Detour (1945)

One of the things we often overlook when we get nostalgic about classic film noir is how shockingly cheap the genre was, at least the bulk of it. Slicker, major studio noir films like The Maltese Falcon packed the screen with gruffly handsome leading men & gorgeous femme fatales, but most noir pictures were from low-budget studios desperate to turn crime world sensationalism into tidy profits. Most classic noir is low-grade genre schlock that elevates its meager production values with an overbearing sense of style, especially in its adoption of German Expressionist lighting & cinematography. Edward G. Ulmer (who had once directed the German Expressionist-inspired horror classic The Black Cat for Universal) may have made the most quintessential example of this genre schlock alchemy. Ulmer’s Detour is the sweatiest, most explosively nervous noir I can ever remember seeing. Its limitations as a Poverty Row cheapie are apparent in every frame, and yet its overbearing sense of style & desperation achieve an overwhelming, nerve-racking effect throughout. It carries none of the suave, macho cool that major-studio noir is fondly remembered for; it’s cheap, sweaty, unglamorous, and incredibly exciting from start to end.

If you believe his dodgy, exponentially suspicious narration track, Detour‘s antihero protagonist isn’t even the hard-drinking criminal type we’re used to following as a noir lead. He’s merely a nightclub pianist hitch-hiking across the country to visit his out-of-town girlfriend. The way he tells it, he stumbles into his on-the-run outlaw status through no fault of his own, explaining, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Through a truly unhinged internal monologue he recounts how his hitch-hiking travels were derailed when he befriended a wealthy gangster and “accidentally” killed him, having to assume the dangerous, sought-after man’s identity in order to keep up the appearance he was still alive. The narration is frantically, deliriously overwritten. He never simply says “diner waitress” when descriptive slang like “hash-slinger” will do. “Hitch-hiking” is too glamorous of a term, so he opts for “thumbing rides.” Money is “little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for […] pieces of paper crawling with germs.” Given its limited budget for staging legitimate set pieces or action-thriller payoffs, the movie is essentially an hour-long rant about a shitty vacation delivered at a machine-gun pace. It’s like listening to someone recite the screenplay for Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker from memory at the crescendo of a gnarly coke binge.

As with a lot of low-budget genre fare, every character in Detour is explosively, inexplicably angry with little to no provocation. This is especially true of our lead’s main foil, Vera (Ann Savage), the only stranger who instantly sees through his false identity to expose the fraud underneath. Just when you start to feel like Detour is missing the tough, dangerous women that make noir classics so enjoyable despite their overwhelming, hard-drinking machismo, Savage crashes into the frame full force like an 18-wheeler plowing through the walls of an all-night diner. If the nervous tension of the picture is already unbearable before she arrives, it’s outright lethal once she takes over the sketchy hitch-hiker’s life and pushes him further down his aimless path of petty crime. She’s chaotic & unglamorous in a way that would never be allowed in a mainstream picture – more feral animal than femme fatale. The movie builds its tension entirely off the narrator’s deliriously overwritten dialogue and the anarchic propulsion of Savage’s performance. The expressionistic touches of Ulmer’s eye are only set-dressing, contextualizing those core sources of nervous-energy as the hallmarks of a bad dream that only gets worse the longer it spirals out.

Detour is one of those select films that’s so cheap it was allowed to slip into the public domain but was still afforded the Criterion Collection restoration treatment. That better-late-than-never acclaim is totally understandable even without the cineaste prestige of Ulmer’s name in the credits. This is the exact kind of low-budget, high-tension noir filmmaking that inspired the chaotic, handheld immediacy of the French New Wave (among other devotees who loved noir as the nasty, forsaken schlock it truly was). It’s wildly, discomfortingly cheap, to the point where it feels as if it’s barely under Ulmer’s control even though nothing especially intricate or extravagant happens onscreen. It’s pure noir in that way, even though we nostalgically remember the genre being a little more polished & better-funded than it was in its Poverty Row majority.

