Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

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 Hanna made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Playtime (1967).

Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched.  He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites).  Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time.  About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.

Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything.  Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.

These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended.  Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement.  The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting.  In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.

What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on.  It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful.  Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime?  Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant?  How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?

Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene.  Everything about each environment felt so sterile.  I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease.  I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be.  I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general).  They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it.  That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie.  While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t.  It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t.  Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others.  You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment.  I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience.  It’s the worst.

I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away.  An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again.  RIP Tativille.  Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question.  Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors.  Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness.  The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today.  However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant.  I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans.  They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look.  So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere.  Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar.  I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967.  It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.

I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all.  Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world?  These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre.  This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays.  Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?

Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film  overall.  It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat.  As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it).  Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons.  On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living.  After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision.  Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.

If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night.  There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses.  As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief.  I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters.  Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist.  I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc.  The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.

I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so.  Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows.  The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate.  There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to.  In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas.  All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos.  If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier).  Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.

Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair?  Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?

Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination.  This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak.  I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure.  Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.

As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon.  To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery.  At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy.  Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily.  For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me.  I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced.  There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken.  But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts.  So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?

I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it.  My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”).  I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.

Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.

Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.

Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête.  It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags.  It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own.  Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.  If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end.  It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.

Crazy in Alabama (1999)

In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).

If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.

Now and Then (1995)

This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.

Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.

Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.

The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Get Excited! The Swampflix Podcast is Now on YouTube

I’ve had some free time while in quarantine over the past few weeks (go figure), so I decided to tackle a project I’ve had on the backburner for a long while: starting a Swampflix YouTube Channel. I’m not sure what kinds of video content we’ll be producing in the future, but it’s always exciting to play with a new medium, and I hope to put it to more ambitious use one day. For now, though, I used this new resource to create a playlist of select episodes of The Swampflix Podcast for your YouTube listening pleasure. The videos aren’t much more than slideshow presentations with podcast audio, but I do think they represent our best work as podcasters in recent months.

So, if you happen to do all of your podcast listening through YouTube, or if you just want an easily accessible & shareable version of our podcast in particular, here’s a new resource available for your convenience. Hopefully we can recommend some exciting movies to you along the way.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

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 Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).

Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library.  The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes.  When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two.  My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies.  Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes.  The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of.  I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade!  I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women.  Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama.  She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage.  One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it.  While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company,  Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy).  Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era.  The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated.  Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them.  The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!

The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic.  The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s.  Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes.  Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia.  It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie).  Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her.  The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child.  Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.

Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth.  What are your thoughts on this?

Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew.  The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.

The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected.  For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct.  Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes.  Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time.  This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.

Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget).  Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.”  The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way.  What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance.  That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way.  It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them.  I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.

So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests.  That was unexpected.  Brandon, what did you think of this development?  Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise?  Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?

Brandon:  I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor.  Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life?  The secret’s in the sauce.”  In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.

By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything.  I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café.  I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline.  It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall.  It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing?  From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous.  There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance.  Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity?  Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?

Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie.  In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book.  It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.

I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene!  I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.

Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband.  Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away!  She is a friend to bees!  She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian!  She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later.  I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.


Lagniappe

Brandon:  I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point.  There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off.  Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There.  And then the movie just kinda drops it.  The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss.  The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen.  Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate.  I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).

Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown.  Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar.  I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.

Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me).  Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline.  I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).

Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye.  It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses.  Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it.  It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.

I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance.  He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out.  The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.

I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep.  I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants.  Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is  Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row.  I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.

One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks.  That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind.  When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.”  But nope!  Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.

Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth.  This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname.  Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double.  Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself.  There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes.  The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film.  Fried Green Tomatoes lives on!  Tawanda!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)

-The Swampflix Crew

A Return to Panic in the Streets (1950) in the Time of COVID-19

Last Spring, Shotgun Cinema projected the 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House, as part of that season’s Science on Screen series. As a shot-on-location noir set in New Orleans and an Elia Kazan-directed procedural drama, Panic in the Streets proved to be a solid genre entry, but not much more. As a historical act of local people-watching, however, it carried a lot of clout as something exceptional, and I was glad to have shared that experience with a live, local community. There was a warm, electric feeling in that room as the movie offered a time-machine vision of our city’s past in an entertaining genre film package.

Once the movie concluded, however, the crowd gradually disbanded before the screening was officially over. The Science on Screen series included a post-film lecture and Q&A with specialists on each particular movie’s topic, and as that night’s guest scientist began their spiel the once-enraptured crowd gradually trailed off into the night one at a time, out of apparent collective disinterest. In retrospect, we all should have stayed & listened to that lecture. Hell, we all should have been taking notes. Panic in the Streets is specifically about a plague spreading through the streets of New Orleans, where current new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high, and the lecture was about how epidemics of that nature tend to spread through communities like ours. We had all gathered that night to marvel at a vision of our city’s distant past, but we were also unknowingly looking into our not-too-distant future.

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s & 90s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target were especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The prospect of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the New Orleans locale in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors (that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years) and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique.

