Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/19/18

Here’s a quick rundown of all the movies we’re most excited about that are playing on the big screen in New Orleans area this week. Film festival screenings, bizarre cult movie sequels, and niche subject documentaries seem to be ruling the local cinema scene this round, making for an oddly diverse & plentiful crop.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Kubick screenings at Filmtopia – The Prytania Theatre is launching a brand-new film festival this weekend with the very loose theme of “movies good & plenty,” meaning they’re screening plenty of good movies with very little, if any, connection to one another. Out of the twenty or so films listed on the schedule, there’s plenty to be excited about (including a 90s feature from Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas), but the crown jewel of the collection appears to be  a run of Stanley Kubrick titles rarely seen projected on the big screen: The Shining, Barry Lyndon, The Killing, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket. They’re also screening a documentary titled Film Worker, about one of Kubrick’s closest, most consistent collaborators. The festival will run from July 20-26 at Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen theater. Check out the full lineup here.

2. Unfriended: Dark Web – My personal fascination with technophobic genre films, especially ones fixated on the evils of the internet, once manifested in making everyone else in the Swampflix crew discuss the found footage internet horror Unfriended for a lengthy Movie of the Month conversation. Needless to say, I’m very excited for that film’s follow-up sequel, whether or not that enthusiasm is at all justified.

3. Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again – Speaking of bizarre sequels to cult favorites, this ABBA jukebox musical is a decade behind its 2008 predecessor, but promises so much unembarrassed joy, Cher-delivered sass, and maniacal horniness (the first one practically ends with an orgy) that it’s impossible not to be excited for the series’ return. It’s also the subject of our next podcast episode, to be posted sometime next week.

4. Three Identical Strangers – Documentaries seem to be having A Moment in 2018, as this well-reviewed oddity joins the Fred Rogers & Whitney Houston docs already in theaters, each in ever-expanding wide release. The trailer for this doc introduces a true, tabloidish tale of triplet brothers who were kept unaware of each other’s existence until they happened to discover their unlikely kinship by chance in their college years; it also teases a sinister tale of scientific cruelty & political corruption behind that bizarre occurrence. Looks like a very strange journey with plenty of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up twists.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Sorry to Bother You – This consensus is to dismiss this movie with descriptors like “messy,” “unsubtle,” and “all over the place” as if those were critical digs instead of exciting invitations. One of the wildest, funniest, most visually inventive political satires of the decade, a knockout comedy with an incredible amount to say about class, race, and organized labor under modern capitalist hierarchies. Easily the best new release screening in New Orleans right now, no matter how “messy” people seem to think it is.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Fred Rogers documentary that’s all but guaranteed to make you well up with both tears & awe. This film doubles as both a document of a philosophically-minded art project that aired on public television for over three decades (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and a profile of a fascinating man who’s easy to love but difficult to fully understand.

3. Ant-Man and the Wasp – From Boomer’s review: “Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU, there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around.”

4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – This a half-hearted recommendation, because Fallen Kingdom is not a great movie, but it does have a great movie buried within it. There are enough lame jokes, laborious duties to franchise-wide storytelling, and dull moments of forced chemistry between the mismatched leads to nearly ruin the film entirely, but director J.A. Bayona snuck an admirably bizarre B-movie conceit into this wounded behemoth that helps save it from being entirely useless. For a glorious 45 minutes or so, Fallen Kingdom functions as a haunted house Gothic horror flick with dinosaurs instead of ghosts, which is one of the most gloriously ludicrous genre mashups you’ll see onscreen all year, even if it is weighted down by the lumbering beast of a franchise it serves.

-Brandon Ledet

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Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

My favorite image in the entirety of Lizzie Boden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is the hands-on application of a condom. Casually included in one of the many montages set to Red Krayola’s titular anthem that repeats throughout the film, there’s something intensely provocative about that matter-of-fact condom application. Juxtaposed with a wide range of images depicting labor derisively considered “women’s work,” the hands-on work of applying a condom is (somewhat in dark humor) positioned as a burden often laid on women, no different than dental assistant labor, child care, call-center duty, or the factory work of shrink-wrapping raw chicken. Its contextless, matter-of-fact presentation leaves a lot of room for interpretation, though, dividing me & Alli on whether that image was being coded as domestic labor of professional sex work. Similarly, Born in Flames’s attitude toward sex work at large is open for interpretation, as it’s a narratively disjointed picture that relies in the strengths of ideas & images (like the contextless condom application) more than concrete explanations of intent. My personal interpretation of Born in Flames saw its attitude toward sex work as the only aspect of the film’s radical politics that did not age particularly well. In my view, the film advocates for the abolition of sex work as an industry, lumping it in with rape & gendered subjugation. Boomer & Alli both saw it differently, saying Born in Flames presents sex work as just any other kind of job (albeit one in desperate need of advocacy for workers’ rights), which would put it closer in line with modern political thinking on the subject, as opposed to the more hardline stances of feminism past. It could be that I was lumping individual characters’ negativity toward sex work in with Lizzie Borden’s own views; all sides of nearly every political issue are allowed to conflict onscreen in Born in Flames with equal weight. It’s tough to tell with just one picture as evidence, especially one this deliberately disjointed.

Thankfully, Lizzie Borden’s next feature film, Working Girls, delves further into this exact topic. Depicting a single workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls finds Lizzie Borden tackling the topic of sex work head-on and at feature length.  It even follows a much more straight-forward, linear narrative than Born in Flames, so much so that it could easily be adapted into a stage play. Weirdly, though, it never fully settled my mind on Borden’s political views of sex work as an industry, which is indicative of both her own internal ideological conflicts and the complex nature of the subject. ­­Louise Smith stars in Working Girls as an aspiring photographer with a live-in girlfriend (and daughter) who secretly pays her bills by working johns in a brothel/apartment that resembles a windowless version of the Seinfeld set. Over the course of the film she works a double shift, making money off a variety of men who visit the apartment by appointment and pay to spend time with her in rooms upstairs. As the title suggests, brothel work is depicted in the film as if it were any other kind of industry. The workers who comprise the operation are tasked to alternate personalities & functions, from receptionist to office girl to therapist to hostess to actor to lover to dominatrix to housecleaner, as the minute-to-minute demands of the job shift. The manual labor of condom application implied by that single image in Born in Flames is expanded to include used condom disposal, laundering of soiled towels, and the insertion of diaphragms. This matter-of-fact presentation of sex work in a functioning office context even comes with a demanding boss who takes credit for all their employees’ labor and changes the mood of the room depending on their emotional outbursts. Judging by its office environment hierarchies & work flows, Working Girls indeed reinforces the idea that Lizzie Borden views sex work as just being like any other profession. That would indicate Born in Flames’s views were much closer to modern radical politics than the prostitution abolitionist views of feminism past. That’s not all that’s going on in the film, however.

