The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s 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.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. 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. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms 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. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems of 2020

1. VHYES A sketch comedy anthology that mimics the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape,” combining spoofs of late-80s cable access garbage & a fictional home movie wraparound. It’s lean, strange, and amusingly absurd in all the ways I wanted it to be. Post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest.

2. The Berlin Bride Two reclusive 1980s Berliners split ownership over a mysterious mannequin; one uses her right arm to replace his own amputated one, the other treats the rest of her as his newlywed bride. Very funny & weirdly upsetting. Often feels like a surreally cheap riff on Peter Strickland’s work, which I mean as a high compliment.

3. Crazy World A Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & their enraged parents. My first Wakaliwood experience was just as wildly entertaining & inspiringly low-fi as I had hoped. A total blast & a surprisingly heartwarming document of no-budget regional filmmaking.

4. Spree A grotesque satire about social influencer brain rot in the eternal search for likes, following a live-streaming ride share driver who becomes a serial killer in a desperate bid to Go Viral. I’m always a huge sucker for technophobic thrillers about how the Internet is going to kill us all, and this one was a worthy addition to the canon. It’s especially apt at pinpointing just how pathetic clawing for social media clout feels to an outside observer, even as a near-universal vice.

5. The Platform A nasty dystopian sci-fi pic that’s a lot like Snowpiercer & High Rise in its blatant illustration of wealth disparity, except that it’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else. It’s almost 100% worldbuilding but it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that off.

6. Gretel & Hansel As beautiful & creepy as it is silly, and I kinda wish more movies were allowed to just dick around like this. The tension between conventional genre payoffs & Oz Perkins’s “elevated horror” tendencies is absolutely thrilling throughout this self-conflicted novelty. I don’t believe Perkins has it in him to make a genuine opening-weekend crowd pleaser, and this delightfully weird attempt at such a prospect is outright adorable.

7. Come to Daddy Elijah Wood stars as a hipster coward who finds himself sparring in a cramped isolated locale with his deadbeat alcoholic father. Written by the guy who penned The Greasy Strangler, it eventually turns into a Greasy mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier-type dark comedy as its violence escalates.

8. Bad Hair A Justin Simien horror comedy about a killer hair weave. A lot of people are going to ding this for taking its over-the-top premise too seriously in its first hour, but I think that’s its saving grace. If it were zanier and less politically purposeful it would’ve gotten old real quick; instead it really earns the campy B-movie payoffs of its climax by laying a lot of thematic groundwork and, against all odds, establishing a genuine sense of dread.

9. Weathering With You For its first hour this feels like an amusing-but-weak echo of Your Name., but the plot keeps pushing further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at an absolutely stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. I really liked how Your Name. applied the Miyazaki reverence for Nature to Big City environments and this one goes even further in that respect by having Nature reclaim the City as part of itself.

10. She Dies Tomorrow Amy Seimetz’s dryly humorous chiller in which fear of impending Death is a communally transmitted disease. Rarely is cosmic horror so relatable. This feels like the darkly Funny existential crisis other people have been describing I’m Thinking of Ending Things as, but I didn’t experience. Whimsically bleak.

11. Sea Fever An eerily well-timed aquatic horror about a crew of deep-sea fishermen who have to quarantine themselves because a Cronenbergian parasite has infected their water supply. I was genuinely chilled by this once it got cooking, even if it borrows a well-worn story template from The Thing; it’s a much more impressive entry in the genre than this year’s so-so Underwater was, if nothing else.

12. Palm Springs I don’t know that this is the tip-top best of the recent string of post-Groundhog’s Day time-loop media (there’s been a lot of good’ns!), but I do like that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. It doesn’t hurt that it’s really funny & charming throughout.

13. The Pool A bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. The CGI on the croc is so absurdly shoddy that the movie has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor. And then, just when you think it’s going to play Everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Fun, upsetting trash that’s willing to push its limited scenario to its furthest extreme. It also might be Pro-Life propaganda?

14. The Hunt It’s difficult to get too excited by another “Most Dangerous Game” riff the same year as the great Bacurau, but I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. Its both-sidesing makes it a little too timid to succeed as a satire, but I appreciated the way it treats modern American politics with the broad, ugly, unsubtle caricature of a pro wrestling angle. Feels accurate to the Moment as a cultural temperature check and packs plenty of cheap payoffs as an exploitative novelty.

15. His House Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. You’ve seen these exact story beats & jump scares before, but never in this exact cultural context.

16. The Lodge This is not as solid as the directors’ breakthrough Goodnight Mommy but it covers a lot of the same ground: creepy kids with maternal resentment, a few chilling indulgences in dream logic, telegraphing its Twist but then following through in the grimmest way possible. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz just seem to hit an icy sweet spot for me, even though they seem to disappoint a lot of people. And it turns out they’re an aunt-nephew duo? Weird.

17. Blood Quantum A zombie breakout among white urbanites reaches an isolated Indigenous reservation, and it appears that the Indigenous people are immune. It’s a solid genre entry, especially in how hard it leans into post-Romero gloom & gore. Outside its central conceit & cultural context it’s very much a straight-forward zombie movie, though, so it’s unlikely to win over many people with general zombie genre fatigue.