The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film down here for the tax credits. It may not do much to document what the city itself looked like in the 1950s, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people. The local cast & crew sported neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here and it was nice to hear a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect). Even without that local connotation, though, there’s just a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing at the movies.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero lawmen vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre, but the film ultimately still adheres to those tropes. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat.

There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but those confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about Jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

At the time of last year’s screening, I thought of Panic in the Streets as a curio that would only be of interest to locals, but I’ve seen a huge increase in outside audience’s interest surrounding it in recent weeks. Of course, most of the film’s draw all these months later has nothing to do with its ability to satisfy noir genre beats nor its value as vintage New Orleans tourism. In the time of COVID-19, many audiences are scrambling to uncover older film titles that explore the horrors & social mechanics of large-scale health epidemics. If the goal of these coronavirus-inspired excursions into plague cinema past is to cathartically indulge in the scariest possible fallout scenarios of our current global health crisis, you’re probably better off watching a modern thriller like Contagion or Outbreak instead. If anything, Panic in the Streets’s depiction of a citywide viral contamination is almost reassuringly quaint compared to our current circumstances. Containing the epidemic is just as simple as catching a few low-level criminals who’ve been passing it around among themselves, which is antithetical to how we understand the seemingly uncontainable, exponential spread of contamination that’s playing out in charts & graphs on the news this very minute.

Speaking even as someone in New Orleans (where new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high thanks to massive Mardi Gras gatherings’ ominous presence in the not-too-distant rearview) who recently watched it in a crowded room, this movie is a comforting vision of an easily conquerable epidemic. I very much wish our current real-world crisis could be boiled down to just a few no-good scoundrels who need to be cornered at the Mississippi River docks. There’s a comfort to that simplicity. Instead, we’re in a much more complex mess of irresponsible disinformation campaigns, economic exploitation, and the deaths of our communities’ most vulnerable comrades – one where there cannot be a clear, decisive victory over the enemy when this is all “over.” A few dozen movie nerds remaining in their seats for the full lecture after that Shotgun Cinema screening wouldn’t have been enough to prevent these current helltimes, but it couldn’t have hurt for us to enter them better informed.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: True Stories (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1986’s True Stories, is a one-of-a-kind oddity. David Byrne’s directorial debut is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art. Mostly, though, it’s just a 90-minute visit inside the Talking Heads frontman’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and—by extension—America. Only Byrne could have written & narrated the picture as it is; its worldview is fine-tuned to a frequency only his mind operates on. Watching humble, everyday Texans interact with Byrne’s exuberant, wonderstruck POV is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with The Great Gazoo. He practically functions as a figment of their imagination, which is essentially how his eternal-outsider Art Punk spirit feels in the real world too.

Because True Stories is so specific to Byrne’s idiosyncratic worldview, it’s exceedingly difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films like it. Luckily, it’s not the only film around that heavily involves Byrne’s peculiar input. Nor is it the only film in which a left-of-the-dial auteur attempts to construct an abstracted portrait of American culture. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its bizarro wavelength.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The biggest no-brainer endorsement for a True Stories double feature is to pair it with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. A collaboration between the band and beloved director Jonathan Demme, the concert doc covers four live dates from the Stop Making Sense tour in 1983, when Byrne & his art-punk buddies were at the height of their national popularity. While some of Byrne’s engagement with the everyday common folk of America is lost as he’s distanced from the audience on a barricaded stage, much of the visual language & thematic concerns that would later snowball into True Stories are present here. The video-art displays, consumer culture iconography, and puzzled fascination with the modern Western world that abstracts Byrne’s version of Americana in True Stories are all present in Stop Making Sense; they’re just filtered through song & dance and other collaborator artists’ POV. You even get a small taste of how Byrne’s peculiar presence clashes with the aura of Normal People in Demme’s last-minute choice to turn the camera on dancing members of the audience.

Not for nothing, Stop Making Sense is also worth a watch because it happens to be the pinnacle of the concert film as a medium – regardless of its tenuous connections to True Stories.

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (2019)

Until Stop Making Sense is updated with a spiritual sequel in David Byrne’s upcoming American Utopia concert tour doc (directed by the over-qualified Spike Lee, of all people), its closest substitute might be a sketch comedy showcase hosted by John Mulaney. Overall, the Netflix comedy special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t have much to do with Byrne’s peculiar persona in True Stories. Most of the special involves Mulaney interacting with semi-scripted children in a post-ironic spoof of Sesame Street era children’s programming – like a softer, more sincere Wonder Showzen. One of the special’s stand-out sketches just happens to feature Byrne: “Pay Attention,” a song the musician performs with a small child.

The playful number is about children’s frustrations when performing artistic songs or skits they’ve worked really hard on in private but adults ignore as frivolities when presented to “the public.” Byrne & his pint-sized bandmate chastise a living room full of dull, middle-class adults for ignoring children’s art as if it were background noise, even when it clearly means the world to the performer. Not only is the song funny & endearing on its own terms, but it’s also another chance to see Byrne interact with normal, aggressively un-special people as a kind of ethereal outsider who’s confounded by their behavior.