-Brandon Ledet

The Paperboy (1999)

It has occurred to me as I’m writing this review that I have now covered ten feature films by no-budget backyard auteur Matt Farley – most of them more than once. Considering how excited I am for the completion of Farley’s next D.I.Y. horror comedy, Metal Detector Maniac (due later this year), I don’t see that enthusiasm for the Motern Media canon tempering any time soon. Part of this bottomless enthusiasm is due to Motern’s way of becoming exponentially more charming & addictive the further you sink into the catalog. The jokes become funnier, the characters become more intimately familiar, and the lopsided plot structures become more satisfying the longer you’re immersed in Farley’s off-kilter, hyperlocal POV. More importantly, though, Motern movies are fun to write about because they’re genuinely inspiring to me, as someone with their own experience in self-publishing & go-nowhere art projects. Matt Farley, his filmmaking collaborator Charles Roxburgh, and their long-recurring cast of family & friends have been consistently making movies for decades to little acclaim or notoriety outside their New England social circle (and the few weirdos who stumble onto their wavelength over the internet). Even if the movies weren’t especially great, their persistence over decades of self-publishing into the void would still be a remarkable achievement. The fact that the films are all uniquely hilarious & memorably bizarre on top of that consistency is truly incredible, an over-achievement in D.I.Y. artistry.

In that respect, there are few Matt Farley movies more inspiring than the 1999 college-campus comedy The Paperboy. While most of us wasted our college-age energy on bong rips & Simpsons re-runs, Farley was already a fully operational media factory. He actually followed through on the “Wouldn’t it be cool one day?” aspirations of aimless twentysomethings who fantasize about making movies but never get around to it, completing a no-budget feature film with only a few friends and some dorm room ephemera at his disposal. It’s funny too! Against all odds, The Paperboy is just as comedically successful as later Motern-defining triumphs like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. It’s missing a few of the familiar faces who would later become Motern legends (with a baby-faced Roxburgh stepping out from behind the camera to take up more of that screentime himself), but otherwise this unassuming campus comedy is business as usual for Farley & crew. It’s both increasingly hilarious the longer you stew in its absurdly low-stakes, deadpan humor and increasingly inspiring the more you realize just how few resources Farley had at his disposal (especially once you consider what you were doing with your own downtime at that age).

Matt Farley stars as the titular paperboy, a college campus entrepreneur who sells essays to lazy (or overworked) students who’d rather spend money than do their homework. He guarantees at least an A- on every purchase and his slogan is “Never the same paper twice!” It would be impossible to fully convey how the execution of that premise is funny here, since the humor is entirely dependent on Farley’s deadpan commitment to the bit. The only over-the-top details that distinguish his paper-selling operation as a comic exaggeration are the network of spies he employs to keep the operation discreet and the disguise that obscures his identity while delivering the goods: a tighty-whities “mask,” a customer-blinding headlamp, and a superhero cape. Otherwise, we merely watch the paperboy make his daily rounds and struggle to keep his true identity under wraps while also courting a potential love interest. It’s all executed in the exact way you’d expect a late-90s college student with a camcorder would film a feature-length comedy sketch, complete with taste-signaling touches like a Rushmore soundtrack CD & a Boogie Nights poster proudly featured in the dorm room background. Farley even indulges in some surprisingly crude, college-age humor here that you won’t find elsewhere in the Motern catalog, staging the first paper sale as if it were an act of prostitution and assigning one of his employees the walkie-talkie codename “Firebush.” As always, though, the thing that sets this Motern relic apart from its no-budget college campus peers is that it’s way funnier from gag to gag than you’d reasonably expect. The movie is essentially just a few late-90s Providence College nerds enjoying a goof with their camcorder, but it’s genuinely funny from start to end.

The one gag that really distinguishes The Paperboy as something special is its overly long non-sequitur in which the paperboy becomes fixated on the operation hours of the campus café. He takes precious time off his paper-selling obligations to campaign to school administration & students that the café should be open 24/7 (mostly so he can munch on complimentary popcorn while writing papers at odd hours). To achieve this goal, the paperboy & his most trusted employee (Roxburgh) team up to film a deranged PSA about the campus café’s necessity to be open around the clock, which only further confuses his target audience and derails his mission. This movie-within-a-movie tangent is pure Matt Farley, proving that the young auteur was already fully formed as an artist even when he was living in a college dorm. Practically every Matt Farley movie features an increasingly absurd political cause that only Farley’s character fully believes in, confounding everyone around him. It’s a recurring, self-aware joke on the Motern mission itself: a decades-spanning marathon of overlapping art projects that seemingly only Matt Farley cares about. Watching a bewildered audience scratch their heads at the nonsensical café PSA—not at all getting what Farley & Roxburgh are trying to communicate—is some incredibly sharp, aware meta-commentary for a couple of college kids who had no idea how long into the future they’d be suffering that same embarrassment. It’s also just an incredibly funny gag in the moment, one that elevates the film from surprisingly solid to truly great.