18. Spontaneous A post-Heathers high school black comedy about a spontaneous combustion pandemic, one that feels shockingly well-timed in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated.

19. Capone Covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. This is in the same genre as Venom, by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will.

20. Tito First-time director Grace Glowicki casts herself as an impossibly timid geek who’s drawn out of his cowardly seclusion by an idiot stoner who barges into his life. Meanwhile, vaguely menacing demons attempt to invade the frame but never arrive. The central performance is consistently entertaining, grotesque, and frustrating, like watching Crispin Glover suffer a traumatically bad acid trip. The movie itself is much more difficult to pin down. It’s an arthouse-horror/stoner-comedy? I almost want to describe it as Josephine Decker’s Cheech & Chong, but that’s way overselling what it can deliver.

-Brandon Ledet

Britnee’s Top 20 Films of 2020

1. Deerskin Quentin Dupieux’s film about a man’s obsession with a used (yet very expensive) fringed deerskin jacket. It keeps its dark humor evenly distributed throughout its runtime, but don’t assume that this is not a horror movie because it most definitely is. There’s enough spine-chilling moments that will weigh heavy on your mind long after the movie is over. It’s obviously right up my alley.

2. Swallow This is a fun thriller about an unhappy housewife who finds great joy in challenging herself to swallow all sorts of foreign objects (marbles, tacks, etc.). Once she poops them out, she cleans them up and starts a small collection of her accomplishments. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself cheering her on as her collection grows.

3. The Painter and the Thief In a horrible year that truly exposed the horrors of humanity, it was nice to watch a documentary about compassion and forgiveness. The story of a painter who had two of her paintings stolen by a criminal who then becomes her muse and friend is told in a very interesting yet very straightforward way. It’s definitely some good medicine for the disease of 2020.

4. Bacurau A wonderful Brazilian film that’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit western, and a little bit horror. As the fictional town of Bacurau is slowly being wiped off the map, wealthy white elites are hunting the townsfolk for sport. The film builds to a very intense blood bath that was shocking and memorable to say the least.

5. The Other Lamb This is perhaps the year’s best coming of age film. It just so happens to take place in a religious cult in the woods that’s filled with incest and misogyny. Also, I can’t go without mentioning how hauntingly beautiful its scenery is.

6. You Cannot Kill David Arquette The Swampflix crew did an entire podcast episode about this documentary of David Arquette’s return to the world of professional wrestling, and I was absolutely blown away by it. Not only did it spark my interest in wrestling, but it also got me interested in the life of David Arquette after years of just knowing him as Courtney Cox’s ex-husband who played a few goofy film roles.

7. Blow the Man Down I love films that take place in New England fishing towns, and I also love crime thrillers. Blow the Man Down is a perfect mix of both. The cherry on top is that the town full of dark secrets is quietly run by a group of sweet old ladies.

8. Come to Daddy Elijah Wood has been playing very interesting and strange roles in recent years, and he absolutely kills it in Come to Daddy. It’s constantly shocking from beginning to end. There aren’t many films that came out this year that were as entertaining as this one.

9. Relic This Australian emotional horror film about the horrors of dementia is in the same wheelhouse as Hereditary. Personally, I found it to be more sad than spooky, but that didn’t take away from it being a legitimate horror film.

10. The Berlin Bride An almost silent film about two quirky guys who are taken over by a mannequin. It’s very dreamlike and bizarre, and for some reason I felt like a total pervert when I was watching it.

11. Bad Hair A horror comedy about a killer weave. It’s a funny satire that stars one of my all-time favorite actresses: Vanessa Williams!

12. Color Out of Space The best body horror film of 2020! And as a bonus, it stars Nicolas Cage so you get all of that Cage-ian spice in an already insane movie.

13. The Invisible Man I honestly didn’t think that I was going to enjoy this as much as I did. This is everything that a good thriller should be with some sci-fi elements thrown in as a bonus.

14. Birds of Prey If you haven’t watched this yet, do yourself a favor and run to it. I made the mistake of associating it with Suicide Squad and run-of-the-mill superhero movies, so I didn’t watch it until very late in the year. It’s a blast!

15. The Rental Actor Dave Franco’s directorial debut explores that fear we all get when taking those first steps into an AirBnb. It’s a solid thriller with an awesome cast.

16. Capone This movie is a shit show, but Tom Hardy shows up and shows out in a very Nicolas Cage way. His over-the-top performance of an aged Al Capone is not to be missed.

17. Host I spent most of 2020 stuck on Zoom (mostly for work), and this fabulous Zoom horror movie came out when we needed it the most. This movie is COVID-19 AF.

18. Arkansas Funnyman Clark Duke made his directorial debut this year with this crime thriller, and it was surprisingly solid. Duke stars in the film alongside Liam Hemsworth. Both actors had really good chemistry in the film and made for a really fun duo.

