, investigative journalism, and high school soccer.  We start with Barbara Streisand’s directorial debut Yentl (1983), then move on to two teen comedies adapted from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.   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 & Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: True Stories (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Hanna watch True Stories (1986).

Boomer: “Look at it. Who can say it’s not beautiful?”

On tour, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne used to keep clippings and cutouts from various tabloids, and imagined a place where all the stories from them were true. Out of that thought experiment, True Stories was born. Starring David Byrne as a visitor to the fictional small Texas town of Virgil, True Stories is (technically) a musical featuring nine new songs written by the Talking Heads, performed in-story by various eccentric characters in and around the utterly banal Virgil as they gear up for the town’s sesquicentennial, to be marked by a “Celebration of Specialness” that includes a parade and culminating in a stage show.

There’s not really much of a narrative here, but the closest thing to a traditional story is the arc of Virgil citizen Louis (John Goodman in his first feature role), a consistently panda bear-shaped man seeking matrimony. Louis is a clean room technician at Varicorp, the computer manufacturing corporation that employs most of the town (housed in “an all-purpose shape,” Byrne’s narrator observes, “a box”). Over the course of the film, he finds himself on dates with some of the town’s eligible women, including The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who loves and adores cute things and can’t bear sadness, even for a moment, as well as The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who attributes her nonexistent psychic powers to the vestigial tail she was born with and claims to be responsible for both the death of JFK and the writing of “Billie Jean;” none are a good fit. Other citizens we encounter include a conspiracy theorist preacher (John Ingle), a woman who got so rich from Varicorp stock that she no longer gets out of bed (Swoosie Kurtz, making her second MotM appearance after previously being seen in Citizen Ruth), and Varicorp founder Earl Culver (monologuist Spalding Gray) and his wife Kay (Annie McEnroe), who no longer speak directly to one another despite being perfectly civil.

Years ago, when Lindsay Ellis did her review of Freddy Got Fingered under the Nostalgia Chick banner, she dismissed that film with the following: “See film students? You want your auteur theory? It’s right […] here: Fellini’s 8 1/2, Godard’s Contempt, Green’s Freddy Got Fingered: all shocking insights into the souls of their creators.” I think that this applies to True Stories and David Byrne as well: a fearless peeling back of Byrne’s public persona (as unobtrusive as it is) to lay bare the core of this being called “David Byrne.” It’s truly a celebration of the specialness of the mundane, and even the specialness of something as ugly as suburban tract housing. Who can say it’s not beautiful? There ought to be a law.

Hanna, infamously the studio forced the Talking Heads to re-record the songs written for this film as a band, and a lot of the meaning gets lost in that translation. Like, the Heads version of “Dream Operator” is great, but it’s missing some of the magic that comes from the inherent sweetness in McEnroe’s version, which didn’t exist separate from the fashion show sequence until the soundtrack got an actual release in 2018. Which songs, if any, do you think would actually benefit from being sung by Byrne, outside of the context of True Stories? Which do you think would lose all meaning divorced from the context of the film?

Hanna: I’m probably not the right person to answer this question. I love David Byrne and Talking Heads, but I am embarrassingly late to the party; I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time within the last year, and I literally just learned that the band is not called “The Talking Heads.” I think the soundtrack works best as a delightful little showcase for each surreal voice of Virgil (I especially enjoyed “Dream Operator”, “Puzzlin’ Evidence”, and “People Like Us”); the Talking Heads re-recordings take the individuality out of those voices. I have more investment in those characters’ stories than I do in hearing the Talking Heads record the songs, so I think it’s a shame that it took so long (34 years!) to release the soundtrack as it was originally recorded, and I’m glad David Byrne eventually got to put out the version he envisioned from the beginning.