I’d recommend immersing yourself in some of Farley & Roxburgh’s more recent comedies before time-travelling back to The Paperboy. At the very least, the Motern mission statement Local Legends is a must-watch primer for fully understanding what they’re up to with their extensive catalog of low-stakes absurdities. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the Motern sensibility, however, The Paperboy is just as funny and just as inspiring as Farley’s best work to date. It’s also conveniently available on YouTube for anyone who’s curious, which is a nice consolation to indulge in as the world impatiently waits for the next Motern masterpiece to be released.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) & A Quarantine Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James & Brandon catch up with each other on how living in quarantine has been affecting their viewing habits and daily routines over the first couple months of pandemic. They also share their favorite movies they’ve discovered since the stay-at-home orders took effect, starting with the Atomic Age sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Enjoy!

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

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Selfie (2020)

One of the first major event cancellations this year was the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. That announcement was the exact moment when the widespread infection of COVID-19 in the US became a tangible reality for a lot of pop-culture obsessives like myself, as SXSW is a massive, institutional event that almost seems too big to simply skip over. The programmers of SXSW’s film festival wing apparently felt the same way. While the physical venues remained empty this year, festival programmers eventually found a way to keep the ritual alive in some capacity, taking advantage of having a captive audience at home in quarantine who couldn’t safely fly to Austin to watch movies en masse but could easily find time to stream them online. For the last week in April, a small selection of films that were programmed to play at this year’s SXSW were made available to stream for free on Amazon Prime to anyone in the US – preserving the film festival experience despite our current crisis by making it digital.

The most amusing inclusion in the SXSW showcase on Prime was the French anthology comedy Selfie, which at its heart seems antithetical to the SXSW ethos. Self-described to be a joke “on the influence of new media on good people,” Selfie is a series of interlocking, technophobic shorts that mock the modern ills of the social media age. Like a sketch comedy variation of Black Mirror, the film is endlessly fearful of technology’s influence on our daily lives, finding a never-ending supply of satirical targets under the Online Culture umbrella worthy of scorn & scrutiny. It’s especially funny to see that mindset presented in the context of SXSW in a year when internet distribution was the festival’s only chance of happening at all. For SXSW to program a technophobic satire on the evils of technology would be an amusing-self own in any year; more so than most other cultural fests, it’s an especially tech-obsessed event intended to market the latest in apps, doodads, and gadgetry. This year was especially ironic timing, though, since the entire festival was online and there were so few films for it to promote that Selfie was prominently front & center.

As a frequent sketch comedy apologist who loves even the trashiest movies about Evil Technology, I’m probably a terrible metric for whether someone else would enjoy Selfie. I got a kick out of the film as a joke delivery system and even found the flow of its interconnected vignettes to be impressively constructed, like a modern-day update to Mr. Show. The individual gags are appropriately sharp but never outright cruel, making sure that the satirical target is always Social Media itself and not the everyday people who use it. That kindness is even extended to the introductory nuclear family who have been so gradually immersed in transforming their adopted child’s life-threatening illness into content fodder for corny YouTube inspo videos that they’re completely unaware of how pathetic they’ve become. In the closest thing the movie has to a wraparound story, their desperation to maintain their child’s online fame even after his illness is cured reaches new lows every time we check back in on their unraveling, but they never stop being anything but normal and, frankly, boring people. They’re just normal people who’ve been badly influenced by modern tech.