19. His House A refugee couple flees Sudan and end up in the UK. They deal with the horror of being refugees in a new country that doesn’t treat them humanely while also dealing with a more literal horror that follows them from Sudan. It’s very heartbreaking and super scary all at the same time.

20. Rent-A-Pal This is a silly VHS based horror movie about a lonely guy taking care of his elderly mother while desperately seeking out a girlfriend through a dating VHS program. When he happens upon a Rent-A-Pal VHS that stars a really creepy Wil Wheaton, the VHS tape takes over his life (similar to the deerskin jacket in my top 2020 film, Deerskin) and turns him into a monster. I’m glad I was able to watch this one before the year was over.

-Brtinee Lombas

Episode #125 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Top Films of 2020

Welcome to Episode #125 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss their favorite films of 2020.

James’s Top 20 Films of 2020
1. Deerskin
2. First Cow
3. Another Round
4. Color Out of Space
5. Black Bear
6. The Twentieth Century
7. Possessor
8. Dick Johnson is Dead
9. Sound of Metal
10. Bloody Nose Empty Pockets
11. His House
12. You Cannot Kill David Arquette
13. Shit House
14. The Berlin Bride
15. American Utopia
16. The Wolf House
17. City Hall
18. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
19. The Invisible Man
20. Palm Springs

To hear everyone else’s picks, listen to the show . . .

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

– The Podcast Crew

Brandon’s Top 20 Films of 2020

1. Ask Any Buddy A post-modern mash-up of clips from 125 golden-era hardcore films, loosely constructing a morning-to-night day in the life of a post-Stonewall gay male archetype (one with an incredibly bustling sex life). Transgressive D.I.Y. outsider art that could easily be tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of the supposedly low-brow, disreputable film genre.

2. We Are Little Zombies Four orphans meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful pop punk band. One of those movies where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout “That’s so cool!” at the screen. Pushes the twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more exciting, surprising extremes; just absolutely overflowing with creativity.

3. The Wolf House A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.

4. The Twentieth Century A gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor. A German Expressionist farce that features tongue-in-cheek drag routines & ejaculating cacti; I couldn’t help but love it.

5. Birds of Prey My favorite superhero movie since Batman got deliriously horny in the 90s. All hyperviolent, hyperfemme slapstick from start to end; there can never be enough mainstream movies where obnoxious women gleefully misbehave. It also felt nice to finally enjoy a Deadpool movie for once (it helps that Margot Robbie is, unlike Ryan Reynolds, actually funny).

6. Possessor Apparently Brandon Cronenberg took note of the often-repeated observation that Andrea Riseborough loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable, and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror about the loss of Identity around it. A damn good one too.

7. Deerskin An absurdist thriller from Rubber director Quentin Dupieux about a vapid man whose obsessive love for his own deerskin jacket leads him to a life of crime, including serial murder. Consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Works as a macho counterpart to In Fabric, but more importantly it’s an excellent joke at the expense of Male Vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket).

8. Color Out of Space Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and an Evil Color. Genuinely just as upsetting as anything Stanley accomplished in Hardware, if not more so. I mostly saw it as a traumatic nightmare movie about cancer tearing a family apart, 80s throwback vibes & Nic Cage affectations aside.

9. Horse Girl A woman-on-the-verge mental illness drama filtered through a trippy sci-fi narrative. In my eyes, the most shamefully underrated movie of the year. It’s like watching the first half-hour of a mumblecore movie and then, bam, you’re in the third act of Bug . . . Then again, I always seem to enjoy Jeff Baena movies at least 30% more than everyone else and I don’t know why that is.

10. Emma. A basic appreciation of the Jane Austen source material is a requirement at the door, since it’s a super faithful adaptation, but this is coldly hilarious and gorgeously composed from start to end. The dips into thoughtless cruelty hit just as hard as the physical comedy, both of which are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting. Each performance is aces; ditto the confectionery production design & the deviously playful costuming. Just a pure, icy delight.

11. Zombi Child A from-the-ground-up renovation of the zombie film, one that directly reckons with the genre’s racist, colonialist history onscreen and the untapped potential of its roots in genuine Voodoo religious practices. Somehow evokes both Michael Haneke’s cold, academic political provocations and Celine Sciamma’s emotionally rich coming-of-age narratives while still ultimately delivering the genre goods teased in its title.

12. Impetigore An Indonesian ghost story about the lingering evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth (and horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). This walks a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in its Extreme Gore moments. Handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play.

13. Host Basically a kindler, gentler Unfriended with actually likeable characters (I don’t think that necessarily makes it an improvement, but it’s at least a different flavor). It’s also got a lot of COVID-lockdown specific details that make it extra eerie in a way that really leans into the of-the-moment documentary quality of these tech-driven horror novelties. Big fan of both the genre and this example of it.

14. Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous thriller in the style of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Hayley Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!”

