Keeping track of which titles are available to stream on what platform when is a constant struggle for sub-professional movie nerds. This has been doubly true in the past year, where the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred & warped the traditional theatrical window into near oblivion. That might explain how I showed up to HBO Max intending to watch the new Godzilla vs Kong film a week early, confusing the date of its Chinese market theatrical debut for the date it was supposed to start streaming on HBO Max in America. Getting jazzed to watch a big-budget kaiju spectacle only to discover I’d have to keep that excitement on ice for an entire week was a letdown, and I was determined to do something with my giant-monster energy in that moment of panic so as not to waste it. I needed to watch Godzilla fight a formidable foe that night, so I scrambled to come up with which opponent would be a worthy replacement for the mighty Kong. The answer was immediately obvious, as the last time I saw Godzilla breathe atomic fire in 2019’s King of the Monsters re-sparked my interest in the mystical femme kaiju Mothra, who I’ve seen in too few of her own onscreen epic battles.
Choosing to watch Godzilla battle Mothra might’ve been a quick, easy decision, but it immediately led to another, trickier what-to-stream crisis. Having appeared in 15 feature films to date, Mothra is second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen battles in the sprawling Zillaverse. Whittling down the list of options from there was a complicated process. I removed titles where Mothra appeared on her lonesome, terrorizing only the puny, Earth-polluting humans in her path. I was looking for a fair fight. I then discarded titles like Destroy All Monsters & Giant Monsters: All Out Attack where Mothra had to share the screen with the dozens of other kaiju baddies who have beef with the King of the Monsters. That left me with two clear contenders for the perfect Godzilla vs Mothra match-up, which should’ve been obvious by their titles alone: 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Choosing between the two of them was essentially a coin-toss—given their near-identical titles—so I did the only sensible thing: I watched both. And they were both great. All I can really do here is attempt to distinguish them from one another in case someone else finds themselves in that hyper-specific scenario – wanting to watch Godzilla fight Mothra and having to make a snap decision on where to satisfy their kaiju craving.
The 1964 film Mothra vs Godzilla is the platonic ideal of what you’d want out of a retro kaiju battle film. A beloved classic from Godzilla’s Shōwa era, it’s earned both populist praise as a fun action romp featuring two of the greatest movie monsters of all time and the recent stamp of approval from The Criterion Collection as a culturally significant work of Art. In the movie, Godzilla is a monstrous personification of nuclear waste & coastal erosion who can only be vanquished by the righteous Earth-protector Mothra. Only, the corporate greed of the smiling chumps at Happy Enterprises make Mothra question whether humanity is worth saving at all. The foot-tall fairy women from Infant Island who represent Mothra’s wishes (as Happy Enterprises jokingly declare have “the power of attorney” over the beast)—and can summon her in song—eventually broker a deal for Mothra (and her freshly-hatched larvae) to fight Godzilla to protect humanity for destruction. In the ensuing battle, she flaps up punishing winds with her wings, puffs out a poisonous pollen, and drags Godzilla around by his tail until he retreats back into the ocean. It’s wonderful. The entire movie is a pure, kitschy delight, registering as the Godzilla equivalent of The Bride of Frankenstein in its balance between cutesy humor and retro terror.
1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra (marketed in America as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) is a little clunkier in its build-up to its titular monster battle, even though it repeats most of the 1964 film’s broader details. The Infant Island fairy women (originally played by The Peanuts) may have been replaced by a new generation of foot-tall mystic beauties called The Cosmos and the easy-target villain Happy Enterprises may have been replaced by the hubris & pollution of Humanity as a species, but story-wise Godzilla vs Mothra is near-identical to Mothra vs Godzilla, just as it is in title. Only, it delays that traditional story with some hokey Indiana Jones-style adventurism and the crash of a CGI asteroid in its early goings, needlessly inflating its runtime. That unnecessary delay may mean that Mothra vs. Godzilla ’64 is the better film overall, but once it fully unleashes its monster mayhem Godzilla vs. Mothra ’92 has much more exciting kaiju fights, which is a pretty major qualifier. Mothra fully emerges into battle about an hour into the film in a cloud of poisonous, glittering pollen, and attacks Godzilla with sparks, lasers, and underwater brawling in a huge step up from her original move set. She’s also teamed up with a goth frenemy named Battra (decorated with Guy Fieri flame decals on its wings) who adds an entire new dynamic to the titular fight. Together, they shock Godzilla into submission, smash a Ferris wheel into him, and ultimately, as the kids would say, “throw the entire man away” as a team.
