Septien (2011)

“Have you ever been force-fed a cheeseburger by your mama sitting next to a man with half a body?”

One of the heftiest shames on my house is the stack of unwatched DVDs leftover from Blockbuster’s going out of business liquidation sales years and years ago. The unwatched titles that remain from those hurried purchases are mismatched odds & ends: a kids’ movie with an ugly CG alien, a Coen Brothers “classic” I’ve never successfully watched without failing asleep midway, a little-loved Tom Cruise sci-fi epic, etc. Lurking among this eclectic mess was a 2011 Sundance festival release titled Septien, a movie I likely would never had heard of if it weren’t for that bargain bin purchase. Septien feels like the exact kind of oddity you’d catch at a film festival and never hear from again, so it’s bizarre that it had wide enough distribution to land somewhere as mainstream as a Blockbuster (liquidation sale). The only potential notoriety the film could claim is an early cinematography credit for director Jeremy Saulnier, of later Blue Ruin & Green Room “fame.” A featured performance from Robert Longstreet, who later appeared in I Don’t Feel at a Home in This World Anymore, also suggests that this picture is significant in its connection to Saulnier and his frequent collaborators, but the picture itself doesn’t support that connective tissue. The grit & immediacy of Saulnier’s eye informs the film’s indie cinema aesthetic, but in tone & subject Septien lacks the regular-people-in-over-their-heads-in-hyperviolence motif that has come to define his work. Oddly, it’s the brief appearance of Rachel Korine (longtime collaborator & romantic partner to avant garde prankster Harmony Korine) in a minor role that helps put this film in its proper context. That kind of context is especially helpful for a microbudget release you’re completely blind on, whether because you caught it a festival or because you rescued it from a bankrupt video rental store in a panic.

A frequent tactic of microbudget indies is to outweigh the scale of their financial means with an outsized sense of pure weirdness. The typical gods of this approach are your David Lynches, your John Waters, your Werner Herzogs, your Harmony Korines, etc. Septien is a clear disciple of the independent cinema path carved by those notorious weirdos, even if writer-director-star Michael Tully can’t quite match the impact of their most substantial works. Tully appears in full Joaquin Phoenix beard & Unabomber gear as a talented ex-athlete & teenage runaway. Returning home to his family farm after a two-decade absence, our beard-o protagonist settles into a Herzogian domesticity with his two equally off-putting brothers. The eldest is an obsessive homemaker who insists on clean surfaces & family meals in a matronly tone. The youngest is an artist who spends most of his days painting primal depictions of football players with mutilated genitals alone in the shed. For his part, the prodigal son protagonist uses his destitute appearance to hustle unsuspecting normies at various sports for small wagers of money. He proves to be exceptionally good at soccer, basketball, tennis, and made-up games that barely qualify as sports at all. The only athletic sore spot is his history with football, which ended in an unspoken, mysterious trauma that inspired him to run away from home in the first place. This trauma seems to be connected to a plumber the boys hire to help in a septic tank crisis (with Korine in tow the only female character of any significance), but the details are both vague & prolonged in their reveal. Strange anxieties about queer desire, homophobic upbringing, and past demons that must be “smothered” emerge from this outlandish familiar drama, but are just as difficult to pin down as any logical narrative progression, deliberately so.

The true nexus of Septien is a second act scene involving an outsider art show. The violent, sexually juvenile artwork of the youngest brother is publicly displayed, but not for sale (the paintings, which have a distinct Daniel Johnston quality, are the real-life art work of actor Onur Tukel). The eldest brother (Longstreet) arranges the event and provides deviled eggs, popcorn and lemonade for the guests. He also lords over the proceedings as an MC, even though his genteel sensibilities are offended by artwork he considers to be cartoons of people “cutting their wee-wees off and eating doo-doo.” Beyond homemaking, his own artwork is this way with language, which includes turns of phrase like, “I could spit hornets, I’m so mad,” and “You smell a little like a caribou.” The wayward brother (Tully) merely watches those proceedings in silence, glumly taking in the accompanying camcorder film screening (which includes more football imagery) and stuffing his face with concessions. In its marketing, Septien was lightly suggested to be a horror movie, but it’s much closer to the outsider art showcase of this “gallery” sequence (which appears to be staged in a VFW hall). Tukel’s visual art, Longstreet’s motherly Cuddles Kovinsky line deliveries, and Tully’s detached observation of the bizarre world around him are the main draws to the film, even more so than the masculine grief of its central crisis or its connection to the Jeremy Saulnier zoo crew. Fans of the looser end of Herzog’s or Korine’s respective catalogs (or anyone who has blindly attended film festival screenings on a whim) should know what minor pleasures to expect out of that kind of proposition. Personally, I just appreciate that something so quietly bizarre managed to slip into the Metairie Blockbuster stacks unnoticed, even if it took me years to appreciate its sore thumb presence in my own dusty library of unwatched odds & ends.