15. Vivarium Imogen Poots & Jesse Eisenberg are a young couple in search of a suburban starter home to begin their life together, only to get trapped in a hellishly bland eternity of supernatural imprisonment in that very abode. I knew this was going to be grim & abrasive. I didn’t know that it was going to be so Funny. A humorously cruel sci-fi chiller about resenting your own spouse & child (one that I’m not surprised is so divisive, since the child is 1000x more shrill & frustrating than even the kid in The Babadook).

16. Bacurau A delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game” that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit it is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

17. The Invisible Man This was excellent, but Remake Culture is just getting so out of hand. Are we so out of ideas that we need the Upgrade guy remaking Unsane only two years after the Soderbergh original? Shameful.

18. You Cannot Kill David Arquette A documentary that chronicles Arquette’s recent self-destructive campaign to win over pissy wrestling fans who are somehow still mad about a silly angle from over 20 years ago. A really fun, surprisingly emotional watch. Reminded me a lot of the Andy Kaufman “documentary” I’m From Hollywood (one of my all-time fav wrestling movies) in how it mixes reality & self-mythology to become a wrestling angle & performance art project in itself.

19. The Shock of the Future Alma Jodorowsky stars as a fictional synthpop composer in late-70s Paris. This is almost 100% aesthetic posturing; its entire thesis is that synths sound cool-as-fuck and women didn’t get enough credit for pioneering their use. It’s not wrong; synths and the women behind them are incredibly cool and, apparently, endlessly watchable. There’s also something super relatable about watching someone work tirelessly alone in their apartment on art no one else in the world cares about; feels very of-the-moment even though it’s a nostalgia piece.

20. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants A Finnish drama about a widower who processes his grief by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. Follows a plot template I’m always a sucker for: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep going back to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

-Brandon Ledet

A Sassyfrasser for Life

I typically don’t catch any films at the New Orleans Film Festival, mostly because my mind is all over the place around that time of year. This year was different. When I got word that there was a documentary about my favorite local musician being presented at the fest, I was on it. I immediately bought my digital pass and blocked off my calendar for its premiere date. The film that got me to dip my toes into the New Orleans Film Festival world was Nobody May Come, an independent documentary about the one and only Valerie Sassyfras.

Before I discuss the documentary, I want to talk a little about my experiences with the music and performances of Valerie Sassyfras over the past five years. Picture it: it’s the Siberia lounge in New Orleans on a Friday night in May of 2015. Underground puppeteer David Liebe Hart is getting ready to perform, so I stepped outside to bum a cigarette from a hipster (a bad habit I had when I was in my early-mid 20s while socially drinking). Across from me was a Trailblazer with a big magnet on the door that said “Valerie Sassyfras,” and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a fun name.” Suddenly someone comes outside and yells, “Everyone get in now! She’s doing something called the Alligator Dance and it’s amazing!” I immediately go in to join the fun, and I see a small woman in glitzy garb walking around the bar with her arms clapping together like the mouth of an alligator, and there’s a conga line behind her. That was my first Val experience, and I was immediately obsessed and officially became a Sassyfrasser (a term for Val fans). She was the opener for David Liebe Hart and gave one of the best opening performances I’ve ever seen. After the show, I found her website (www.valeriesassyfrass.com – go to it now and I promise you won’t be disappointed) and searched for her upcoming shows. I called one of my best friends to tell him about this amazing woman and invited him to go with me to St. Roch Tavern, and that was the beginning of us trying to see as many Valerie Sassyfras shows as possible.

I’ve seen Val perform in lots of different venues: Live Oak, Morning Call in City Park, Tipitina’s, Trader Joe’s, and Lebanon’s, just to name a few. I have also randomly run into Val performing on Oak Street and at a couple of art markets. You never know when you’ll catch a Val show! My favorite place to watch her perform is St. Roch Tavern. Most of the performances I’ve seen there have small crowds, which sometimes were just made of up of me, my Sassyfrasser friend, and the bartender; but Val performs as though she was playing a sold-out stadium. She’s a one woman show, so the stage included her scrim, which she dances behind provocatively (it’s the best!), her variety of instruments (accordion, keyboard, washboard, mandolin, etc.), and all of her props (leather whip, feather fan, etc.). Those St. Roch shows made for some of my most fond memories. The feeling of just being myself and having a good time without a care in the world would take over my body, and for just those few hours, I was so damn happy. I also really enjoyed her mandolin performances outside of my very favorite restaurant ever, Lebanon’s Cafe. One night, my Sassyfrasser pal and I (we both lived super close to Lebanon’s) went over for dinner and a show. I mentioned to Val that I was a down-the-bayou Cajun, and she played one of my favorite Cajun tunes, “Jolie Blonde,” for me. It was more of an acoustic performance without all of the fun stage props, and it was just as fabulous.

After following her shows for well over a year, I started to realize that there was a great Sassyfrasser community in existence. Val opened for local female rapper Boyfriend at Tipitina’s in August of 2016, and while at the show, there was a group of folks in the crowd who were singing along to a Val classic called “Hide the Pickle”. I joined in and they told me that they loved Val’s music and always go to her Old Point Bar shows in Algiers. There are so many groups and folks that I’ve run into at Val shows over the years who adore her as an artist and a musician.