The cast of lovingly painted, idiosyncratic characters was my favorite part of this movie. Last summer I visited the Texas State Fair, which housed the winning entries of Texas’s Creative Arts contest in a large gymnasium. The walls were lined with glass cases overflowing with hundreds of Texas oddities, which were neighbors by virtue of their proximity and their shared point of origin. Yards of quilted cotton pastures meticulously embroidered with lowing longhorns was draped two cases away from a demented carving of a hand, crudely sculpted from pure Texas butter; on the opposite wall, a doomsday-proof abundance of canned pickles, jams, and relishes loomed over ceramic souvenir plates. The haphazard collection of crafted artifacts embodied a particular kind of tender strangeness that never fails to delight me; that same feeling is threaded throughout True Stories.

The citizens of Virgil (including the aforementioned rich woman and Mr. Culver, who bursts into an ecstatic dinner demonstration of the spiritualization of capitalism, among other things) coexist in intimate isolation, seeking recognition from one another through brief encounters in well-worn public spacesthe one mall, the one bar, the one factory floorwithout any real expectations, because everybody inevitably believes they already know everything there is to know about every other person. Louis is an especially sad character, and especially isolated; he works in Varicorp’s clean room, which is totally shut off from the friendly bustle of the assembly line floor. He goes to great lengths to find a wife for himself, including installing a marquee indicating his bachelorhood outside his home and taping a two-minute personal ad on a local TV station. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he seems to be immune to any negative emotional state beyond hapless ennui; he doesn’t take it too personally when his dates don’t go well, and he is absolutely unflappable in his quest for love. This appearance of stability belies a disturbing loneliness that’s reaches its zenith at the Specialness showcase, where he sings “People Like Us”, a jaunty country-western tune that is terrifying in its desperation for human connection; he happily throws away any claim to freedom and justice for the chance to be loved by someone. This display of vulnerability pays off big time for Louis, but the expectations for his existence and his estimated self-worth are so cruelly distorted that it still feels like a loss, a reminder that things are very often nice and bad at the same time.

Tell me, Britnee: what did you think of the characters? Who stood out to you, and who faded into the background? Did you think they formed a cohesive picture of Virgil, Texas?

Britnee: There are quite a few eccentric characters in True Stories, which isn’t a rarity among films of this sort. There’s just something about this particular gaggle of wacky characters that set them apart from other similar casts. The unique folks of Virgil really make the town feel like its own universe, and each individual is an important piece of the town’s puzzle, no matter how big or small their role may be. Everyone was such a pleasure to watch, and each character brought something special to the film. Specifically, there are two characters that I would get super excited about whenever they graced the screen: Miss Rollings and Ramon. Miss Rollings is everything. She’s glamorous in a very psychobiddy way, and she has rigged up her bedroom with all sorts of gadgets to make her life as easy as possible. This includes a robot, a feeding machine, and a mechanical page turner. She would own so many Alexas if this film was set in modern times. Her sloth was so over-the-top, and I loved every minute of her screentime. As for Ramon, his smile and zest for life was so contagious. Not only does he gift of reading people’s tones, but he is a super passionate musician. I loved watching him do anything.

Something that I really admired about True Stories was how its bizarre events clashed against such a bland setting. Take for instance the shopping mall fashion show. In a very basic mall, there’s an audience of very basic people awaiting what one would expect to be a very basic fashion show. Well, as time progresses, the fashion becomes more and more insane. Astro turf dresses, oversized suits, loofah dresses, and mile-high headpieces grace the runway while “Dream Operator” is being sung by the soft voice of Mrs. Culver. Another example would be the family dinner at the Culver residence where the upper-middle class table setting includes oddities such as raw bell peppers stuffed with raw mushrooms and Japanese fish cakes atop sliced cucumbers surrounding a lobster. Mr. Culver proceeds to use the raw vegetables from the spread to explain the future of microelectronics in Virgil. It’s like the suburban American version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

Brandon, how important is it for the fictional town of Virgil to exist in Texas? Would this film still carry on the same if it were to take place in, for instance, a suburban town in the Mid-West?