That’s not to say that the movie is averse to throwing punches. It’s critical of social media Influencers in particular: celebrity YouTubers with confounding audience reach but no creative substance, white-nationalist terrorism recruiters who prey on lonely children online, inhumanly perfect Instagram braggards with perfectly curated lives, etc. It just manages to throw those punches while seeming more critical of online behavior rather than online people. Even a bookish, Luddite high school teacher who chides her students for being “lazy and perverted and glued to their phones all day” instantly devolves into a smartphone-addicted Twitter troll as soon as she discovers the lure & power of online anonymity. The movie doesn’t dunk on her after she sinks to her lowest moments of online bullying, either. Instead, it allows her to form an increasingly intimate connection with her Twitter rants’ most frequent target, so that in a roundabout way social media actually does its supposedly intended job of bringing people closer together.

That sentiment is echoed in how the seemingly disparate cast of anonymous Parisians throughout the shorts all know each other through friends-of-friends or daily irl happenstances. As much as Selfie is willing to rib its characters over their individual obsessions with YouTube view counts, Uber ratings, and turning all intimate family moments into entertainment media, it’s ultimately a movie about our shared, communal follies in a new global communication landscape we’re not yet sure how to properly navigate. We all fuck up online on a regular basis, even if just by mindlessly scrolling through the same two or three social media platforms long after we’ve drained them of their in-the-moment entertainment value. That daily buffoonery is more apparent than ever in the current COVID-19 lockdown limbo, where most of us are spending more of our lives online than ever. In that way, programming Selfie as one of the highlighted features for the at-home SXSW experience was exactly on-point, even if its mild technophobia would normally be antithetical to the fest.

– Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

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

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

Jour de fête (1949)

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

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

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

Modern Times (1936)

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

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

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

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream at Home This Week 5/14/20 – 5/20/20

For the past couple months, I’ve shifted our weekly “What’s Playing in Local Theaters” report to a list of Swampflix-recommended movies you can stream at home.  This choice was initially a no-brainer, as the governor had ordered the closure of all Louisiana movie theaters in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  As of this week, cinemas are allowed to operate again as part of Phase One of the state’s re-opening strategy, but I’m personally not confident that’s such a great idea.  So, I’m still going to stick with Online Streaming options as a moviegoing substitute for the time being.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions for movies that you can stream at home while under quarantine: a grab bag of movies Swampflix has rated 5-stars that are currently available for home viewing.

Streaming with Subscription

Orlando (1992)– From my review: “Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Mikey and Nicky (1976) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “I was also struck by how well May captured the dirty, pre-Giuliani era of NYC, the type of New York we’re used to seeing in early Scorsese pictures like Mean Streets & Taxi Driver. The late-night setting, funky blaxploitation soundtrack, guerilla-style handheld camera work, and genuine background characters of real life barroom drunks & creeps all afford the film an authentic, unnerving New York City grime. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of narrative structure & visual craft is the recent release Tangerine, which gives a whirlwind tour of L.A. sunshine similar to the way Mikey and Nicky tears through NYC streetlights. With those two films being released four decades apart and Scorsese’s most similar contemporary works being praised at the time for being the cutting edge, I think it’s fair to say May was in some ways ahead of her time, even if her basic visual aesthetic resembles a general 70s exploitation cinema aesthetic.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with library membership) on Kanopy.

The Lure (2017) – From my review: “The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with library membership) on Kanopy.

Streaming VOD

My Demon Lover (1987) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “I honestly didn’t expect My Demon Lover to be much different than the other hundreds of campy 80s comedies out there, but it actually does a great job standing out on its own. At first, the film didn’t seem like it was going to be anything but a cheeseball comedy about a fruit burger-eating airhead that falls for a perverted homeless guy who may or may not be a killer demon. Thankfully, things become much more interesting as the film goes on. The monster movie and romcom elements of My Demon Lover come together to create a rare combination that makes for one hell of a memorable flick.” A $2 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Mrs. Winterbourne is a romantic comedy about a pregnant teenager escaping her scummy, abusive boyfriend, surviving a train wreck that kills another pregnant woman and her kind husband, and being mistakenly taken in by the in-laws of the dead woman as they attempt to put their hearts back together. That’s only the first act. In the second act, just as Connie is starting to connect to the Winterbournes and is struggling with the decision of either revealing her true identity or keeping up the charade indefinitely, her slimy ex-boyfriend comes back to blackmail her. There’s singing! Dancing! A makeover montage! Murder! Although I really enjoy Mrs. Winterbourne, the incongruity between the gritty (and bizarre) premise and the lighthearted style in which it is presented makes for a weird movie-watching experience. There’s a lot of whiplash as the film attempts tell a gritty noir story through the lens of a quirky romcom.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Mary and Max (2009) – “The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies.” A $3 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Circus of Books (2020)

As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.