I’m not enough of an expert in the kaiju battle genre to declare a clear victor here. All I can report is that the two Godzilla vs. Mothra films have their own distinct flavors despite the ways they overlap in narrative and lore. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is a perfectly calibrated rubber-monster creature feature from start to end, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise in what you’d expect from a Shōwa era kaiju picture starring these particular two monsters. By contrast, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) is a much more uneven picture that spends a little too much time building up to its creature-feature payoffs. However, its actual kaiju battle scenes are much more exciting than its predecessor’s, staging absolutely gorgeous rubber-monster battles within the hyper-femme color palette of a teen girl’s bedroom. Choosing between the two movies is no easier now that I’ve watched them both, so my selection process would have to revert to the kinds of arbitrary filters that narrowed down my field of options in the first place. Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64) is ten minutes shorter, currently streaming in HD, and carries the art-film prestige of Criterion Collection canonization. It wins by default, but Godzilla vs. Mothra (’92) put up a hell of a fight.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).
Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV.
In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015.
I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top Secret, God Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers.
The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling.
There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments.
I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich.
I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community?
Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.” The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart. I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense. Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place. Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds. London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.
This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end. Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes. It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny. Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do. It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.
The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat. There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech. The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV. What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee? Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?
Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.
London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.
Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?
Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).
This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.
Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing. He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead. I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic. A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth. Smart.
Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
Our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, is only a small glimpse into the profoundly peculiar mind of performance artist & avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of Anderson’s United States I-IV stage show: a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, digital projections, absurdist dance, and bizarre new wave compositions to abstract & deconstruct the nature of modern living in the Western world (and America in particular, as the title suggests). It’s a sprawling “Who are we?” existential crisis for The Reagan Era, abstracting basic modern concepts as varied as America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Even as only a small portion of that magnum opus, Home of the Brave clearly registers to my eyes & ears as one of the greatest concert films of all time, a wonderful introduction to Anderson’s consistently exciting & confounding genius.
While there is only one wonderful mind like Laurie Anderson’s, she’s not the only philosophically minded musician who’s used filmmaking to document & bolster her art. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more pop music cinema on its profoundly peculiar wavelength.
Full disclosure: the only reason I recently sought out Home of the Brave in the first place is because last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia reminded me so much of Anderson’s work in United States I-IV. In American Utopia, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his Small-Town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. Like Home of the Brave, it’s the kind of existential national identity crisis that you can dance to.
To be honest, I do have a small chip on my shoulder about how much praise is heaped on Byrne’s American Utopia & Stop Making Sense films while Home of the Brave never even made the jump from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD, much less Blu-ray. Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & contemporary alongside David Byrne in NYC art snob circles in the early 1980s. Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas to their furthest extreme in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds Byrne leaning further into the Laurie Andrersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. Both films are great, but only one is being left to rot in the wasteland of fuzzy YouTube uploads.
While David Byrne collaborated with the distinctly American auteur Spike Lee on his own pop-lecture concert film, Björk outsourced the filmmaking duties on her 2014 concert piece Biophilia Live to two eccentric Brits. Unrepentant fetishist (and one of my favorite living filmmakers) Peter Strickland handled the direction of the film, while famed naturalist David Attenborough contributed the lecture portions of the performance (and expanded on its ideas in a bonus feature titled When Björk Met Attenborough). Biophilia Live beings with Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage, urging the audience to “Forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” That abstract, philosophical subject is a Laurie Anderson-scale ambition for a mere concert film. Björk nearly delivers on that majestic promise too, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.
This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic; Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomena: her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth.
Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and the aforementioned conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. It’s the only concert project I can think of that matches the hyperbolic ambition of United States I-IV, and it’s not at all surprising that effort came from an artist as daring & eccentric as Björk.
While I greatly respect both the American Utopia & Biophilia concert films on their own terms, neither can truly scratch the itch of wanting more art on Home of the Brave‘s peculiar wavelength. Laurie Anderson is just too distinctive of a philosophical mind to find that need satisfied in another artist’s hands. That’s why I’d also recommend pairing Home of the Brave with her essay film Heart of a Dog (her only subsequent feature-length work as a director) even though it’s not a concert film. While Home of the Brave is a snapshot of Anderson going as broadly, abstractly philosophical as possible, Heart of a Dog finds her at her most intimate. Presented as a meditation on the nature of Death following the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lola, the film mostly functions as an act of self-therapy after the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. In the film, Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken-word work to vivid, visual life. Anderson’s intense soundscapes & language play hadn’t changed much in the decades since Home of the Brave, but they’re presented here with the immediacy & intimacy of listening to her narrate a private family photo album instead of a sprawling stage show.
Of course, Anderson can’t help but process her familial grief through prodding at larger, more abstract concepts; that’s just who she is. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but it stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul, as opposed to the snapshot of America’s soul presented in Home of the Brave.
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 Brandonmade Boomer, Britnee, and Hannawatch Home of the Brave (1986).
Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.
This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.
United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.
Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.
I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?
Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.
Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson;she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!
Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?
Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.
It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).
I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?
Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.
Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat. I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.
Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.
Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.
Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:
She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!
So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.
Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.
Upcoming Movies of the Month April: Boomer presents London Road (2015) May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
Back in 2018, Brandon reviewed A Touch of Zen, a wuxia epic about a warrior noble woman on the run from a corrupt government in Ming Dynasty China. In the review, he appreciates the badass female character and the goofy fun, but laments the film’s epic length and wonders whether all of the nature photography and expository sequences make the payoff of the battles worth it.
Unlike Brandon, I love a good epic. It’s not that I necessarily have the focus and attention span for them, and the fact that so many don’t have an intermission is ridiculous. (When viewing at home, I usually force one in.) But I love the way a long runtime gives the plot room to breathe and lets the audience get a peek at the world building. Movies like Seven Samurai and Solaris are masterpieces to me. The extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my cinematic comfort food. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good, fast paced film. I am all about trash. (I do occasionally write for Swampflix after all.) It’s like comparing a 90 page novella with a 1000 page novel. If you like reading, they both have their time and place. A Touch of Zen is an epic and a masterpiece. Without the long run time, we’d never get to see the lush world of the film, which is something I really loved about it.
The atmosphere of A Touch of Zen is critical to the movie. It’s eye candy definitely—almost a travel brochure for China of the early 70’s—but it’s also part of the spirit and the plot of the film. This film isn’t just about a woman on the run finding zen; King Hu set out to translate the feel of zen within the film. He carefully controlled all the details, going so far as to build enormous and elaborate sets. At the beginning, the film takes place in the hometown of the main character Gu Sheng-zhai (Shih Chun). The town is small and sparsely populated, a remote place with an abandoned, rumored to be haunted, military barracks in the middle. This setting is misty and dark and unclear, which is to the advantage of the characters later on. It rains frequently. This early setting is the pre-zen world for our heroine, Yang Hui-zhen (Hsu Feng). It lacks clarity. It’s literally bogged down. The abandoned and derelict surroundings are shrouded by weeds and overgrown grasses, littered with the remains of people long gone.
The area around the Buddhist monastery, however, is bright and stark. It’s smooth rocks, and clear water. Things are clear and visible and the light is blinding. This is where Yang finds her zen. This is where the audience sees other characters grapple with looking at zen straight in the eye, when the head of the Monastery stands tall about a villain and is lit brightly, mystifyingly from behind. Nothing about this space is cluttered with evidence of worldly affairs. It’s beautiful but uncomfortably bare. There’s no place to hide, but there’s a maze of large boulders eroded into curving surfaces with corners to duck behind. It’s a space of contradictions, which is a lot like zen philosophy itself.