Brandon: I absolutely believe Virgil’s Texan setting is essential to the movie’s abstracted portrait of American culture, as Texas is maybe the most stereotypically American state in the union. When other countries mock American sensibilities from an outsider’s perspective, it’s usually a parody expressed through explicitly Texan iconography. The cowboy costuming, Southern drawl, and Conservative Values of Texas are a perfect distillation of American culture at large, even though this is a vastly sprawling country with endless localized quirks. David Byrne is himself an American, but he’s studying our peculiar ideology & social rituals here as if he were a total outsider – which he kind of is, considering that he’s an art school weirdo who was born in Scotland and accidentally made it big with an NYC punk band in his 20s. It’s outright alarming when the citizens of Virgil start interacting with his onscreen narrator as if he were just a normal person just walking among them, as he initially reads as an omnipotent spirit who exists in an ethereal realm outside their earthly existence. Watching the aww-shucks, panda bear-shaped John Goodman directly interact with the strange, alien spirit of David Byrne is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with the Great Gazoo. He’s so far outside their quaint, small-town American way of living that he’s practically a figment of their imagination. Yet, he seems to have a genuine affection for Virgil even though he finds their ways deeply strange, and the movie functions almost like a love letter to the surrealism of Americana through that abstracted outsider’s lens.

I was impressed that this awestruck outsider’s portrait of American culture doesn’t shy away from our country’s more brutal history. Before the modern American absurdism of the shopping mall & channel surfing sequences light up the screen, the film opens with a crash history in the state of Texas’s establishment. We watch in a blur how the land was seized from Native cultures by white colonialists, which is an ugly undercurrent that colors the more frivolous parking lot hangouts & talent show frivolities later staged on the same land. Byrne manages to find beauty & wonder in the modern American consumer culture that replaced Native people’s own lifestyles & customs before they were ransacked. Supposedly, the occasion for the film’s celebration of Americana (through the climactic talent show) is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Texas, but it’s really an abstracted portrait of America at large. The effort wouldn’t be a complete picture without that ugly colonialist history, and I admired the film for starting there before gushing over our more adorable eccentricities.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I was disturbed by my soul’s unequivocal resonation with The Lazy Woman; her slowly reclining bed, sumptuous silk sheets in pastel pink, and little robot dutifully spooning scrambled egg into her mouth filled me with wonder and vicarious ennui. I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer representation of my deepest desires.

Boomer: If you’ve been driving yourself crazy trying to figure out where you’ve seen the fantastic preacher from the “Puzzlin’ Evidence” sequence before, put your mind at ease: John Ingle was the principal in Heathers.

Brandon: Boomer’s dead-on about the overwhelming auteurism of this picture. True Stories is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art, but it’s mostly just a 90-minute visit inside David Byrne’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and, by extension, America. He has a childish, exuberant sense of wonder for the world that I very much wish I had left in my own dull, jaded POV. Decades later, we’re still surrounded by this same iconography every day, but we rarely prompt ourselves to consider its basic nature or value. I wish I could live in David Byrne’s America, and the only thing really stopping me is my own mental roadblocks.

I specifically wish I could live in the America depicted in the “Wild Wild Life” karaoke dance party sequence, where every member of our local communities has a chance to share the stage and be celebrated for their unique personality & sense of personal fashion. I’m afraid that I instead live in the America of the fire & brimstone pulpit sermon “Puzzlin’ Evidence”: an increasingly insular, reactionary pitchfork brigade rife with paranoid conspiracy theories & fear of the unknown. In either instance, I’m sure I’d find more joy & adoration for the sprawling concrete monstrosity we’ve built if I could just better absorb some of Byrne’s abstracted, endlessly delighted worldview.