The function & method of sex work might be framed in the context of office culture mundanity in Working Girls, but the sex itself is a punishing, relentless nightmare that complicates that intellectual distancing. The disjointed landscapes of Art of Noise-style music & disembodied grunts mix with subtly grotesque expressions of masculine violence in a never-ending nightmare that resembles an early 80s slasher with condom-wrapped dicks instead of glistening kitchen knives. Consensual trading of cash for pleasure shifts into acts of rape within the span of a single phrase or physical gesture. The capitalist hierarchy & financial desperation that presses its boot on the neck of the workers with increasing intensity makes the cramped setting feel like an ongoing hostage crisis. Even the women eating junk food between customers is a stomach-churning display, an effect Borden plays for a sinisterly humorous tone. Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.

Where that leaves Borden’s political views on sex work at large is still as hazy as the contextless, provocative imagery of Born in Flames, but that’s honestly a large part of what makes her work so engaging. According to Borden herself, she made Working Girls after collaborating with the women who starred in & crewed Born in Flames, noticing that a large number of them were financially dependent on sex work to survive (and had fascinating stories to tell on the subject). That at least acknowledges that if Borden was politically opposed to sex work as an industry, it was a question of anti-oppressive ideals, not of denigrating individual people it employed. The shame is that we never had a chance to see her expand even further on the subject. Because of the studio influence that compromised her later work, Borden considers Born in Flames & Working Girls to be the only two titles that are truly hers as the principle artist at the helm. With more, better funded movies her world view may have had a chance to clarify, evolve, or self-conflict in a clearer political display, but instead she’s been effectively silenced by a lack of opportunity. Luckily, the two films she was able to compete without outside fuckery are both ideologically dense, provocative works of D.I.Y. political filmmaking, as well as essential documentation of a long-gone, grimy era in NYC history. I’m unsure of my interpretations of either film, something that’s made no better through repetition, but I’m also awestruck by the potency of her D.I.Y. matter of fact imagery. Isolated images of a condom application, a greasy cheeseburger, a pantied spanking, and an exploding World Trade Center miniature will haunt me forever in their political implications & daringness to provoke. In two no-budget films, Borden left me with more to think about & debate within myself than most directors achieve with entire catalogs of professionally financed, polished studio productions. That’s about as punk as you can get, no matter what your exact political stances may be or how they may age with time.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its place in the No Wave movement.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/12/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are playing on the big screen in the New Orleans area this week. The selection is a little thin this round (in numbers, not quality), but that’s about to change with the upcoming, first-ever Filmtopia film festival launching at Prytania Theatre later this month.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Sorry to Bother You – Although I’ve been anticipating this surrealist satire since it made a huge splash at Sundance early this year, I can’t report many details to anyone not already on the hook because I’ve been trying to go in as blind as possible myself. The trailer teases some Michel Gondry-style visual experimentation mixed with no-fucks-given social satire and a knockout cast that includes Tessa Thomson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer and, in the lead role, Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield. This is one you want to see big, loud, and early, as it promises to be a visual spectacle & a political bomb-thrower everyone will be discussing for the rest of the year (and beyond).

3. Ant-Man and the Wasp – Just a couple months after the exhaustive spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War, it’d be understandable if MCU burnout kept most people from being too excited for another entry into the franchise. Like The Guardians of the Galaxy before it, though, the first Ant-Man film was surprisingly charming & lightweight in its allowance to play around in isolation from the more labored, franchise-wide concerns of the MCU, so this sequel could be good for some frivolous, one-off fun. Boomer & I were both positive on its predecessor in our joint Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, so I’m more than willing to return for more.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Yellow Submarine (1968) – A 4k restoration of the animated Beatles classic theatrically re-released for its 50th anniversary. This movie cheats a little in dubbing in the Fab Four’s voices with impersonators (when they’re not singing, at least), but more than makes up for that faux pas with a non-stop onslaught of trippy visuals. Only screening at Prytania Theatre for a single-week engagement.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Fred Rogers documentary that’s all but guaranteed to make you well up with both tears & awe. This film doubles as both a document of a philosophically-minded art project that aired on public television for over three decades (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and a profile of a fascinating man who’s easy to love but difficult to fully understand. Enjoying its third week of screenings in the city, this tiny film is still miraculously gaining momentum, even joining the Yellow Submarine restoration for a week-long run at Prytania (which is apparently our MVP for the week).

-Brandon Ledet

Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema

One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.

For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.

As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.

Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 7/7/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are playing on the big screen in the New Orleans area this week. We’re unfortunately still waiting on Sorry to Bother You to come through town (for one more week!), but there’s still a lot of new stuff to be excited about in the meantime.

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Yellow Submarine (1968) – A 4k restoration of the animated Beatles classic theatrically re-released for its 50th anniversary. This movie cheats a little in dubbing in the Fab Four’s voices with impersonators (when they’re not singing, at least), but more than makes up for that faux pas with a non-stop onslaught of trippy visuals. Only screening at The Broad Theater from Sunday, July 8 – Wednesday, July 11.

2. Fireworks – A supernatural teen romance anime from the producer of last year’s excellent Your Name. The reviews have been middling to worse, but it promises to be a beautiful-looking novelty if nothing else. There’s also only one more chance to see it big & loud, a Fathom Events screening Saturday, July 7 at 12:55pm.

3. Ant-Man and the Wasp – Just a couple months after the exhaustive spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War, it’d be understandable if MCU burnout kept most people from being too excited for another entry into the franchise. Like The Guardians of the Galaxy before it, though, the first Ant-Man film was surprisingly charming & lightweight in its allowance to play around in isolation from the more labored, franchise-wide concerns of the MCU, so this sequel could be good for some frivolous, one-off fun. Boomer & I were both positive on it in our joint Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, so I’m more than willing to return for more.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Hereditary – Worth seeing for the conversations it sparks alone, this admirably bizarre, anxiety-inducing nightmare of a horror film is on its last legs theatrically. Down to just one screening a day in the New Orleans area starting this weekend, if you’re interested in seeing it big & loud before it disappears this is the time to jump on it.

2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Fred Rogers documentary that’s all but guaranteed to make you well up with both tears & awe. This film doubles as both a document of a philosophically-minded art project that aired on public television for over three decades (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) and a profile of a fascinating man who’s easy to love but difficult to fully understand.

3. SuperFly – Less iconic than the 1972 Super Fly and far less visually arresting than Hype Williams’s Belly, this low-grade, high-fashion action thriller still finds a worthwhile aesthetic of its own as a hyperviolent, feature-length Atlanta hip-hop scene music video.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Born in Flames (1983).