When I sat down to watch Nobody May Come at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, I expected the documentary to be just as upbeat and exciting as a Valerie Sassyfras performance, but it didn’t really go in that direction. Directors Ella Hatamian and Stiven Luka focused more the Val’s personal struggles with her family issues and her experiences after being featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. The documentary did a great job of allowing everyone to see what Val’s life is like behind all of the glitz and glam, but to my surprise, there really wasn’t much focus on how much the New Orleans locals value Val and her artistry. It could be that the directors are not from New Orleans (although I believe one of them lived here for a bit), and that’s why the doc is missing that element. There is this great moment at the very end of the documentary where Val is performing in front of an audience made up of a few people eating at some event in Kenner’s Rivertown and not really paying attention to her performance, and one of her fans shows up with her kids specifically to see Val. That is what Val fans do. We seek her out, even if she’s in Kenner, and we bring our family and friends with us to expose them to the Valerie Sassyfras experience. I just wish that the documentary featured more of those moments. Although the film is a bit on the grim side, it at least does a great job on focusing on its main character: Val.

There will be folks watching this documentary who only know Val through her viral televised performances, and I just want it to be known that there are many of her fans who truly appreciate her as an artist. Val is not just a viral video or an off-beat audition in a TV talent competition; she’s a local New Orleans legend.

If you’re interested in getting into Valerie Sassyfrass’s music, here is a list of my top 10 favorite songs:

1. “Babysitter” (Sassquake!)

2. “Pivot and Pose” (Sassquake!)

3. “Mean Sassy Queen” (Got Zydeco?)

4. “The Bastard Snake” (Sassquake!)

5. “Hide the Pickle” (Sassquake!)

6. “Somethin’s Brewin’” (Got Zydeco?)

7. “Girl’s Night Out” (Crazy Train)

8. “It Ain’t My Job” (Got Zydeco?)

9. “Mighty Mississippi” (Sassquake!)

10. “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” (Blast Off! A Cosmic Cabaret)

She also has a fabulous Christmas album called Christmas with Valerie that would make a great addition to any holiday celebration this year!

-Britnee Lombas

Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.

Gothic (1986)

The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.

Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.

Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.

Lisztomania (1975)

If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.

In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.

I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.

The Music Lovers (1971)

This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunchSalome’s Last Dance includedif not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.

The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Salome’s Last Dance (1988).

Britnee: Last year, while I was on a month-long Ken Russell binge, I watched Salome’s Last Dance for the very first time. I had avoided it for a while because I assumed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill period piece. I do enjoy period films, but I have to be in a particular mood to watch them. It turns out Salome is more than just a period film. It’s a trashy masterpiece! How could I expect anything less from Ken Russell?

Salome starts with a framing narrative where the staff at a London brothel put on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, Salome, for none other than Oscar Wilde himself. The play is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play within a movie. The vibrant set and gaudy costumes are visually pleasing components to this very sexy Salome production, and I just loved all of it. Ken Russell even plays the part of the play’s photographer! There all sorts of delicious little treats strewn throughout the show, such as topless dominatrix guards with silver nipples and a zombified John the Baptist.

The actress who plays Salome in the play, Imogene Millais-Scott, is phenomenal. She has a very cat-like presence that really makes for an interesting take on the character, and her passionate and intense line deliveries outshine everyone else in the film. Millais-Scott was almost blind from an illness before she started filming, so the fact that she showed up and showed out in Salome regardless is insane.

What I enjoyed the most about Salome is that we never really leave the theatre. There aren’t many moments where we go into different areas of the brothel to follow up on what Wilde and everyone else is doing while the play is going on. The play is just so damn good that I never wanted to leave, so that layout worked out for me. Brandon, was that something you enjoyed as well? Would you have preferred more scenes that were not part of the actual Salome play?

Brandon: While I appreciated Russell’s playfulness in burying the play under several layers of metatextual remove, I don’t know that diving any deeper into the off-stage narrative would’ve added anything to this film’s entertainment value. It makes sense for Russell to include Wilde’s off-stage antics in the brothel for a couple reasons: to help highlight their shared qualities as button-pushing provocateurs and to give shape to the brothel’s otherwise slight production of Salome. The onstage performance is presented almost as a series of living tableaus, where the actors’ costuming & positioning against the hand-painted backdrops is far more outrageous & attention-grabbing than any of the spoken dialogue. There’s almost a John Waters Community Theatre quality to the play, wherein total freaks endlessly rhapsodize about how gorgeous they are – only interrupting those breathlessly horny rants for an occasional fart joke or dance break. As fun and as wonderfully artificial as that production can be, it’s also a huge relief to occasionally drift away from it to check in on Wilde’s escapades as a half-attentive audience. He gropes the staff, ruthlessly critiques their acting skills, and fires off a few of his infamously dry witticisms as a form of self-amusement (including a particularly great one about how brothels “combine business with pleasure”), seemingly bored by the onstage tableaus. I was not bored by this stage production of Salome, but it was still funny hearing that potential complaint in real time from the author of its source material. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that to justify being there.