The Straight Story (1998)

Of course, David Byrne isn’t the only erudite Art Freak of his era to attempt an abstracted portrait of modern Americana. Laurie Anderson’s United States Live series even paralleled his New Wave video-art aesthetic while tackling roughly the same topic in the same year as the Stop Making Sense tour. What’s really hard to come by in works of this nature, however, is Byrne’s wholesome enthusiasm for the subject. While Anderson’s similar work can be often eerie or sinister, Byrne mostly comes across as genuinely fascinated with modern American culture as a curio.

The only other film I can think of that adopts that same wholesome outsider’s fascination with America as a people is a Walt Disney Pictures production . . . of a David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a simple retelling of a reportedly true anecdote about an ailing man travelling hundreds of miles to visit his dying, estranged brother via a John Deere tractor. It’s an incredibly patient film that hides away all the horror & obfuscation of Lynch’s typical nightmares until all that is left is his fascination with humbly eccentric Characters. The resulting film is just as bizarre as anything you’d see in Eraserhead, but somehow still carries the endearingly wholesome exuberance as True Stories.

Lynch’s film is not as excitingly paced nor, frankly, as good as Byrne’s Americana masterpiece. Few films are. When looking for supplemental material to approximate the heights of True Stories‘s singular accomplishments, you invariably have to settle for slightly less than the ideal.

-Brandon Ledet

Divine Art Commissions in the Time of COVID-19

As you likely already know, there are a ton of people who are currently out of work as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. You’re likely already seeing pleas from service industry folks, independent arts spaces, and all other sorts of communities in need for donations & contributions of income. If you live in New Orleans, for instance, it’s worth noting that the indefinitely-closed Broad Theater is currently donating 25% of their gift card sales to their staff, paid out weekly. It’s also a great time to reach out to individual artists you appreciate to pay direct support, as they often survive by very thin margins on a good week.

In that spirit, here’s a spotlight on two artists who could use an increase in commissions & donations in these increasingly dark helltimes. As examples of their work, I’m including portraits they’ve recently done of our Krewe Divine looks from this year and links to their personal websites where you can contact them directly. Check out their divine art, consider sending support, and let’s continue to take care of each other as best as we can.

Jennifer works as a PA in Los Angeles, where practically all productions are effectively coming to a halt. They’re currently taking commissions for digital art through their Instagram account.

Liz Yerby makes comics in Portland, Oregon, and is looking for an increase in paid work to help stay afloat. You can check out more of their art on their website and contact them directly by email for commissions.

-Brandon Ledet

New Orleans French Film Fest 2020, Ranked & Reviewed

Of the two local film festivals operated by the New Orleans Film Society, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 30th Annual NOFF, for instance, screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which we were able to cover 10 features (and a few shorts). We’re only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task as amateur bloggers.

NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. All films are at least partially French productions, all are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; 2018’s Double Lover ranked near the top of my favorite films of the 2010s . There are also typically at least two screenings a year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites after just one viewing, especially in retrospective screenings from auteurs like Agnès Varda & Jacques Demy. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year.

We will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival on an upcoming episode of the podcast, featuring a more fleshed out review of 1945’s Children of Paradise. For now, here’s a ranking of the few films we’ve seen that screened at the 2020 New Orleans French Film Fest. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Mr. Klein (1976) – “It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.”

2. Deerskin (2020) – “Damn funny from start to end. Not only is the idea of a jacket being so fashionably mesmerizing that it leads to a life of crime hilarious even in the abstract, but the overqualified Jean Dujardin’s straight-faced commitment to the bit sells each gag with full inane delight.”

3. Varda by Agnès (2019) – “It 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.”

4. Children of Paradise (1945) – Given this one’s accolades as one of the greatest films of all time, I expected a shift into outright Movie Magic surrealism during its stage pieces that never came. Instead, it’s just a well constructed, stately four-way melodrama with a dark sense of humor and an exceptionally grand budget considering it was partially made under Nazi occupation. It’s really good, but I was prepared to be totally floored (which is my fault, not the movie’s). Looking forward to diving further into it on the podcast.

5. Sibyl (2020) – “Its only major fault is that you could name several movies that push its basic elements way further into way wilder directions; 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.”

6. Matthias & Maxime (2020) – “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.”

7. House of Cardin (2020) – “Not at all interested in matching the avant-garde artistry of its subject in any formal way; it’s about as forward-thinking in its filmmaking style as an I Love the 60s special on VH1. However, the vibrant, playful art of Pierre Cardin more than speaks for itself, and stepping out of that portfolio’s way read to me like a great sign of respect.”

8. Celebration (2019) – “Without any contextual info about how this late-career misery differs from YSL’s earlier, more youthful fashion shows, this behind-the-scenes glimpse fails to communicate anything coherent or concrete. Like the worst of the ‘elevated horrors’ of recent years that it stylistically emulates (if not only in its spooky score), it’s all atmosphere and no substance.”

-Brandon Ledet