Brandon: I first watched Lizzie Borden’s ramshackle punk screed Born in Flames shortly after the historic Women’s March that protested Trump’s inauguration last year. The film’s mere existence is incredible for countless reasons, but what struck me most at the time was how closely it resembled current, compromised news coverage of radical political resistance. Early 1980s protest footage integrated into Born in Flames’s sci-fi narrative could just as easily have been captured at the 2017 Women’s March with just the right Instagram filter to match the film’s low-fi static. It’s not that the Born in Flames’s politics were especially predictive or ahead of their time, either. What’s most striking is not the film’s prescience, but how little the world has changed in the 35 years since its release. Current concerns of respectability politics, White Feminism, Men’s Rights Activism, public sexual harassment, patriarchal rape culture, and dishonest media coverage of peaceful protests are all demonized in Born in Flames as the enemies of true social progress. The film preaches a message of Intersectionality & true feminist unity (across borders of race & sexuality) that still hasn’t been fully achieved to this day, but has become a much more commonly expressed ideal. Its vision of D.I.Y. punk culture, from bicycle gangs to alternative modes of broadcasting & press to dingy nightclubs & ripped street clothes, still feels true to how radical counterculture looks today. This D.I.Y. punk ethos also extends to the film’s form, which is a version of sci-fi filmmaking so lacking in budget & traditional craft that you’d never be able to tell it was set in the future if that weren’t explicitly stated.

Set ten years after a fictional American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

Born in Flames splits its efforts as both a document of its time in D.I.Y. political filmmaking and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to a long-gone, idealized past.  Alli, do you think either side of this divide overpowers the other? From your perspective, does Born in Flames excel more as a historical document or a living, breathing ideological manifesto?

Alli: I don’t think the idea of black lesbian punks running the streets is necessarily part of an idealized past. There are things like Afropunk and many radical Tumblr blogs right now making a lot of waves (Afropunk even has its own festival) and inspiring a lot of kids to just be themselves, loud and proud. Maybe New York isn’t the same, but other places in the country are seeing demonstrations, women trying to take care of each other, and celebrations of these kinds of lifestyles. We can yearn for the optimistic ideas of this era, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while progress is happening at a molasses pace and America feels like a “two steps forward one step back” country as far in its progress, these people are out there and are being more open.

As much as these ideals feel like a past moment looking towards an optimistic future, like every sci-fi book that predicted we’d have flying cars by the year 2000, a lot of the movie actually felt very prescient to me, but also made me feel sad for the radical movements currently at work in the country. The “suicide” of Adelaide Norris felt a little too much like the life and death of Sandra Bland, which should have galvanized many movements into action but instead most of the talk around that tragedy has quieted down. Just as sad as this movie made me feel, it also gave me hope. Radical ideas haven’t died out. Radical people have been fighting forever and are still around and kicking, even though we live in a near police state where any slightly rowdy protest is considered a riot, and the same old lukewarm liberal narrative exists that any major action is just as bad as the oppression. In this way to me, it definitely felt like a living, breathing manifesto. I have never seen a movie embrace so much of my personal ideology while also teaching me a thing or two about direct action and the power of large groups of people acting together even if they have different priorities within their shared goal. The quote about one lion versus hundreds of mice really stuck with me. There are so many teaching moments here. As you said, it’s still so relevant. We can look at the writings of people like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Marx, Engels or Bakunin and still there’s so much to take away from these works. Just because the ideas posed aren’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a call to action and even a proposed guide to how to get change started.

Of course, all the writings I just compared Born in Flames to are essays, works of nonfiction. If I had to compare this to any fiction parallels, it would be the writings of my personal favorite, the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. She, too, looked to future utopias with a critical eye. Her works are filled with critiques of gender, capitalism, tyrannical government, religion, and, even though she identified as an anarchist, anarchy itself.  There was no ideal too perfect for her critical eye, and I think that’s also what I like about this film. None of the activists here have all the answers as to how to get things done. These characters live in a supposed ideal government system, in which people are supposedly taken care of, given jobs and housed, and yet there’s still so much wrong. We’re shown a future that many socialist activists have been working towards for years and changes still need to happen. Movements are shown as hard work worth fighting for, even though you can’t even be sure of the outcome.

Which brings me to the unfortunately dated, open-ended conclusion. Boomer, how did you feel about the ending? Do you wish the movie had shown what happened after that first major strike of taking down the transmitter of the World Trade Center?

Boomer: I think that showing what happens next would undermine the message as a whole. In one scenario of the film’s continuation, there would be sudden and efficient retaliatory action by the patriarchal government system against the Women’s Army (and associates), thoroughly knocking the uprising off its horse and reinforcing the supremacy (not the superiority) of the system in place; which would be a bummer and run counter to the film’s self-evident call to action on the part of the women and allies in the audience. On the other hand, if the film committed to the concept that The Movement would install a newer, truer, more egalitarian utopia, then that new society would have to be depicted. Not only does this lie outside the film’s budget, it also falls outside of what I would like to call its thesis, except that the term suggests a cohesive idea, which I don’t feel the film has. Its various points of views overlap in a Venn diagram of ideologies between different groups, but these groups rarely manage to put up a united front and is fractious when doing so. There’s a lot of discussion in the film about what constitutes right, proper, reasonable, and fruitful action in response to government oppression, with little conversation about what an improved world would look like in comparison to the one in which the women reside now. There are a lot of opinions, and even when there is collaboration, there are still those who are in the oppressed group whose ideals are in conflict with others. Born in Flames is, as am I, a proponent of intersectionality, but there’s no definitive answer as to what the ideal form of governance does, how it treats the members of its society, what it looks like, and how it works.

This lack of singular vision isn’t a flaw objectively; documents of reactionary art, especially those made outside of any studio system and which are iconoclastic but not necessarily reformative or restorative, are often an amalgam of different branches of critical theory that are prominent in academia or highly educated groups at the time of the text’s creation. One could argue that such a reading makes Born in Flames a kind of artifact of a bygone era just as much as the image quality, fashions, and presence of the WTC Towers dates it, and while it is a bit of a time capsule, that doesn’t make its questions any less potent or applicable, even if it never quite gives an answer. The answers, both to the question of what comes next in this world post-revolution, and what happens next in our world after having heard this film’s arguments, are up to you. I had a hard time getting with the film, despite my alignment with many of the philosophical ideals of various characters (and from which other characters distanced themselves). It’s not because it’s not “for me,” which is all-too-often trotted out as a placeholder for legitimate criticism by people who can’t or won’t inspect their preconceptions, and it’s not because of the film-making quality, as I love low-budget films and legitimately enjoy the aesthetics of this one. And I’m not opposed to films counterposing various ideological constructs and leaving it to the viewer to piece together a personal political philosophy from the constituent parts, nor am I simply depressed at how little ground we’ve advanced in some areas since 1983. But, if you put all of these things together into one movie, what remained for me once the movie was over had little staying power, even when I was in agreement with it.

One of the things that kept pulling me out of the film was the music. And I’m not just talking about Isabel’s cringeworthy spoken word/rap, although I was embarrassed for her in the moment; I didn’t care for the title song the first time it was played, and it didn’t grow on me as it was repeated throughout the film. Even when I recall the montages from the film, I mentally replace the music with Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “The Parade”. The DIY aesthetic comes through in the music, definitely, but I wasn’t feeling it. What about you, Britnee? Did the music pull you of the film or help you cement yourself in its world? Would you change anything, if you were able?