Without the time to have a look around at these areas, would there even be a touch of zen in A Touch of Zen? I think if you look at it solely from a plot of the leading lady cloistering herself off from a world where she only has a future as a mother or a fugitive, then yes, but I’m going to say that that would be more of a slight brush against zen.
Our current Movie of the Month, Aki Kaurismäki’s low-key revenge-thriller The Match Factory Girl, is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, specifically tuned in to the absurdist indignities of modernized labor & urban living. The further you dig into Kaurismäki’s catalog, the more you realize how constant these elements are: the carefully curated visuals, the low-key absurdist humor, the fixation on the embarrassing exploitations of entry-level labor. Something else you’ll see a lot of is actor Kati Outinen, who plays the titular Match Factory Girl and appears in almost all of Kaurismäki’s most iconic works.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more collaborations between Kaurismäki & Outinen, a consistently rewarding pair.
Shadows in Paradise (1986)
In a way, this is basically the romcom version of The Match Factory Girl. All of the Polaroid-in-motion aesthetics & pitch-black urban despair are there, but the poisonous revenge is replaced with low-key romantic whimsy. It’s lovely.
A lonely garbage man (Matti Pellonpää, another Kaurismäki regular) falls in love with a jaded grocery store clerk, played by Outinen. Their would-be romance is awkwardly stilted but gradually adorable as the pair earn equal footing in each other’s esteem. The near-documentary glimpses into 1980s Finnish waste treatment plants are starkly reminiscent of the match factory footage in our Movie of the Month, but the whole thing plays much sweeter & less devastating.
The Man Without a Past (2002)
Another darkly humorous Kaurismäki drama about a poor soul crushed by the indignities of life (played by Markku Peltola). This time it’s a man who can’t remember his own past & identity after suffering brain damage from a random, vicious attack in a public park. For such a fucked up premise, it’s oddly very cute watching him rebuild his life from scratch in an abandoned shipping container – including an unlikely romance with a lonely Salvation Army worker played by Outinen.
In a way, this one is just as sweetly romantic as Shadows in Paradise, but that grim romcom riff is more of a side-plot than the main attraction. Here, Kaurismäki really drills into the absurdist embarrassments of poverty, a Kafkaesque farce about how daunting it is to make a life for yourself without a home, a name, or past. Still, it’s a great showcase for the quiet vulnerability & guarded empathy Outninen got to exhibit in The Match Factory Girl (which is somewhat missing in her steelier performance in Shadows in Paradise).
The Other Side of Hope (2017)
The most outright humorous film of the bunch is also the most recent, and the one with the saddest ending. A Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) smuggles himself into Helsinki hiding among coal cargo, then struggles to find steady work & a place to live (basically as a man without a past). He eventually settles working at a restaurant that’s under new, chaotic management, contrasting his real-life political struggle with sitcom-level hijinks.
Kaurismäki’s announced retirement film still feels a lot like the bleak, low-key comedies he made in the 80s & 90s, which is no small feat considering how flat & cheap most modern film is on this budget level. The major deviation here is that he really lets the influence that Ali: Fear Eats the Soulhas had on his work push to the forefront, both visually & thematically. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a lovely More of the Same exercise from an impressively consistent auteur (including a small cameo from Outinen, who essentially appears here as an auteurist calling card).
As many stuck-at-home audiences have been over the past year of pure, all-encompassing Hell, I’ve recently found myself seeking out cinematic comfort food in the form of Classic Movies, the kind of Old Hollywood fare best enjoyed under a blanket with a hot toddy & a bar of chocolate. That impulse overwhelmed my viewing habits around this past Christmas especially, when the annual stress of the holiday and the burnout from Best of 2020 catchups had me seeking shelter in the feel-good Movie Magic of the Studio Era. I wasn’t watching these films with any specific critical purpose in mind, but I did notice a glaring, unexpected common thread between them that delighted me, if not only because it was a subversive contrast to the warm-blanket nostalgia feeling I was looking for. I started to detect an archetype of 1930s & 40s media that I hadn’t really considered being a hallmark of the era before: the adorably morbid child. I’m not referencing the vicious little monsters of later cinema like the pint-sized villains of The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour, or Village of the Damned. It’s an earlier, sweeter archetype of the cutie-pie tyke who happens to be obsessed with death, decay, and general amoral debauchery despite their cheery appearance. In an era where studio-sanctioned art was cranked out to seek wide commercial appeal, creators had thoughtfully included proto-goth youngsters in their casts of characters for the real Weirdos in the audience — something I still greatly appreciated from the warmth of my couch & blanket nearly a century later.