Overall, I found this movie to be a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Ken Russell’s specialty. It often feels more like Russell doing Derek Jarman or a Cockettes stage show than Russell doing Oscar Wilde, so it was smart for the director to include an in-the-flesh avatar for Wilde onscreen, injecting the writer’s more idiosyncratic quirks into an adaptation of his play that doesn’t especially highlight them (the way a straightforward adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest might have). I totally get Russell’s decision to stage Salome with that metatextual remove, as it allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapdifire dry humor and the director’s sopping wet everything else. What I’m much less clear on is whether there’s any significance to the movie being set on Guy Fawkes Night in particular. Boomer, is there any textual or historical significance you can glean from this private, brothel-set staging of Salome occurring on that uniquely British holiday? Or did that register as just as significant of a detail as the fart jokes and the hand-painted moon?

Boomer: Is there any figure in English history more widely misunderstood in the pop cultural consciousness than Guy Fawkes? His exaggerated likeness went from centuries-old scapegoat mask to symbol of anti-tyranny in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then to wider infamy with that graphic novel’s 2005 film adaptation, and then as the mask of online hacktivism group Anonymous. In all of his popular culture incarnations, Fawkes is a man of progress fighting for liberty against an oppressive state, but in reality Fawkes himself wasn’t … that.

Most of our readers probably already know this but just to be safe (and as Cliffs Notes as I can make it): infamously, Henry VIII blamed his wife/wives for giving him nothing but daughters (and thus no mail heir to the throne, as the law sort of dictated and tradition clearly required) and, since the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him divorce any of them, he created his own, new church (The Church of England, aka the Anglican faith) with blackjack and hookers with the option to let him trade in his wife for a new model without having to do all that beheading (which he still did sometimes anyway). He was immediately succeeded by his (Anglican) nine year old son Edward VI, and upon Eddie 6’s death at 16, the crown passed to Edward’s (Catholic) sister Mary. Better known as Bloody Mary, she attempted to return property that had been acquired by the state back to Catholic control but was largely prevented from doing so by Parliament, but that didn’t stop her from burning 280 (Protestant) people at the stake for religious dissent. When she died, there was yet another hullabaloo that eventually led to her (Protestant but, like, mostly pragmatic about it) sister, Elizabeth becoming the Queen of England. Elizabeth never had any children of her own and went to her deathbed saying “nah” to requests that she name an heir, there was another succession debate that resulted in her nephew James (also a Protestant but hyperfixated on the heresy of witchcraft rather than the heresy of Catholicism), Mary’s son, being coronated as the new king.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Catholics to assassinate James I solely because he was a Protestant (and a fairly tolerant one at that, having seen how the people turned on his mother for her religious persecution). Guy Fawkes was just a guy from York who had been fighting in Spain during a time when Spain and England were allied (mostly because they were both Catholic states) and was so unhappy that everything was so Protestant now that he went so far as to petition the Spanish throne to turn their attention toward retaking England, for Catholicism. His job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder, but he was caught, and the whole thing fell apart; this lead to the declaration of November 5 as Guy Fawkes Night, which became the primary commemoration of England as a nation-state (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Independence Day) as well as a focus for anti-Catholic sentiments. Eventually, things got so heated that Guy Fawkes Night may as well have been The Purge for Catholics, but reform eventually nerfed that element of the proceedings until GFN was essentially little more than a name for a celebration that was mostly divorced from its roots (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Labor Day, which was originally created as a celebration of the Labor movement and is now mostly a holiday for the enemies of Labor to get 50% off jeans while Laborers … labor), becoming just a holiday.

Historically, Wilde’s actual arrest occurred in late May 1895, at nearly the opposite side of the calendar cycle as early-November’s Guy Fawkes Night; Russell, as a Briton himself, would know this and wouldn’t have made such a significant change without reason. Or would he? Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, was beheaded like John the Baptist, but his decapitation was postmortem (in order for his head to be exhibited outside of Parliament as a warning, as you do). He did die (of being shot) clutching a portrait of the Virgin Mary, who was John the Baptist’s aunt. But really, that’s grasping at very tenuous threads. There’s little that correlates Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot to Wilde or Salome. Salome as a figure of myth/history is technically royal and the Gunpowder Plot revolves around an attempt at a religious coup via regicide, but the two events are fairly different otherwise. One could sift to find some relationship between Salome’s existence as Herod’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage and the succession crisis (that at least partially revolved around kingship transferring from Edward VI to Mary, his stepsister from his father’s previous marriage) that eventually led to James I’s reign, but that’s really pushing it. Biblically, Salome isn’t even given a name and is mentioned only as Herodias’s daughter, and we only have a name for her because of Titus Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (completed ca. 93 or 93 C.E.). There are some who argue that Salome the Disciple (one of the tenders of Jesus at the crucifixion and witness to his empty tomb, depending upon the gospel in question) and Salome the daughter of Herodias could be the same person, and that admittedly makes for a fun redemption arc Bible headcanon if that’s your bag, but most scholars hold that the latter Salome was the sister of Mary.