Britnee: As I was reading through everyone’s thoughts and responses to Born in Flames, I sang “We are born in flames” out loud each time I ran across the title. I cannot shake this song for the life of me. The scratchy recording with those funky yodeling female vocals were sort of like a less-polished version of a Rubella Ballet tune. It conjures up images of dirty city streets filled with young folk in denim jackets, which is what we see in Born in Flames.  In my opinion, the “Born in Flames” song perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the film. I even felt a bit more rebellious than usual after the first couple of times hearing it. Although I enjoyed the song and its presence in the film, it was a bit repetitive. I want to say that it played over 5 times throughout the films 80 minutes, and that is just way to much for a single song to be played in a movie. Getting other songs may have just been too costly for this low budget flick, but it would have been better to just have less music.

I went ahead and gave Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “Parade” a listen while keeping all of those important scenes in mind. It would definitely be a great theme song for the modern version of Born in Flames. What a modern version of the film would look like is a thought that crossed my mind when I realized that what was being portrayed in the film was supposed to be the future. Progression in our country moves at a snail’s pace, so a “modern” Born in Flames would be almost identical to the original (bicycle gangs included), but with different music.

Speaking of the bicycle gangs, I was disappointed that they appeared once when a girl was being attacked by two thugs. The whole idea of a bicycle girl gang is fabulous, and I wish they would have had just as much screen time as the “Born in Flames” song. Brandon, do you wish there was more focus on the bicycle girl gang in this movie?

Brandon: At the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival, I caught a small documentary titled Ovarian Psycos about an all-female-identifying Latinx bicycle brigade that was dedicated specifically to feminist community-organizing in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s incredible, in retrospect, how much the political tactics & D.I.Y. aesthetics of that film resemble the “bicycle girl gang” that appears briefly (but is referenced often) in Born in Flames. More than three decades apart and on the opposite American coast, the bicycle brigades in the two films feel like they’re of the same cloth, a continuation of a political organization tradition that remains constant in punk culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve already seen the intricacies of exactly how feminist biking crews aim to destroy the social norm of public spaces only being safe for men detailed at length in the Ovarian Psycos doc, but I don’t think Born in Flames necessarily needed more of their presence to strengthen its thematic fabric. I was just appreciative that they rolled into the scene at all, presented as a communal feminist alternative to the police state in cases of sexual assault, as it’s yet another detail to Born in Flames that feels true to what punk-culture-in-action still looks like today.

Most of my appreciation of Born in Flames works this way. Much like the various, ideologically-conflicted women’s movements that populate its narrative, the film itself is a kind of well-meaning, but disorganized political screed that does gradually become focused & coordinated, but starts in total chaos. The messiness of its structure is partly due to an overabundance of ideas (something that I always admire in any film), which means that no one detail is afforded a wealth of screentime (outside the repetitions of the post punk theme song). The bike brigade, the Sandra Bland foretelling, a pre-auteur Kathryn Bigelow’s presence among the White feminism journalists, etc.: Born in Flames is a collage of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details, which is something that makes your head swim in the moment, but also makes for rewarding repeat viewings.

In fact, my favorite aspect of the entire film is a single image included in one of the earliest montages set to the Red Krayola song. A series of images details labor that would be traditionally coded as “women’s work”: dental assistant labor, factory work, childcare, etc. Mixed in with these details is a woman’s hands applying a condom to an erect penis, a sly comment on the sexual labor women are expected to perform domestically. The matter-of-fact presentation of that image is also subversively funny, as it’s juxtaposed with factory workers shrink-wrapping raw chicken (among other menial tasks). I don’t think everything the film has to say about sexual labor is on-point (more on that in the “Lagniappe” section below), but I found that montage to be incredibly clever in visually defining what “women’s work” actually looks like and challenging the way it’s socially undervalued. There’s a lot of thematic power behind that singular condom application, an effect that extends to other barely-seen ideas like the bicycle brigade.

Alli, are there any other minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details in Born in Flames that felt powerfully resonant to you even though they barely appeared onscreen?

Alli: You mentioned the condom scene, and that one stuck with me not because of the domestic aspect but because of the sex work positivity of the film, which is extremely interesting to me given the time period. Radical feminism of from this era didn’t necessarily see sex work as anything more than objectification and oppression, where this movie takes a more updated approach in saying that it’s just a job, which is the view intersectional feminists and what I’m going to call true radical feminists stand by these days. (True radical feminists here meaning those opposed to every institutional system to oppression and aren’t trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary.) It’s just awesome to me to see radical women of this time period embracing other women from all walks of life and not looking down on one another because of their occupations.

Another ahead of its time detail that stuck out to me is the inclusion of women from other countries in the movement. A lot of what’s lacking in modern feminism is a lack of solidarity, a focus on America’s problems (or the problems of whatever country you’re settled in), and even a focus on individual empowerment & declarations. We’ve become fixated on the commodification of self-care, buying bath bombs and the like, and celebrity identification, instead of group acts and collective action. (There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a revolutionary act, but it isn’t about buying things to make yourself feel better while setting the expectation of self-care prohibitively high for low income or houseless women.) The idea of women’s liberation being a worldwide movement is powerful to me, especially in the context of women everywhere freeing themselves and teaching each other things rather than white saviorism.

Other blink and you miss them details: queer women making love without the male gaze, women in what are thought of as traditionally male trades such as construction, and posters identifying men as rapists. Basically, I love this movie, including the Red Krayola song (but I was already a fan of the band).

Boomer, I know you mentioned that this movie had a very “not for me” feeling for you, but are there any ideas that you feel the modern era of resistance could benefit from? Are there any superfluous ideas that you feel would be detrimental to modern activism?

Boomer: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that sex work is presented in the way that more modern (and more true, non-TERF) feminism would, as this is an element of radicalism in the past that can be easily forgotten. Again, this is an unusual situation for me, in that I rarely find myself in a position where I am so completely aligned with a text’s stated and envisioned ideals while also feeling so completely cold about the text itself. I can only conclude that this is the result of the film being so cheaply (if not poorly, necessarily) made. I’ve seen films that are worse, and I’ve seen films that are cheaper, and I’ve still been able to get “on board” with those movies, but there’s something blocking that here for me, and I can only conclude that it’s because this film is just kind of . . . ugly. This is at least in part because 1980s New York was an ugly place: despite being the Platonic ideal of an the bohemian artist’s “New York” that took root the public consciousness before the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole city by stamping out and destroying many of the things that made it truly unique, this film certainly doesn’t highlight anything that makes it beautiful (and not that this has stopped the husk of New-York-That-Was from drawing countless mothlike hopefuls to beat their wings vainly against the searing flame). The philosophical theses are clear, but film is a medium that requires a confluence of different kinds of expression to adhere into a complete whole; the scenes of a woman being attacked on the street are not distinct, visually, from those scenes of women in bed together or vigorously discussing different political ideals while straddling a windowsill (metaphorically and literally): they’re all filmed in an ugly way, which is understandable given that this is an independent feature that took years to make. This lack of difference in the framing of different scenes with dissonant purposes can be chalked up to an evocation of a documentarian’s distance from the subject, but that simply doesn’t work for me here, as it attempts to graft an apolitical (at least in theory) aesthetic onto an inherently political text. As a result, the whole thing is just too muddled for me, like a painting that uses a lot of vibrant colors but mixes them together in such a way that you end up with a canvas of various muddy browns. I wouldn’t claim that any ideals in the film are backward (although there’s a questionable one I’ll get to in a minute here), but since the medium is the message, the overall palate of the film may be detrimental, at least to the general public’s willingness to empathize and get anything out of the movie.