-Brandon Ledet

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Dawn Davenport as the Ultimate Divine Showcase

It’s almost inarguable that the most iconic performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, was her role as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos. John Waters may have later scored a wider cultural impact with Hairspray (his last collaboration with Divine before her death), but if you ask anyone to describe Divine as a persona, it’s the yellow hair, red flamenco dress, and curbside dog shit of Pink Flamingos that most readily defines her in the public conscience. As gloriously filthy as Pink Flamingos is within the John Waters pantheon, though, it’s not the most fully illustrative showcase for Divine’s talents as an onscreen presence. Babs is a kind of static constant throughout Pink Flamingos—hilarious, but unchanging in her filthy, filthy ways. It’s that film’s follow-up, Female Trouble, that really allows the full spectrum of Divine’s version of defiant American femininity to shine. In Female Trouble, Divine charts the moral corrosion of a high school teen turned mass murderer over a decade’s worth of increasingly despicable criminal acts. Pink Flamingos might be Divine’s most recognizable achievement in establishing a tone & defining her look, but Dawn Davenport is her greatest creation as a cinematic performer.

After signing the film’s theme song herself (a preview of her disco career to come), Divine begins Female Trouble as one of the 1960s hair-hoppers Waters lovingly profiled in Hairspray. Dawn Davenport is a bratty teenage delinquent. She smokes in school bathrooms, sneaks eating meatball sandwiches during class lectures, and responds to concerns about schoolwork with sentiments like, “Fuck homework. Who cares if we fail?” This attitude sets her up for failure at a traditional American lifestyle, something that becomes no longer sustainable after her parents refuse to buy the one Christmas present she demands because, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” After destroying the Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau of her parents’ home like Godzilla tearing through Tokyo, Dawn Davenport hits the open road as a teenage runaway. She attempts a mundane life that does not suit her: raising children, waiting tables, gossiping at the beauty salon. The most alive Dawn appears as a young adult woman is when she’s sweatily stripping as a go-go dancer and abusing her hyperactive daughter, both verbally and physically. The first half of Female Trouble is a grimy portrait of American femininity, one frustrated with the prison of boredom & tedium that plagues well-behaved women, especially single mothers. The increasingly violent crimes she commits throughout the film are selfish, hateful, and morally grotesque, but they’re also a political rejection of traditionalist gender roles she’s expected to conform to at all ages in her perversely American life.