Britnee: Usually, when famous musicians make movies, they tend to be vanity projects or just sucky failures with the only redeeming quality being the musician’s contribution. I was delighted at how David Byrne did not make this film to glorify himself. It is heavily influenced by his style, but one doesn’t need to be a David Byrne fan or even know of his existence to enjoy True Stories.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Britnee presents Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movies to See in New Orleans this Week 3/5/20 – 3/11/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

The Invisible Man Elizabeth Moss reroutes her Olympian acting showcases from artsy-fartsy projects like Her Smell & Queen of Earth to enhance a Blumhouse horror cheapie in the Universal Famous Monsters tradition.  In this case she’s the gaslit, traumatized target of the titular Invisible Man – reshaping the typical purpose of the source material to center the villain’s female victims instead of his own leering persona.  Directed by Leigh Whannell, who recently killed it with his technophobic action thriller Upgrade.  Playing wide

Wendy Nearly a decade after sneaking the (surprisingly divisive) arthouse fairy tale Beasts of the Southern Wild into mainstream distribution & Oscars consideration, local film dweeb Benh Zeitlin is back with a proper follow-up: an abstracted interpretation of Peter Pan.  Playing wide, but The Prytania has multiple live Q&A sessions with Zeitlin listed in their showtimes.

Ace in the Hole (1951) This classic Kirk Douglas noir was director Billy Wilder’s first critical & commercial failure in the initial time of its release, but has since gradually earned respectable stature as a standout of its era.  It’s especially notable for eviscerating the ethical shortcomings of the newspaper journalism industry in its time.  Playing Sunday 3/8 and Wednesday 3/11 as part of the Prytania’s Classic Movies series.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Céline Sciamma’s latest is an 18th Century lesbian romance that builds towards an explosively emotional climax on a foundation of silent glances & subtle, electric body language.  Everything Sciamma touches is gold, and this is no exception.  Playing at The Broad and AMC Elmwood.

Birds of Prey Harley Quinn emerges from the beloved-by-all Suicide Squad in a hyperviolent, femmed-out action comedy of her own where she beats the shit out of dirtbag men, models sparkly costumes, and mugs directly at the camera for two hours of pure sugar-rush. Instantly one of my favorite superhero pictures of all time, and it felt nice to finally enjoy a Deadpool-style movie for once (it helps that Margot Robbie is, unlike Ryan Reynolds, actually funny). Playing wide.

The Lodge Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala follow up their art-house torture porn oddity Goodnight Mommy with another story about spooky children being isolated in close quarters with their overwhelmed female guardian.  Boomer reports that he initially found it effectively chilling but wildly uneven, then was gradually won over by it over the next few days to the point where he gave it a 4-star review.  Make of that what you will.  Playing wide.

-Brandon Ledet

Flesh Freaks (2000)

I’ve recently become enamored with the carefully curated Blu-ray releases of the Toronto-based Gold Ninja Video, which is positing itself as a boutique physical media label for low-end genre trash & D.I.Y. oddities. From bargain bin Brucesploitation titles like The Dragon Lives Again to backyard filmmaking curios like Impossible Horror to a Criterion Collection-level art cinema treatment for Matt Farley’s Local Legends (one of my favorite films of the 2010s), Gold Ninja Video has been consistently extraordinary in their dedication to unearth & uplift otherwise ignored castoffs from genre cinema’s furthest reaches. That impressive track record prompted me to take a chance on the label’s recent Blu-Ray release of Flesh Freaks, an amateur shot-on-video zombie flick from the late-VHS era. Flesh Freaks itself is—to put it mildly—not great, but when considered in the context of Gold Ninja’s catalog of discarded low-to-no-budget relics I do find it fascinating as a kind of historical document. This sub-professional, juvenile zombie flick is an artifact from a bygone era when that kind of novelty could land legitimate VHS rental store distribution instead of being directly uploaded into the digital void on platforms like Vimeo or YouTube. In the 2000s, Flesh Freaks qualified as a Real Move – one that even secured a Fangoria Magazine blurb on its Clip Art promotional poster. If released today, it’d be an easily ignorable YouTube preview window that remains forever unclicked.