I understand that the intent is to demonstrate that a supposed socialistic democracy can descend into misogynistic policy-making and oppression just as easily as an authoritarian, conservative-dominated society can when the figurehead at the top practices autocracy instead of representational democracy, or when representatives act as advocates for only some voices in their districts instead of all. And I applaud the film for focusing on society’s “lower decks,” as confining the presidential/governmental presence in this world to speeches and television appearances better reflects the world the characters (and we) inhabit, with the implicit distance between the working class and lawmakers made explicit, with TV screens as manifest barriers of this distance and demonstrating that power in this system flows only one way: from orator to spectator. That’s certainly an important part of the discussion of any dichotomy of power.

As I wrote back in my first part of this conversation, the most depressing thing about this movie is how much it demonstrates how little has changed. Thirty years later and wheatpasting is still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal? But with regards to the messages that modern activism can still benefit from and if any are detrimental, I’d like to circle back to your discussion of sex work. (Disclaimer: this is outside of my lane as I am a cis man.) This is an area in which many modern people who consider themselves feminists, men and women alike, consider to be inherently oppressive, which is an understandable reaction given that, historically, sex work has been dominated not only by male interest but also male violence and authority. Different people can find the same thing liberating or oppressive depending upon the horizons of each individual’s lived experience and point of view: hijabs can bring comfort to some while others find them oppressive; pride parades might give some the strength to come to terms with themselves and self-expression while others balk at the commercialization and pursuant capitalism of pride celebrations or feel unwelcome among the sea of twinks and hunks because gay culture can be just as cruel as the mainstream to those whose bodies fall outside of the “ideal” range; testing accommodations for students can make life easier for some while others resent the fact that having to make such arrangements increases attention on them. As a result, I’ve also seen certain discussions descend into angry name-calling and ad hominem attacks instead of mutual edification and respect when it comes to discourse about the topic of sex work and its place in feminist movements. As such, I would argue that the only place where I feel there’s a real disconnect between the feminism of Born in Flames‘ then and the feminism of our now is in response to the president’s proposed policy allowing for payment for domestic work for women. Although its goal is to roll back the clock on progress and push women back into kitchens (as evidenced by the fact that it is explicitly stated as a program for women instead of remaining gender-neutral in indicating who would be eligible for such a benefit), but removed from the context of the attitudes we’ve seen evinced by the men in power, a stipend or paycheck for stay-at-home domestic duties is not terribly dissimilar from modern policies that advocate for a basic universal income or even newborn supplements and allowances like those available in Australia and parts of Canada. It’s presented as a universal ill in the film (and within the context of the film, it is), but the philosophical descendants of those ideals present in Born in Flames would be less likely to reject the concept outright, but if they used the film as a fundamental and cornerstone text of their philosophy, it could be detrimental, at least hypothetically.

Britnee, I too was disappointed that the bike gang only showed up once in the film and then disappeared. Some of the issues present in the film were hammered over and over again, to the point where it felt preachy, while others were given barely a passing mention. Were there other elements that you felt could have born to be repeated more often, and was there anything you felt got more attention than necessary?

Britnee: When I hear the word “revolution”, the image of youthful, energetic beings is what generates in my mind, which is why I completely understand why there is such a focus on young women in Born in Flames. Interestingly enough, though, I really enjoyed the few moments of screen time afforded older women in the movement. Zella Wylie and The Belle Gayle Show are the only times we really see women over the age of 25, and their camera time is brief compared to the rest of the cast. Nothing gets me more jazzed than aged feminists because they have seen and been through it all and still have hope for brighter days to come. I don’t think not having women from different age groups equally present in Born in Flames hurt the film or prevented it from making bold statements; I just think it would’ve made the film a little more interesting.

As for what I felt got more attention than necessary in the film, I can’t really think I of anything. I enjoyed how there were a variety of issues that were addressed, and I didn’t feel like anything was overdone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would have gotten so much more out of Born in Flames if the film’s main ladies saw more character development. Knowing about their background and day-to-day on a more emotional level would have helped me connect with the characters. Instead, I found most of them to be sort of annoying, as they reminded me of the mean crust punk girls in college who made me feel like I was never good enough to hang out with them. Even though Born in Flames reopened those wounds, I did enjoy the film for the most part.

Brandon: I’m going to have to contradict both Alli & Boomer on a couple points here: the effect of the ending and the film’s view towards sex work , which was wholly negative in my interpretation. I understand why someone would find the World Trade Center explosion that concludes this film to feel dated in a cringe-inducing way, but I find it at peace with its larger “All oppressed people have a right to violence” messaging. I’d even say it feels exciting as a go-for-broke call to arms, a continuation of the film’s political organization aspirations at large. What hasn’t aged so well, however, is the film’s attitude towards sex work.

While most of Born in Flames’s radical leftist ideologies feel consistent with modern politics, the way it lumps all sex work in with rape & gendered subjugation does feel out of step with political thought in the 2010s. If this film were contemporary, I suspect it would shift its stance from abolishing sex work entirely to advocating for sex workers’ rights that would protect them from gendered power-imbalances. A film’s political ideology feeling slightly outdated is more of a positive sign of real-world progress than anything, though, so that sex work-shaming attitude is more than forgivable, especially considering the striking amount of the film’s messaging that’s still on-point. Lizzie Borden’s next film, Working Girls, was also specifically about upscale NYC sex workers, so I’m curious to see if expanding on the subject makes her abolitionist stance seem more nuanced that I’m giving it credit for here (as indicated by everyone else in the crew taking away an entirely different interpretation of her views on the subject).

Alli: Discussing and viewing art is entirely subjective. Every person brings their own experiences and opinions to the table. I was predisposed to like this movie as a crazy radical. Sure, it’s not pretty, but neither is oppression or the world these women inhabit. Sure, the same song is repeated like an anthem over and over again, but as cheesy and “spiritual” as it sounds, we all need a mantra to get by in times of conflict. I’m not saying that this is a flawless movie by any means or that these aren’t valid criticisms of it. I just think that this movie lives and breathes its ideals.

One tenet of true punk radicalism that I absolutely love is the fact that you don’t have to be trained or an expert to make art. The idea of gatekeeping art to only include “intellectuals” or those who went to art school is inherently classist and against “the cause.” Many untrained people, children even, have produced movies that are gorgeous and perfectly composed. Some people can make untrained, unpolished work beautiful, like Daniel Johnston or the sisters of the band The Shags.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty to mean something and be good.