The poster for Female Trouble “warns” of (read: promises) “scenes of extraordinary perversity,” the kinds of onscreen stunts both Divine & Waters were largely known for, if not only because of the shit-eating stunt that concludes Pink Flamingos. When Dawn Davenport introduces herself to strangers in the film, she explains “I’m a thief & a shitkicker and I’d like to be famous.” She achieves this fame the way only a thief & a shitkicker would: by impressing the public with the daringness of her crimes. As an adult criminal, Dawn finds wealthy, erudite patrons (David Lochary & Mary Vivian Pearce) who fund her criminal activities for the artistry that they truly are, fanatically believing that “crime enhances one’s beauty.” It’s an ingenious setup that provides Divine a stage to perform various criminal stunts, including smashing her overgrown child (a deranged Mink Stole) with a dining room chair, warring with her leather fetishist neighbor (Edith Massey) to the point of imprisoning her in a birdcage & axing off her hand, and breaking prison rules by entering a long-term lesbian relationship while locked up. In-story, this absurdist crime spree climaxes when a scarred-up Dawn with a protopunk haircut locks a literally captive audience into a crowded nightclub for her Cavalcade of Filth routine and fires a gun directly at them, indiscriminately. If crime enhances beauty, this is Dawn Davenport at her most gorgeous, something she announces upfront in the line “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t even stand it myself.” The bizarre truth is that the biggest stunt in the film occurs long before the Cavalcade of Filth, though, when Dawn Davenport is still a teenage delinquent. Hitchhiking away from her destroyed parents’ home on Christmas morning, Dawn is picked up by a monstrous drunk played by Glenn Milstead (out of his Divine drag). Upstaging the earlier stunt where Divine is raped by a giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, Divine effectively rapes herself in this scene. The details are horrendous: a roadside mattress, shit-stained tighty whities, felching. It’s a truly hideous display, a stunt that could only be topped by watching Divine perform mundane domestic work in later titles like Polyester & Hairspray. It’s this hitchhiking sequence where Divine truly outdoes herself (by literally doing herself, appropriately).

Desperate Living is my personal favorite John Waters film, but it’s one that Divine backed out of before production. I’m sure she could have only improved the film with her immaculately trashy presence, but I doubt even that performance would have bested the all-encompassing showcase Dawn Davenport afforded her. Divine’s performances as Babs Johnson, Edna Turblad, and Francine Fishpaw are all flawless, iconic filth, but they only afford her one comedic angle per picture. Dawn Davenport, on the other hand, allows Divine to transform from teenage reprobate/petty criminal to full-blown Charles Manson maniac in 90 wild minutes, taunting her audience from the perch of an electric chair with the speech, “I’d like to thank all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspaper and watch me on the television news shows. Without all of you, my career would have never gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for and it is you that I die for.” Female Trouble affords Divine a stage to perform her most gloriously fucked up stunts on celluloid, then directly comments on our fascination with those wicked deeds and with crime as entertainment in general. More importantly, though, it allows her to perform the full spectrum of American femininity as, to borrow the title of a Lifetime movie, Wife-Mother-Murderer in the post-hippie grime of the mid-1970s. Dawn Davenport is multiple generations & evolutions of the misbehaving woman, a perfect template for Divine to perform a full floor show of varying proto-punk looks & sneering femme attitudes. She may have starred in a few better movies, but few performances ever served her better as a top bill entertainer & the center of attention. Besides, where else are you going to watch Divine fuck herself? It’s impossible to overvalue the novelty of that experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Fans of the Raunchy, Sex-Positive Teen Comedy Blockers (2018) Should Double Back to Watch The To Do List (2013)

Listening to an interview with Kay Cannon promoting her film Blockers on Ira Madison III’s Keep It podcast, it was exciting to hear her acknowledge the film’s intended purpose as a major studio femme subversion of the losing-your-virginity teen sex comedy. The teen sex comedy is just dripping with machismo as a medium, as it’s most clearly defined by the bro-friendly boundaries of titles like Superbad, American Pie, and Porky’s. As many of my recent favorite comedies have been femme subversions of traditionally macho subjects (The Bronze & Wetlands being particular standouts), I 100% welcome Blockers as a continued corrective to the exhausting omnipresence of bro sex humor. However, I do wish Blockers wasn’t being critically framed as an innovator within that corrective, since that claim ignores 2013’s already criminally overlooked The To Do List. Another sex-positive, femme subversion of the raunchy, losing-our-virginity sex comedy, The To Do List was critically buried upon its initial release for its perceived overreliance on 90s nostalgia to sell its humor. Every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom caring about such a triviality, especially when you consider the film’s other virtues. If we can forgive the cult classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion for featuring adult comedians reliving their 1980s heyday in extended flashbacks, I‘d like to think we can accept The To Do List expanding that bit into the next decade, especially considering the level of talent on-hand: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Lauren Lapkus, D’Arcy Carden, Alia Shawkat, and (in the starring role) Aubrey Plaza. The To Do List is overdue for critical reappraisal as a modern comedy sleeper, both on its own terms and as an active subversion of the same teen sex comedy tropes challenged by Blockers.

Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List as a high school valedictorian who fears her dedication to book-smarts has left her unprepared for practical social interactions. Most significantly, she expects college to be a nonstop orgiastic bacchanal that she will be out of the loop for as a nerdy virgin who hasn’t even shared a kiss. As an overachiever, she attempts to correct this problem by dedicating the entire summer before college to methodical, scientific sexual experimentation. It’s a plan that extends beyond shedding her virginity to include activities most high school students wouldn’t dream of attempting: rimming, motorboating, pearl necklaces, etc. This pursuit of sexual experience leads to inevitable John Hughesian tropes of Plaza’s in-over-her-head protagonist being confronted with the choice between two suitors: the “bad boy” she lusts for and the “good guy” who longs after her. In that moment of crisis, she smartly chooses neither, pointing out the impermanence & ultimate insignificance of most high school flings. Sex is paradoxically explained to not be a big deal, but also requiring careful consideration for your partners’ feelings. It’s a complex, but necessary lesson for high school kids to learn, one coupled with matter-of-fact statements of sexual intent & partners’ enthusiastic consent. A large portion of the plot is also dedicated to three teen girls’ lifelong friendship and their frequently thwarted plans to watch a rented VHS copy of Beaches together at some point during their last summer before college. Blockers explores a very similar friendship dynamic, although it admittedly better spreads the narrative focus around to each member of the group (and the overprotective anxieties of their respective parents). Both films are thoughtful explorations of femme teen sexuality & friendships without feeling at all leering or exploitative, likely in part because they were both helmed by women (The To Do List was written & directed by Maggie Carey).

The charm of both Blockers & The To Do List is that their sex-positive politics & wholesome emotional indulgences are allowed to co-exist with the typical gross-out gags that accompany the raunchy teen sex comedy. Although it tends to cater to straight male sensibilities, this is a genre that owes its space under the mainstream comedy umbrella to the raucous envelope-pushers of John Waters’s early career, particularly Pink Flamingos (even if by way of its influence on the Farrelly Brothers). Blockers goes for broke in its own gross-out moments of teen puke & butt-chugged beers, but The To Do List hits even closer to home in echoing its Pink Flamingos roots by depicting Aubrey Plaza defiantly chomping on a turd. Cinema is beautiful, y’all. Both films also mine a lot of awkward humor from parents being trapped in the same space as their children in the middle of sexual congress, going as far into The To Do List as having them lock eyes with their kids mid-orgasm or shaking the hand of the person currently fucking them. Dismissing The To Do List outright for blatantly adult comedians playing young or for 90s-nostalgic references to things like Hillary Clinton & jean skorts is an oddly reductive way of looking at a comedy that actively challenges the same gendered, double standard sex comedy tropes later subverted in Blockers. It’s even arguable that The To Do List is the more aggressive of the pair in that subversion, as its dedication to gross-out raunch is much more prolonged & pronounced. If nothing else, The To Do List was also prescient of the losing-your-virginity-on-top gag later repeated in the critical darling Lady Bird. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Blockers is a great film that deserves to be celebrated for its femme subversions of a long-established comedic boys’ club that only gets sourer every passing decade. I don’t at all mean to detract from what Cannon accomplished there. I would just want to stress to anyone desperate to see more of that subversion out in the pop media landscape that The To Do List is well worth a critical reevaluation in the same context (along with the equally underrated The Bronze). If we could be gifted with one heartfelt, femme gross-out sex comedy a year like Blockers or The To Do List, the world would be a better, filthier place. We deserve more movies like them, but in the mean time we should give proper due to the ones we already have.