Beyond that, one is hard pressed to find a connection between GFN/The Gunpowder Plot and Salome/Wilde other than this: despite how they have been interpreted by right wing regressives in the present, the teachings of Jesus were iconoclastic and progressive, and the decapitation John the Baptist as both his harbinger and hype man could be interpreted as the state’s execution of a rabble-rousing progressive dissident; if one sees Fawkes as an analog of Herod II, pushing for a return to a more regressive, conservative form of governance, it almost works. But not quite. Maybe all he wanted was for future viewers to watch the film annually on GFN? Move over, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, it’s time for the real debate: “Is The Last Dance of Salome a Guy Fawkes Night movie?”

One of the things that I found puzzling while watching the film was the presence of ciswomen actors as women in the play and its framing device. Every plot summary of Last Dance online notes that the film takes place in “an all-male brothel,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of the ostensibly cisgender topless women serving in the ensemble or Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome/Rose. It’s possible that I’m very wrong about this (the copy of this film that I saw was the one that’s grainy, free on YouTube, and subtitled in Spanish), but I’m guessing that there was a body double used in the final, full monty frame of Salome’s dance itself, which makes me curious about the casting, given that I can find no evidence that Millais-Scott is trans. Does this casting of a ciswoman as a man-portraying-a-woman read strangely to you, Hanna? Given that Millais-Scott’s powerhouse performance is the biggest draw in the film (at least for me), I’m not sure I would have preferred this be done a different way, but I’m of two minds. After all, men portrayed all roles, including women, for a huge chunk of British theatrical history. What do you think?

Hanna: In general, I was a little torn by this too. Why not feature an all-male performance for Oscar Wilde, especially given the history of British theatre? I would have loved a glitzy, dragged-up rendition of Salome. On the other hand, since the premise of the film is that Salome is so publicly subversive that Oscar Wilde can only view its performance behind the walls of a brothel and women were banned from performing onstage in England until the 1660s, the use of female actresses would technically be the more subversive choice for that time (although that point was probably moot by the late 1800s).

Regarding Millais-Scott’s casting specifically, I actually didn’t think that she was cast as a man portraying a woman; I thought that Rose was a cisgender female chambermaid for the brothel playing Salome, not a male worker, and that the appearance of the body double – dubbed “Phoney Salome” in the credits –was meant to be a prank on Herod within the play (i.e., Herod got horny for an anonymous male slave and Salome never really danced for him) and a scintillating little show for Wilde. I would guess that the bare-breasted guards were also workers in the brothel. That being said, I truly have no idea what actually happened – that’s just my best guess.

If I’m wrong about the casting and Rose/Salome is meant to be a male actor playing a woman in the film, it might have bothered me if the role had been taken by any other cis-woman. As it is, I wouldn’t trade Millais-Scott’s mesmerizing performance for anything, and if it were up to me, I would probably shirk gendered roles and British theatre history to feature her. Her Keatsian monologue with John the Baptist was equal parts hypnotic and bratty, and has significantly contributed to my arsenal of obsessive, lusty similes. That scene alone was worth the $3.99 rental.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love the costume design in this movie, especially the costumes for Herodias and Salome. It’s all a mix of BDSM, pageant drag, and Victorian fashion. The costume designer, Micheal Arrals, is only credited for this one film, and I can’t find much about him online. I want to know more about this mysterious genius!

Hanna: My first exposure to the story of Salome was stumbling upon the grotesque and gorgeous illustrations that Aubrey Beardsley produced for Wilde’s original run of his play (especially “The Dancer’s Reward”). Those illustrations and Salome’s Last Dance compel me for the same reasons: they are intricately and ornately detailed, a little bloody, and horny as all get-out. Those illustrations were highly regarded by Wilde, and in my opinion, Russell did a fantastic job of bringing that mood to his adaptation.

Boomer: Thank you for indulging me in my recapitulation of various English succession crises. For a film that features an entirely male cast performing a play in which they inhabit men and women’s roles, I recommend Lilies. If you’re interested, the single-Salome interpretation noted above (that she was both Herodias’s daughter and later a disciple), was an idea probably influenced the narrative of the 1953 film Salome with Rita Hayworth in the title role.

Brandon: This conversation concludes five full years of Movie of the Month discussions, a tradition we’ve continued since our very first month blogging as a crew. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve ever doubled up on any one particular director over all those years, having previously covered Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (still one of my all-time favorite films) back in May of 2015. I’m proud of the wide breadth of movies we’ve discussed so far with this project. I’m also proud that when we inevitably cycled back it was for Ken Russell in particular. It couldn’t have happened to a bigger pervert.