Boomer: I saw this film for free on Amazon Prime by participating in a free trial for Fandor as part of Amazon’s services; as of this writing, that free trial is still ongoing, so it’s not as difficult to find as one might expect. The Amazon reviews for the film are unsurprisingly positive or negative on the extreme ends of the star rating spectrum, from such insightful ratings as “Sucked like a lamprey” and “Looks like this was made for a college film class” (which, to be fair, it does) to more positive ratings from more thoughtful viewers like this one or this one. But my favorite simply reads “I am not sure to remember I was watch movie,” which makes me think poor Patsy Johnson had her world rocked so hard by the film that she couldn’t think straight. Nice work, Borden!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August:
Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 6/30/18

Over three years into our humble existence as an amateur film criticism blog, we’re still trying our best to evolve and make ourselves useful to anyone who wants to connect with us. As part of that effort, I plan to start filing these weekly reports on what’s playing on the big screen in & around New Orleans, the city we (the damned) call home. Hopefully, this will make our film recommendations more useful as you’ll better be able to tell what’s locally available on the big screen. Also, since we’re non-professionals, it often takes us longer to see & review new releases than we’d like, so this should be a quick way to share what we’re excited to see with other locals. So, here’s what’s screening in New Orleans this week:

New Releases We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Sticking around for a second week, this documentary about the life & times of Fred Rogers looks like a dangerously potent heart-warmer. The reviews are almost universally positive, I cry every time I see the trailer, and it’s difficult to imagine a timelier antidote for the trash pile that is modern existence right now than a return to the wholesome philosophy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

2. Hearts Beat Loud – A heartfelt indie drama about a family treating a garage band project as a form of self-therapy was a formula that worked really well for me in last year’s Band Aid. I’m totally willing to repeat that experience with a cast this exceptional: Nick Offerman, Ted Danson, Toni Collette, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, etc. etc. etc.

3. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Britnee was admittedly much more enthusiastic about Jurassic World than anyone else around here, but I’m super curious about what director J.A. Bayona did with the material. His last movie, A Monster Calls, completely wrecked me and he has a consistent visual aesthetic that I really want to see applied in dino action. Also, there’s reportedly a stretch of this movie that’s a gothic horror tangent but with dinosaurs instead of ghosts? Who could resist that temptation?

4. American Animals – I just watched the entire Ocean’s 11 series for the first time in the past couple weeks, so you’d think I’d be a little burned out on the heist genre for a while. There’s something charming about the in-over-their-heads energy these teenage criminals project in the movie’s trailer, though. It looks a little like Thoroughbreds For Boys in a way I’m willing to take a chance on.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Hereditary – Continuing the recent tradition of “A24 horror,” this slow burn freak-out is a tense familial drama that only gradually devolves into nightmarish mayhem late into its runtime. Just don’t go into it expecting traditional scares; it’s more disturbing than it is frightening.

2. SuperFly – Less iconic than the 1972 Super Fly and far less visually arresting than Hype Williams’s Belly, this low-grade, high-fashion action thriller still finds a worthwhile aesthetic of its own as a hyperviolent, feature-length Atlanta hip-hop scene music video. Catch it before our review goes up early next week!

3. Solo: A Star Wars Story – Putting the series’ Force mythology on the backburner, this is essentially a cheesy string of swashbuckling heist adventures set in outer space, a return to the original Star Wars recipe.

4. Ocean’s 8 – Soderbergh’s slick direction is sorely missed, but a phenomenal, women-led cast and an ingenious choice in setting allow this film to excel as a modern mainstream comedy. We just covered the entire Ocean’s 11 series for the most recent episode of the podcast and this easily ranked among Ocean’s 12 and (the unofficial entry) Logan Lucky as our favorite examples of the franchise. Britnee was especially into it.

-Brandon Ledet

Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics

I struggled a lot with questions of tone & intent in Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven, our current Movie of the Month. In the film, Morris documents a small-town dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery with both an emotional & editorial remove, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in how he relates to his interviewees. Given the way the quaint subject is presented in Morris’s editing room choices, it’s often tempting to read an ironic humor in his fascination with his subjects (recalling more blatantly comedic works like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in the process). The economic hardships detailed early in the film generate genuine empathy and the rich bastards who profit off it later in the narrative likely deserve to be mocked, but there’s still something uncomfortable about a young NYC intellectual invading small town communities to have a chuckle at the local yokels. Gates of Heaven never fully tips in the direction of outright meanness & big city elitism, but I can still detect those impulses lurking in its morally compromised DNA. You don’t need to look far into Morris’s other works from that late-70s era to justify that unease, either. The filmmaker abandoned a few much more blatantly exploitative false-start projects before he completed his critically lauded debut, the scraps of one even becoming its de facto sequel.

Errol Morris would eventually enjoy a successful, prolific career as a documentarian, but his early professional years were more or less defined by false starts. Werner Herzog literally ate his own shoe because he was incredulous that the Gates of Heaven project would ever be completed. It was a fairly safe bet that it wouldn’t, as it was Morris’s third attempt at making a film to date, with nothing substantial to show for it. His first abandoned project was a documentary on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Morris took an edgy, provocative approach to the subject, interviewing Gein himself and making plans to dig up the killer’s mother’s gave to prove suspicions that her body had already been exhumed. When Herzog showed up ready to dig up the grave, Morris chickened out and the project was never completed. The same goes for Morris’s second attempt at documentary filmmaking, a project that was initially going to be titled Nub City. Foretelling Gates of Heaven’s humorous gawking at local yokels, Nub City was meant to be an investigative piece about the curiously high number of citizens of Vernon, FL who had amputated their own limbs to collect insurance money. It’s unclear if Nub City would have lived up to its exploitative title as a total “Getta load of this freak show!” endeavor or if it would have balanced that impulse with the same empathetic & economic concerns that complicated Gates of Heaven’s potential irony. What is clear is that the impoverished insurance scammers Morris hoped to document were not fond of the scrutiny. The filmmaker was beaten up by the Marine son of one of his potential subjects, received death threats, and smartly abandoned the project.

Unlike the Ed Gein project, an untitled narrative crime thriller screenplay, and a documentary about an unscrupulous court case expert witness nicknamed Dr. Death, Morris did not abandon the Nub City project entirely. He instead pivoted by using interview footage from other, non-insurance scamming locals to scrape together an eventual sequel to Gates of Heaven titled Vernon, Florida. As an art project, Vernon, Florida is more formally daring than the already context-light pet cemetery document of Gates of Heaven. It’s a film comprised entirely of leftover scraps, something you can feel in every second of tis meandering, non-sequitur interviews with local eccentrics. On the Florida pan handle (not too far east from here, despite my viewing of the film requiring subtitles) Vernon is portrayed to be a quaint town crowded with Southern Eccentrics. Without the David vs. Goliath capitalist narrative of Gates of Heaven or any kind of narrative direction at all, these subjects’ eccentricities themselves seemed to be the crux of what’s on display. Occasionally an old man will do something adorable like show off his pet tortoise, but the residents of Vernon are mostly shown as babbling kooks who can bore any open ear for eternity with go-nowhere stories about anything: turkey-hunting, buying a van, God, suicide, the word “therefore,” why we should bring back tar & feathering, etc. Without plot or music providing this empty pontification with any momentum, Vernon, Florida is stubbornly directionless. At its best it feels like the avant-garde indulgences of Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; at its worst it feels like the art world ancestor to The Jerry Springer Show. Either way, it confirms my suspicions that in his youth Morris approached his small-town subjects with an unhealthy dose of ironic detachment.