So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.

A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.

Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2020)

It feels like a frivolous thing to bemoan in a time when COVID-19 is wrecking people’s health & financial stability, but I really do miss going to the movies. Along with the sensory immersion of the theatrical environment and the physical ritual of it, there’s just something about the communal experience of watching a movie with strangers in the dark that’s irreplaceable with a home-viewing experience. This communal experience is at its strongest at local film festivals, where you watch a wide range of movies with the same strangers in the same spaces over the course of a week; you sometimes even make some friends along the way. When SXSW announced that it was launching a digital version of its film festival on Amazon Prime to make up for its COVID-related cancellation this year, I knew that communal experience was something the festival couldn’t replicate. It could offer a stuck-at-home audience a few low-budget, otherwise undistributed indie films to explore for a brief moment in this never-ending quarantine limbo. It couldn’t replicate the full film festival experience, though, not without risking its attendees’ lives.

However, there was one unexpected aspect of the authentic, in-the-flesh film festival experience that this year’s digital SXSW substitute offered: the conundrum of how to plan your schedule. There were only seven feature films offered for the fest’s weeklong run on Prime (among a myriad of shorts), so it wouldn’t be exceedingly difficult to have watched the entire slate if you were motivated enough. Part of the fun of film fests, though, is digging through their line-ups and deciphering what titles are worth your time and of your interests, based only on thumbnail images and their accompanying blurbs. Even with only a few titles to choose from, I had fun researching the digital SXSW catalog to schedule out what movies I had enough time for and enough interest in, as if I were attending an legitimate film fest irl. Only a couple titles really jumped out at me at first glance, so I ended up taking a chance on other films that were more longshots just to pad out my schedule (thanks to the luxury of the free time I have being stuck at home). All that was missing from the authentic film fest experience, really, were the nerdy crowds and the rushed, overpriced meals.

I mention all of this to say that I’m Gonna Make You Love Me is the exact kind of programming I usually pad out my film fest schedules with. It’s a self-funded, artistically muted documentary on an intriguing fringe-culture subject that you wouldn’t likely see covered in a more robust film with a proper budget. Its subject, Brian Belovitch, has lived an undeniably fascinating life. Through a series of interviews with Belovitch, friends, family, and neighbors, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me pieces together an aging gay man’s troubled history with his own gender identity, including a decade lived as a trans woman in 1970s-80s NYC. It’s a captivating, intimate story told in a bland & scattered style that unfortunately robs it of its initial allure. The film’s aimless, rambling opening offers no context for the story it wants to tell until far too late into the runtime; its lopsided editing style has no critical eye for what interviews or life moments are actually significant to the task at hand; it relies heavily on archival footage & photographs, but has to repeat what few scraps it has to the point of redundancy to fill out its runtime, etc. There’s an amateurish, unfocused quality to the entire picture, which is unfortunate since the story it tells deserves to be heard.

I’m Gonna Make You Love me fares much better as an oral history than it does as a film. While its skills & means may be limited, the movie is still admirable for allowing Belovitch a platform to tell his story for cultural posterity. He has effectively lived multiple lives (and married multiple husbands), most significantly as transgender nightlife celebrity Tish Gervais back when NYC was cheap living. While some transphobic creeps might be tempted to use Belovitch’s eventual choice to “detransition” as fodder for gender-essentialist rhetoric, his story is much too personal & period-specific to be abused that way. He recounts a tough life where he gained easier social acceptance (and more profitable sex work) as a trans woman than he did as an effeminate gay man, especially in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. His gender transition & detransition story is one defined by tough choices made for daily survival, and ultimately confirms the emotional & physical damage that’s heaped on people who are bullied to live outside their gender identity. It’s a story that’s very much worth hearing, as long as you can get past the clumsy way the film tells it.