The reason I’m dwelling on all this extratextual background info is that it’s far more fascinating than the actual onscreen content. When considered outside the context of its time or finances, Flesh Freaks is a dutifully mediocre zombie flick, one that’s only saved from total dead-air tedium by its spectacularly violent third act – a delightfully grotesque practical effects showcase (that unfortunately arrives too late to fully justify the long stretches of mediocrity that precedes it). The story goes that unscrupulous archeologists accidentally uncover an ancient curse from Mayan ruins in Belize, conjuring zombie-like creatures who slay everyone at their dig site – except one lone survivor. Once home at the University of Toronto, the survivor struggles to explain the horrors he encountered in Belize to his impatient, curious friends. He also—shocker—has carried the Mayan zombie curse back with him, unwittingly unleashing a full-scale outbreak on his college campus. This Torontonian back half of the film is both more fun to watch and more technically accomplished than the opening stretch in Belize. Yet, the film dwells on its Belizean travelogue opening for as long as it can manage, emphasizing its importance so drastically that the film feels rigidly bifurcated between the two settings (rather than the Central American portion functioning as a place-setting flashback the way it’s intended). It turns out that, like all things in Flesh Freaks, that decision is much more forgivable & interesting when considered in the context of how the film was produced & distributed.

Flesh Freaks is the passion project of Torontonian horror nerd Conall Pendergast, made when he was still a pimply teen. Pendergast stars in the film himself as the contaminated traveler, of course, which is the tell-tale sign of a young aspiring filmmaker playing around with a decent camera for the first time (usually out of financial necessity). He first conceived of the project while traveling with his archeologist parents to their actual dig site in Belize. Bored and isolated in a remote, foreign location, Pendergast made the shrewd decision to utilize his stunning deep-jungle surroundings as easy production value for a Real Movie. Only, his zombie-outbreak footage merely amounted to a mediocre short film, one that would need to be heavily embellished to approach the length of a proper feature. Once Pendergast got around to assembling this “extra” footage back at the University of Toronto, he had more time, experience, resources, and collaborators at this disposal – resulting in much stronger, more distinct work despite the pedestrian locale. As a result, it’s the Belize travelogue footage that registers as the film’s runtime-padding, not its college campus epilogue. By the time Flesh Freaks stages its handmade gore spectacle in its climactic final minutes it feels like the emergence of a fully formed filmmaker, one we’ve been watching gradually evolve out of the shot-on-video ooze the entire film. While most bored teenagers were playing video games and spending their pocket change on ditch weed, Conall Pendergast made a Real Movie, one with distribution that reached far beyond his local social circle. That is in itself a genre cinema miracle, even if the actual film is a standard, paint-by-numbers zombie cheapie.

Since Flesh Freaks is more substantive as a cultural artifact than it is as a feature film, its recent Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video is still a recommendable purchase for curious genre nerds even if the movie’s reviews are generally unenthusiastic. All the context required to consider the film as a fascinating, unearthed relic is easily accessible in the disc’s overloaded special features. Deleted scenes, filmmaker introductions, commentaries, essays, as well as bonus feature films & shorts from Pendergast are all included on the disc. It’s as if this were Criterion reviving some long-lost Bergman classic instead of a small indie label publishing heavily padded excerpts from a nu-metal era horror nerd’s vacation footage. There are some beautifully sculpted D.I.Y. creations in the film’s zombie-swarmed climax, but for the most part Flesh Freaks is nothing especially remarkable when considered on its own. If anything, it’s the kind of movie you’d usually pick out at random on Amazon Prime only to bail five minutes in for a more promising option. Gold Ninja Video doing the work to highlight why it’s important & exemplary of its era is the real story here. They did a great job uncovering this lost artifact.

-Brandon Ledet