Morris matured greatly by the time he completed his next documentary in 1988, the pioneering true crime pic Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, interview clips from Vernon, Florida have been consistently used to mock poor Southerners (again, sometimes with merit), most recently as commercial bumps on the Adult Swim comedy show The Heart, She Holler. It’s a film that’s nowhere near as essential as Gates of Heaven, defiantly so, but it is one that helps illustrate that landmark work’s more unseemly impulses. At least the morbid fascination with this tone echoed in comparable, narrative works like Trash Humpers & Even Dwarfs Started Small didn’t risk exploitation of real-life, economically devastated people for the sake of artistic effect, a mistake many young provocateur documentarians make, including the greats.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and last week’s comparison to the Christopher Guest comedy Best in Show.

-Brandon Ledet

Defining “A24 Horror”

By now, I hope everyone’s learned to call bullshit whenever they hear the term “elevated horror.” Audiences who checked out from the genre back in the dismal days of the torture-happy, nu-metal scored 2000s might have to do mental gymnastics to justify enjoying high-profile entries into a canon they’ve deliberately chosen to ignore in the years since, but anyone who’s been paying attention in the last decade knows that the days of the genre being defined by Saw & Hostel sequels are long behind us (well, mostly). Horror has been enjoying a huge creative upswing in recent years, offering young & hungry directors room to experiment in a creative medium that has a built-in commercial potential, an increasing rarity outside the $100+ mil blockbuster landscape. Some lingering genre-bias held over from past eras of torture porn & slasher sequel exhaustion makes “horror” a dirty word in some critical circles, however, which has been inspiring some people to justify removing the descriptor from titles they believe to be a cut above the norm. This goes beyond labeling any horror film with an attention to atmosphere & craft as “elevated” too. There was an attempt to reframe Get Out as a “social thriller,” an entirely new genre descriptor that willfully ignores that film’s continuation (and subversion) of classic works like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the better half of Wes Craven’s catalog. While promoting his recent film A Quiet Place, actor-director John Krasinsky talked down the genre as much as he could, saying he sought to make “a good movie,” not a horror movie, as if those terms were mutually exclusive (not to mention that his film is about as genre-faithful as they come). As these examples pile up (see also: The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Raw, etc.) terms like “elevated horror” have become so widely applied to so many disparate films that they’re entirely useless as descriptors. They’re basically just frustrated admissions that there are horror movies with artistic merit, which, duh.

Something that’s much easier to define is the term “A24 horror,” which has a very specific connotation, but still embodies what people typically mean when they say “elevated horror.” The production/distribution company A24 has consistently attached themselves to some of the film industry’s most exciting creative projects in the last few years, including some of my all-time favorite works in any genre: 20th Century Women, The Florida Project, Good Time, Moonlight, Spring Breakers, etc. Their taste for well-crafted, thematically daring cinema extends to the horror films they distribute as well, works that often fall under the supposed “elevated horror” umbrella. Let’s just assume that when someone says “elevated,” what they mean is “artsy-fartsy”: movies that value atmospheric dread & experiments in craft over traditional horror genre payoffs like masked killers & jump scares. What’s helpful about using “A24 horror” as a lens to discuss this artsy-fartsy horror style is that it narrows down the pile of titles worth discussion. A24 is a small company that only puts out so many titles a year in any genre, but their selection is so specific & consistent that it does have its own distinct, identifiable vibe. So, what are the films of the “A24 horror” canon? The films Tusk & Green Room are a little too traditionalist to qualify, as they deal more in familiar genre payoffs than the atmospheric dread that typically guides A24’s artsy-fartsy style. A Ghost Story, Swiss Army Man, and Life After Beth are all morbid genre deviations that could be described as horror-adjacent, but don’t quite comfortably fit in the genre’s parameters. Similarly, the films Krisha, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Enemy all nail the atmospheric dread aspect of the “A24 horror” subgenre, but use that effect outside the confines of strict horror classification, potentially excluding them from the conversation. When we discuss “A24 horror” as a descriptor, then, we’re only really discussing four titles: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary. Those four titles also happen to be among the best horror films in recent memory.

As a pair, The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter feel like the baseline definition of what “A24 horror” looks & feels like. Both films deal directly in demonic, occultist genre tropes with a very long-established tradition within horror cinema lore, dating at least as far back as Häxan. They also both rely much heavier on dread & tone than the more immediate, tangible payoffs of more commercially-minded horror films like A Quiet Place & IT. What distinguishes them from one another is how A24 chose to distribute them. The Blackcoat’s Daughter had a years-long, troubled road from when it was a film festival darling titled February to its short-lived theatrical run & eventual fade into streaming platform oblivion (which is a shame, because its sound design & visual mood really deserve to be experienced as big & loud as possible). It’s sad to say so, but that’s a fairly standard, appropriate release model for a modern artsy-fartsy picture with limited appeal. Selling The Blackcoat’s Daughter as a wide-release genre picture, as if it were a Blumhouse-produced Purge or Insidious sequel, would have been a little disingenuous, essentially tricking fans of traditional jump scares, monsters, and gore into watching a quietly disturbing art film. That’s exactly what A24 did with The Witch. It may have been Swampflix’s Top Film of 2016, but wide-release horror audiences (generally) hated that film’s artsy-fartsy guts. The exact limited imagination of what horror can be that inspire the genre’s detractors who whip out defensive, apologetic terms like “elevated horror” & “social thriller” also turned supposed horror enthusiasts against The Witch for not delivering the exact genre thrills they expect from wide-release entries in the genre. A24 also sold The Witch as a terrifying spookfest with wide appeal, something I personally appreciated for being able to see it large & loud (with a vocally unappreciative crowd), but left a lot of first-weekend horror audiences feeling ripped-off. It was in that wide divide between artsy-fartsy cinema nerds who appreciated that film’s effective sense of atmospheric dread and pissed-off horror traditionalists who found the film to be a total bore that the “A24 horror” genre was born that very weekend.