As disappointed as I was in I’m Gonna Make You Love Me in terms of craft, I still appreciate its kind tone & willingness to give Belovitch space to tell his own story. As a few of the headlines in the background reveal, it would be easy to turn Belovitch into a sensationalist sideshow with attention-grabbing monikers like “The Real-Life Hedwig.” Instead, the movie approaches him as if conversing with an old friend, which may hinder its editing choices but at least does right by its subject on a moral level. He has already been through enough without being exploited one last time for a juicy true-crime style exposé. The results are a little shaggy & disjointed but ultimately still enlightening to one very specific queer perspective that’s rarely afforded this kind of screen time. In that way, it’s the exact kind of film festival fodder I’m used to padding out my schedules with, so it was perfect programming for the at-home SXSW experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Le Choc du Futur (2020)

The French historical drama Le Choc du Futur (The Shock of the Future) is a shameless nostalgia piece. Almost 100% an exercise in aesthetic posturing, its entire thesis is that late-70s synth music sounds cool as fuck and women didn’t get enough credit for pioneering that sound. It’s not wrong; early analog synths and the women behind them are incredibly cool and, apparently, endlessly watchable. The film’s late-70s Parisian setting indulges in the same fashionable, intoxicating cool as last year’s phenomenal porn-industry slasher Knife+Heart, except without all the pesky murders getting in the way of the fun. Even with all that shameless nostalgia driving its every decision, the film somehow comes across as effortlessly charming and, more surprisingly, very much of the moment.

Alma Jodorowsky stars as a fictional synthpop composer in late-70s Paris, an amalgamated character designed to pay tribute to the real-life women who weren’t properly credited for developing the analog-synth sound. At only 80 minutes, the movie is a short & sweet day-in-the-life portrait of this made-up pioneer synth composer. We watch her perform her morning exercises (cigarette in mouth, of course), switch on her wall of heavy-duty synth equipment (with an accompanying, satisfying buzz as the machines fire up), and go about her day creating songs while attempting to pay her bills. Our Moog-wielding heroine occasionally clashes against music industry sexists who devalue her work, but this is mostly a film about process. We’re treated to a crash-course demonstration of what individual pieces of her mysterious equipment do in creating a full synthpop sound, how an individual synthpop song is built from scratch, and what bands were important in inspiring these early analog synth experiments: DEVO, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Tangerine Dream, Suicide, etc. It’s all very laidback, unrushed, and effortlessly cool (especially if you watch the film with a nice pair of headphones).

Le Choc du Futur stumbles into its of-the-moment relevancy in a very roundabout way. Synthpop (and most subsequent electronic music) is a very private, insular artform – especially in the composition stage. It’s the quintessential bedroom music, a craft that’s usually honed while artists are left alone in their workspaces tinkering with their toys. I’m not sure if you’re aware that the world is ending outside right now, but a lot of us have been holed up inside our homes busying ourselves with similar self-satisfying art projects in an effort to stay sane. The only reason I was able to watch this movie in the first place is because the SXSW film festival was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns and temporarily moved to Amazon Prime as a public service. In that specific, ongoing cultural context, there is something incredibly relatable & satisfying about watching a character work tirelessly alone in their apartment on niche art & go-nowhere projects no one else in the world seems to care about.

It absolutely sucks that women musicians were not properly credited for their contributions to early synth compositions in the 1970s, and Le Choc du Futur is a lovely tribute to the work they created. The film is also just an aesthetically pleasing primer for new-to-the-table fans of the artists & songs that defined that era. More practically, though, this movie is a very comfortable, relatable watch for the current moment we’re struggling through – a snapshot of a D.I.Y. artist creating music for her own satisfaction, despite the crushing odds of the commercial music & marketing industries that do not value her work. Businessmen frequently enter her apartment to disrupt her creative art-for-its-own-sake workflow with concerns & disagreements about her music’s commercial viability, but she mostly blocks out their interference just like how her cheap, tattered curtains block out the sun. We hardly ever see her leave the apartment (except for a couple brief, round-the-block walks), but she uses her confounding wall of heavy-machinery music equipment to go on adventures of her own design, as if she were standing behind the control panel of a spaceship. Le Choc du Futur is the perfect 2020 quarantine movie in that way, even if it was intended to evoke an entirely different era.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bigamist (1953)

One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.

In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.

Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.

Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.

-Brandon Ledet