Next month: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Passion Fish (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, John Sayles’s 1992 comfort-watch Passion Fish, is a Southern-fried melodrama about a Rude soap opera star whose career comes to a halt after a paralyzing car accident. It looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about a proud woman overcoming sudden adversity, but pulls it off with an unusually direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the bullshit. In particular, the way the film depicts its lead’s discomfort, rage, and gradual acceptance of her newfound disability & reliance on a wheelchair feels refreshingly honest & relatably human for a 90s-era VHS rental. As a result, most recommendations of further viewing for anyone who enjoyed Passion Fish probably should touch on its unusually frank depiction of newfound physical disability, which really does set it apart from other, more maudlin works in its genre.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar depictions of recognizably Real people venting relatable frustrations over their own physical disabilities.

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

A young dancer (Lupino regular Sally Forrest) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to maintain the romance, career, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion. The resulting film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Never Fear is a romantic melodrama in which Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s more or less a standard sudden-illness weepie, but it’s emotionally fearless in directly tackling its subject in a way that can be impressively horrific in flashes. It isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is a film with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system. It’s also one of the few melodramas of its kind that matches Passion Fish‘s bullshit-free depictions of personal, internal conflicts over sudden physical disability.

Misery (1990)

If the bitter disability journeys of Passion Fish & Never Fear are too subtle or gentle for your liking, there’s always the Kathy Bates psychobiddy classic Misery. According to Steven King, Misery was written as a metaphor for his debilitating addiction to cocaine, which figuratively held him captive and forced him to write pulpy dreck far beneath his dignity as a Serious Artist. There’s likely some truth to that, but I do suspect King brandishes that anecdote at least somewhat to cover up the novel’s more obvious expressions of his open, seething contempt for his most enthusiastic fans. In the 1990 adaptation, Kathy Bates stars as a disgraced nurse who kidnaps her favorite pulp author after a blizzard-incited car crash and forces him to write novels that fit her headcanon instead of his own imagination. It’s a wonderfully blatant, literal depiction of the increasingly hostile relationships between artists & their audiences in recent years, where fans’ demands are too often allowed to dictate the work. It’s also, on the surface, a torturous body horror about a man held captive by a deranged medical professional who violently hobbles him to delay his recovery instead of working in his own interest.

In the opening sequence of Passion Fish, May-Alice is a big-city Soap Opera Star who’s frustrated that she relies on the whims & the capabilities of the small-town nurses hired to help her navigate her Louisiana bayou home. Things calm down once she finds an unlikely friendship with a nurse on her own wavelength, but that frustration over her reliance on another human being to accomplish mundane, daily tasks never really goes away. In Misery, a big-city Celebrity Author finds himself at the mercy of a small-town nurse who cares more about the fictional characters he creates than she does about his physical health (to put it mildly). Both films traffic in a warmly familiar 1990s mainstream filmmaking sensibility that sets expectations for a wholesome, safe viewing experience. Passion Fish cuts through that expectation with an unexpected vulgarity & bitterness as May-Alice becomes increasingly frustrated with her newly disabled body. James Caan goes through the same struggle as the Celebrity Author in Misery, except with a pronounced layer of traumatizingly gruesome body horror that even more drastically contradicts director Rob Reiner’s wholesome, mainstream sensibilities.

Weirdly, Misery also happens to employ an overqualified cinematographer in Barry Sonnenfeld, which mirrors Passion Fish‘s employment of industry legend Roger Deakins as its own DP.

The Intouchables (2011)

Maybe Misery‘s gory hyperviolence & Never Fear‘s Old Hollywood prestige are too fringe for a proper Passion Fish pairing. Maybe you just want to watch another by-the-books tearjerker that only strays from melodrama conventions by indulging in some occasional vulgarity. 2011’s The Intouchables isn’t exactly a great film the way Passion Fish is, but it does share some of its recognizable humanity that’s often missing from similar sudden-disability melodramas.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables chronicles an unlikely friendship between a paraplegic French aristocrat (who recently suffered a paragliding accident as part of his adrenaline seeking interest in X-Treme Sports) and the underqualified Senegalese ex-con he hires as his live-in caretaker (who only applied for the job as a ploy to remain on welfare). Although it arrived in theaters two decades after Passion Fish, it stumbles a lot more frequently in its own depiction of a budding friendship across race & class barriers (the Senegalese man is a pothead horndog criminal with no sense of public decorum, an often embarrassing line of humor). Still, there is a core sense of mutual respect & playfulness in their relationship that’s surprisingly endearing, especially in contrast to the long line of unsuitable, uptight, white caretakers who also interview for the job. The live-in caretaker is hired because he doesn’t look at his employer’s disability with any sense of pity or patronizing caution. His vulgar, casual demeanor cuts through the bullshit to allow them to meet on equal terms as human beings, even though one needs the other to accomplish most mundane tasks. The central friendship in Passion Fish is a lot more nuanced (and a lot less problematic in its race & class politics), but both movies share that vulgar, humanistic core.

I feel a little conflicted recommending a film I don’t wholly appreciate myself. The Intouchables alternates between charm & cringe so erratically that it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about the positives when the whole ordeal is through. For perspective, then, it’s a good idea to follow up the film by watching the trailer for its recent American remake, starring Kevin Hart. It’s a quick way to appreciate how much worse the material could have been (and apparently was!) in even cruder hands.

-Brandon Ledet