If The Witch & The Blackcoat’s Daughter established the “A24 horror” baseline, then the more recent works It Comes at Night & Hereditary have served to test its boundaries. Personally, It Comes at Night is my favorite film of the pair, if not only for its stubborn doubling-down on The Witch’s least commercially appealing impulses. It Comes at Night is a film about dread. More specifically, it’s about a very particular kind of grief & dread that only hits you late at night when you’re unable to fall asleep to relieve the pain of your own oppressive, obsessive thoughts. That’s a daringly abstract villain for a monster movie, which left many audiences pissed, since they were expecting the “it” from the film’s title to be a physically-manifested monster (which is essentially what A Quiet Place turned out to be a year later). Hereditary plays with the opposite end of the “A24 horror” spectrum, lightening up on the atmospheric dread to delve further into its family-in-crisis drama through a tangible, horrifically violent threat, even if a supernatural one. Guess what? Wide audiences still despised it, saddling the film with a D+ CinemaScore for not being “scary” in a traditional, easily identifiable way. A large portion of that reaction is due directly to A24’s marketing, which repeated the often employed claim that Hereditary is “the scariest horror event since The Exorcist” (a tactic last used by Paramount to promote mother!, hilariously). Hereditary is a long, weird journey into bizarrely-expressed themes of grief & familial resentment, which could also be said about It Comes at Night. The difference is that Hereditary is much more accommodating to a wider audience, especially in a go-for-broke third act that delivers the exact genre film thrills traditional horror enthusiasts supposedly want to see, achieved through relentlessly nightmarish imagery. They (mostly) hated it anyway, which is just as much an intrinsic part of “A24 horror” as atmospheric dread at this point.

In just four films, “A24 horror” has become such a distinctly identifiable tone that you can see it echoed in other genre titles A24 never had a hand in releasing: The Neon Demon, Goodnight Mommy, Tale of Tales, etc. Calling these works “elevated horror” is an insult to just as worthy genre entries that don’t focus entirely on atmospheric dread & metaphorical subtext, as it frames them as “lowly” by comparison. The term “A24 horror” is much more useful, as there’s a specificity to its implications. Although A24 distributed the Kevin Smith horror “comedy” Tusk, that’s far from the first title that comes to mind when you hear the term “A24 horror”, maybe even behind other titles the company never touched. “A24 horror” is distinct, succinct, and doesn’t insult other, more crowd-easing genre entries in the process. I’d even prefer use of the term “artsy-fartsy” over “elevated,” since it’s at least honest. There’s nothing inherently worthier about a horror film just because it focuses on craft & atmosphere over delivering the goods. In fact, since we appreciators of the “A24 horror” subgenre appear to be in the minority and most audiences are displeased with what that approach offers, it’s arguable that this end of the genre spectrum is the lower, less-respectable medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978)

One of the most difficult things to pinpoint about Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven is the question of its tone. In the 1970s, a feature-length documentary about something as quaint as a pet cemetery was met as an absurd concept (so much so that Werner Herzog ate his own shoe over it), so it would be tempting to read a humorous irony into the interviews Morris conducts for the film. There’s no narration, editorializing, or extratextual context provided for the film’s oral histories of an inter-family dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery. The most of his own personality Morris imposes on the story is in his choices in framing & editing, which have a proto-Wes Anderson flavor in their sense of symmetry & color. When an eccentric pet owner sings to their dog or recounts a long, rambling non-sequitur story about their tragically uninteresting children, it’s presented in such a matter-of-fact delivery that it’s difficult to tell if & when Morris is finding them as humorous as his audience does. This documentation of small-town disputes & niche pet-culture eccentrics later turned out to be a huge, blatant influence on the comedic sensibilities of director Christopher Guest. One of Guest’s improv-heavy mockumentaries, the 2000 comedy Best in Show, even mirrored Gates of Heaven’s documentation of eccentric pet owners & the commercial industries that surround their devotion to their animals. And since Guest’s tone is blatantly comedic, the way his own filmmaking style accentuates the quaint humor of his characters is as an excellent demonstration of just how tonally vague Morris’s own style remains.

It’s hard to believe Best in Show was released almost two whole decades ago. Its cast of Guest-regular performers (Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, etc.) look so oddly young in retrospect, after watching them age in other projects in the years since. In addition to being a time capsule, Best in Show remains an incredibly endearing comedy, something that’s difficult to achieve in a film that openly (even if gently) mocks the kind of pet-obsessed eccentrics who are more sincerely profiled in works like Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris’s influence on Best in Show is most apparent in the film’s earliest stretch, when these characters are first introduced. Before they converge for a climactic dog show competition, each contestant is individually interviewed in their home environments, which often resemble the 1970s decor of Gates of Heaven’s pet-owner homes (right down to the amateur dog portrait art in the background). Most of the individual contestants are coupled off romantically, except for Christopher Guest’s own bloodhound owner, which is a distinct departure from Errol Morris’s style, which tends to focus on one orator at a time. The bloodhound owner would fit right in with the Morris doc, though, almost recalling the quiet sweetness & tragedy of the lonesome Floyd McClure, the pet cemetery entrepreneur who kicked Gates of Heaven’s entire story into motion. The similarities between the two works becomes less apparent as the contestants coverage for the actual dog show competition, because Best in Show then resembles a traditional sports movie narrative instead of a quaint documentary. In the early, introductory stretch, however, you can detect Morris’s fingerprints all over the picture, something that’s only betrayed by the movement of Christopher Guest’s camera.

Part of Morris’ distancing tone is in how his film captures long uninterrupted oral histories of a pet cemetery dispute in a static camera, only coloring interviewees’ input through the background imagery he chose to frame them with. To establish a more distinctly comedic tone, Guest more often “interviews” two characters at the same time, allowing more improvisational play & establishing a quicker pace. There are more interviewees, more live pets, more location changes, more camera movement, more everything. Instead of framing his characters with Wes Andersonian symmetry & calm, he allows the camera to drift back & forth between speakers to accentuate a ridiculous statement or an incredulous reaction. If there is a blatant sense of humor to Gates of Heaven, it’s to be found in the film’s matter of fact documentation of mundanity. Best in Show runs with that thread, making its characters out to be incredibly boring, in that it’s genuinely incredible how boring they are. As much as anyone can assume what Morris was up to in his work, I don’t think Gates of Heaven is mocking his subjects the way a mockumentary must, by design. Similarly, Christopher Guest’s own characters are played with a kind of sweetness (give or take a high-strung yuppie couple with an unseemly J. Crew catalog addiction), even if their extreme mundanity is supposed to be read as humorous. Guest just makes their screentime quicker, broader, and more dynamic in motion than Morris does, because Guest must establish a comedic rhythm instead of allowing one to arise naturally (if at all).

Again, I’m not sure exactly how much humor or ironic detachment Errol Morris intended his audience to read into Gates of Heaven. All Best of Show can illustrate is how that movie may have looked if it were clearly tipped in that direction, fully committed to establishing a comedic tone in capturing the eccentricity of hopelessly devoted pet owners. The two films do feel oddly complementary, though, even if only because they both find an endearing sweetness in most of their subjects, no matter how distanced they remain from them. Best in Show resembles Gates of Heaven (especially in its earliest, introductory stretch) not necessarily because of its similar subject matter, but because it finds genuine fascination in the eccentric mundanity of the pet industry it depicts.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

-Brandon Ledet