By far the purest, most adorably vicious specimen of this archetype is Tootie from the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St Louis. Based on its reputation as The One Where Judy Garland Sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I didn’t expect much in the way of subversion out of this Old Hollywood Movie Musical. Maybe that’s why I absolutely fell in love with Tootie The Pint-Sized Sociopath, whose interjections of feral bloodlust into this otherwise cheery Studio picture got huge, consistent laughs out of me. It’s like Louise Belcher was cast as one of the March sisters in a musical production of Little Women, a delightful element of pure, out-of-nowhere chaos. Child actor Margaret O’Brien even earned second-bill for the role beneath Garland on the posters, despite being more of an occasional source of comic relief than a main-cast participant. While her older sisters & parents navigate romances, courtships, and harsh financial decisions of the adult world, Tootie lives out a mostly carefree childhood in turn-of-the-century Missouri where she staves off boredom by focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of life. Tootie frequently interrupts the plot to interject about all her dolls she’s buried in the cemetery, the minor acts of domestic terrorism she’s committed against the city’s streetcar tracks, or how “The iceman saw a drunkard get shot yesterday; the blood squirted out three feet!” Each time she pipes up in sugary sweet squeaks you know you’re about to hear about the gnarliest shit that’s ever happened in St. Louis, which is a hilarious contrast to the warmer, more nostalgic comforts of Judy Garland singing Christmas carols.
I might’ve assumed Tootie was a total cinematic anomaly had I not also revisited one of my personal favorite Christmas classics this year, 1934’s Hays Code defiant comedy-noir The Thin Man. Usually when praising The Thin Man, it’s unavoidable to focus on the playful, often violent sexual innuendo shared between married, martini-swilling detectives Nick & Nora Charles. On this rewatch, though, I found myself drawn to the morbid fixations of the teenage side character Gilbert, the son of the murder victim Nick & Nora are hired to avenge. Gilbert is much older than Tootie, and so his adorable morbidity as a teenage boy is a lot less striking at first glance. What’s hilarious about its effect on the film, however, is how freaked out the other characters are by his obsession with death & sexual perversion. Police are squicked when he gleefully asks, of his own father’s corpse, “Could I come down and see the body? I’ve never seen a dead body.” It doesn’t help at all when he plainly explains, “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory. Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac. If I saw it I might be able to tell.” Unlike Tootie’s family in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gilbert’s mother & sister aren’t at all amused by his faux-Freudian obsession with sex & death, best typified by his sister’s repulsed reaction to his confession that, “Now, I know I have a mother fixation, but it’s slight. It hasn’t yet reached the point of where I …” The censorship of the era would not have allowed that train of thought to go much further, but it’s almost worse that the audience’s imagination is allowed to fill in the blank. Gilbert is not nearly as funny nor as alarming as Tootie, if not only because death & perverse sexual urges don’t seem as wildly out of place coming from a teenage boy in a drunken noir as they do coming from a 7-year-old girl in a cheery movie musical. Still, he’s a hilarious intrusion on the plot & tone of the work, especially since every other character is so thoroughly freaked out by his enthusiasm for ghoulish subjects.
While I couldn’t think of another movie character from the 30s & 40s that fit the mold of a Tootie or a Gilbert, I do believe they share a sensibility with a newspaper comics icon from that same era: Wednesday Addams. While The Addams Family wouldn’t be adapted to television & silver screen until decades later, the wholesomely morbid characters originated in a single-panel newspaper comic that was substantially popular in the 1930s. Wednesday Addams isn’t as bubbly nor as sugar-addled as Tootie, but she mostly fills the same role: a subversively morbid child who’s just as adorable as she is fixated on death & mayhem. It might just be because I’m a child of the 1990s, but Christina Ricci defines the character in my mind, thanks to her dual performances in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) & Addams Family Values (1993). While her performance (along with a career-high turn from Joan Cusack) is more deliciously over-the-top in the sequel, the often-neglected original film of the duo showcases her as occasional, adorable interjections to the plot the same way Tootie & Gilbert function in their respective films. The ’91 Addams Family movie feels spiritually in-sync with the source material’s origins as a single-panel newspaper comic, mostly entertaining as a never-ending flood of individual sight gags; it’s essentially ZAZ for goths. Wednesday mostly operates outside the main plot (which largely concerns her parents’ relationship with her prodigal uncle), occasionally interjecting as a hyper-specific type of sight gag: a young, adorable little girl with a hyperactive sense of bloodlust. Wednesday is mostly silent in the ’91 film, but the way she repeatedly murders her brother, leads a spooky familial séance, and sprays her school play audience in gallons of stage blood leads to some of the film’s most outrageously funny moments; it’s no wonder Addams Family Values gave her more to do in the spotlight, straying further from both the comic panel source material & the usual role of the adorably morbid child side-character trope.
One thing that stuck out to me when revisiting the Addams Family movie so soon after falling in love with Tootie is that it starts with a Christmas carol, and ends at Halloween. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but one of its major set-pieces involves Tootie participating in an escalating series of Halloween pranks while dressed as the ghost of a town drunk. Meanwhile, Addams Family Values includes an iconic Thanksgiving-themed stage play (despite being set at a sleepaway summer camp), and The Thin Man is set between Christmas Eve & New Year’s. It makes sense that these comfort-watch classics would be likely to be set around The Holidays, since that time of year is so prone to warmly comforting (and easily marketable) nostalgia. The uniformity of these three characters—Tootie, Gilbert, and Wednesday—across those similar settings is amusing as a codified trio, though, and I can’t help but want to seek out more adorably morbid children in classic films just like them. Surely, there must be more violence-obsessed tykes running havoc around otherwise even-keel studio pictures of the Old Hollywood era. If nothing else, I suspect the continued popularity of Wednesday Addams over the decades must have been an influence over classic movie characters I just haven’t met yet. I doubt any will be as delightfully fucked up as our beloved little Tootie, but I’ll be seeking them out anyway.
It’s been over a hundred years since turn-of-the-century author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a hip, happening commodity on the children’s literature circuit, but her work’s been perpetually floating around the cultural zeitgeist ever since. That’s mostly due to the ongoing popularity of Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, which is constantly being adapted for stage, television, and silver screen for each new generation of young audiences. Just last year, a big-budget reworking of The Secret Garden passed through theaters like a fart in the wind, unnoticed by most audiences despite the source material’s apparently evergreen popularity. I didn’t bother with the 2020 version of The Secret Garden, mostly because the gaudy CGI & overbearing orchestral swells of the trailers looked like they were adding way too many bells & whistles to a story mostly loved for its sweetness in simplicity. Had the movie been a proper hit (something it never had a chance to accomplish, if not only due to the COVID pandemic’s across-the-board-kneecapping of theatrical distribution), it would not have surprised me that its CG Magic additions to the story were welcoming to a younger generation of kids who are used to that digital patina. For me, the latest Secret Garden movie’s release mostly served as a reminder that Burnett’s novels had another, earlier Cultural Moment when I was a kid, something I can’t help but regard as their best era of adaptation to date.
Way back in the ancient days of the mid-1990s there were two wonderful, beloved adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most popular novels, both shot by A-list cinematographers. Of course, the decade saw just as many forgotten, mediocre film & television versions of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy as any other era in popular media, but there were two exceptional films that stood out among the dreck. The first (and most substantial) of the pair is 1993’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland and shot by industry legend Roger Deakins. Half a G-rated Gothic horror about haunted, lonely children and half gorgeous Technicolor nature footage, the 1993 Secret Garden is a tender, incredibly patient children’s classic that I should have caught up with sooner. Where the treacly, desperately whimsical trailers for the 2020 Secret Garden push the delicate magic of the source material past its breaking point, Holland’s interpretation is interested in the more cinematic magic of Mood. The protagonist is a “queer, unresponsive little thing,” a prideful young orphan known to her lower-class bunkmates as “Mary Quite Contrary.” Displaced from a life with servants & extravagant parties to a spooky mansion haunted by her depressive, reclusive uncle who can’t stand the sight of her, she’s a child who’s proud of her prickly, don’t-even-fucking-look-at-me exterior. The magic of the film is subtle, represented mostly in her environment’s transformation from a dark, moody estate with possible ghosts lurking in the shadows to a sunshiny, springtime garden that she collaborates on restoring with the fellow lonely children she meets in & around the surrounding moors. Watching her guarded personality bloom into openness & empathy along with time-elapsed photography of the blooming, lush garden as she makes her first genuine friends is beautifully, genuinely magical, something the film is confident in highlighting without much in the way of special effects – computerized or otherwise.
The 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki—admittedly does indulge in some shockingly cheap, overstepping CGI, but it at least sequesters those images within its story-time fantasy sequences. The set-up of the story is much the same as The Secret Garden, with a once-wealthy British child being knocked down the ladder of class once she is orphaned, now forced to work as a servant at her boarding school or face a destitute life of homelessness. This is a film I actually remember seeing as a kid; it was Baby’s First Cuarón in fact, something I did not at all connect to my high school-love of Y Tu Mamá También until decades later. It follows a much more traditional, familiar fairy tale premise for a kids’ movie than The Secret Garden, but it still squeezes in some gorgeously artificial illustrations of The Ramayana (told as bedtime stories at the boarding school), with Lubezki doing his best possible precursor to The Fall, give or take some ill-advised mid-90s CGI. Outside those bedtime story fantasies, the real magic of A Little Princess is still fairly subtle & unstrained. Its thesis is that “All girls are princesses”, whether they’re a spoiled boarding school brat or the orphaned peasant who mops the floors and serves them breakfast. I can’t claim that the movie matches or exceeds the heights of Cuarón’s later, more critically lauded works, but that “Everyone’s a princess” sentiment clashes against the horrors of labor exploitation the protagonist stuffers in a way that really left an impression on me as a kid; the Ramayana fantasy sequences only underline the magic of that much more grounded, “realistic” frame story. The only glaring faults of the film is that the Ramayana demons should have been rendered in traditional stop-motion animation and the unavoidable fact that 1993’s The Secret Garden is by far the better film.
Since I haven’t seen the 2020 The Secret Garden and I’m only contrasting these films against its trailers, I can’t make any objective claims about their superiority as works of art. The two major 1990s adaptations of Burnett’s novels did make a lasting impression on the generation who grew up with them, though, whereas the most recent film seems to have been an instantly forgotten blip. In fact, most adaptations of Burnett’s work appear to be routine, disposable, going-though-the-motions children’s media tedium, which makes those two 90s films stand out as an exception to the rule. At the very least, they’re both commendable for the subtle, controlled way they accentuate the magic & the beauty of Burnett’s novels, which is a funny thing to be able to say about two films where children live in fairy tale castles and communicate with animals. It’s apparently very easy to cheapen & deflate that magic if you desperately push it to the forefront instead allowing it to quietly bloom.
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 Hannamade Boomer, Britnee, and Brandonwatch The Match Factory Girl (1990).
Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.
In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)
I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).
The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?
Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.
One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.
Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?
Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull backfrom the edgeof their cliff, dissolvesin upononeself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spreeterritory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.
Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.
What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?
Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance. However, you’re in good company making that connection. In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her. To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort. She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.” The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories. Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway. At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.
I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone. This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.
Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!
Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work. I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro). Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”. It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.
Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.
Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month March: Brandon presents Home of the Brave (1986) April: Boomer presents London Road (2015) May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)