-Brandon Ledet

John Cena is Corrupting Your Children

I attended many strange pro wrestling rituals when WrestleMania 34 descended upon New Orleans like a body odor blanket last month. I watched a cheeseburger/bear hybrid wrestle other kaiju-costumed nerds at a midnight show adorned with cardboard cities. I stood in the world’s longest bathroom line at a Ring of Honor event because the bro-to-lady ratio at indie wrestling shows is way out of hand. I may have even joined in with the “This is awful!” chants that concluded Mania proper, despite the previous seven hours of sports entertainment making me look like an ungrateful turd for doing so (I honestly can’t remember if I participated in that complaint or not, but the show was exhausting). However, no Mania Moment was as strange as watching the raunchy teen sex comedy Blockers with John Cena in a theater packed with his biggest fans, an experience that only feels more bizarre the further I get away from it. This year’s WrestleMania happened to coincide with Blockers’s opening weekend, so a John Cena promotional appearance at a screening of the film makes logical sense from a marketing standpoint, but the event clearly didn’t factor in the nature of Cena’s usual pro wrestling fanbase. Thanks to AMC, John Cena, and the Universal Pictures marketing machine, I watched an R-rated teen sex comedy with a crowd of very young, very impressionable children who only wanted to meet their pro wrestling superhero. It was hilarious.

John Cena’s transformation into R-rated comedy wildcard has been a gradual one. Three whole years ago, I wrote a piece in the wake of Trainwreck anticipating his transition “From the PG Era to a Solid R,” noting how drastically different his comedic presence in films like that Amy Schumer breakout and the then-upcoming Tina Fey project Sisters was from his usual “Never give up”/”Eat your vitamins” superhero character in-ring. Cena was the face of WWE as it shifted away from the gruesome violence & in-your-face sexuality of the company’s storied Attitude Era to a dedication to producing more child-friendly content. Recently, the attention paid to performers on the roster has spread more evenly, leaving Cena free to develop his comedic persona outside of the ring. Unlike The Rock, however, Cena has never fully detached from the WWE and still regularly appears in-ring as a competitor between film productions (including a squash match with the now-unretired Undertaker at this year’s Mania). This division of his time has lead to some truly bizarre self-contradictions in his public persona, like, say, the superhero to children everywhere butt-chugging a beer and handling Gary Cole’s testicles in an R-rated, femme sex comedy. Nothing has illustrated how absurd that dual career overlap can be to me than AMC’s Q&A screening of Blockers in New Orleans, though, which lured young children into a room to meet their wholesome hero, only to be faced with the raunchiest details of his onscreen career to date (including his naked ass in a final humorous coda).

One of the most charming things about John Cena is his self-aware wit, something he’s likely learned from working crowds of thousands simultaneously chanting & booing his name (older, smarkier fans have long soured on his wholesome superhero routine). His first remark during the Q&A portion of the Blockers screening was that “So many kids have grown up so fast” as his eyes nervously scanned the room. His improvisational crowd-work was continually impressive as he fielded questions about what he likes about New Orleans (drive-through daiquiris), his current opinion of The Rock (left WWE too early), and his decision to appear naked onscreen (“I didn’t think anyone could see me”). It’s honestly less surprising that that he has fit in so well with the post-Apatow style of improv-heavy comedic filmmaking than it is that more pro wrestlers haven’t been tapped for the opportunity, given how life on the road immediately responding to vocal crowds train you for the skill. For my own part, I got to directly ask Cena a question that’s interested me since that eye-opening performance in Trainwreck: why has he been so clearly drawn to R-rated, adult comedies in recent years? The answer, unsurprisingly, was a well thought-out and entirely self-aware history of his career onscreen as a film actor, only confirming that the motivation I inferred was a deliberate, personal choice.

Cena answered the question by dialing the clock back to the early years of WWE Studios in the nu-metal 2000s, when he starred in more straight-forward, The Rock-ish action pictures like The Marine and 12 Rounds (the latter of which was set in New Orleans, appropriately enough). He explained that he participated in those productions to satisfy a desire from his “boss” (presumably WWE owner Vince McMahon) to expand the pro wrestling behemoth’s media brand. According to Cena, those were “bad” movies he filmed as a kind of contractual obligation (I personal enjoy both titles he referenced a lot more than he seems to), while newer projects like Blockers & Trainwreck have been much more personally fulfilling. He’s grateful to have “a second chance”s on the big screen and is finally doing what he wants to do . . . by appearing in R-rated sex comedies? John Cena is a 41-year-old man and, thus, not the clean-cut supehero character he’s developed in the ring. In an effort “to grow up” and “expand” his “depth of character” in his public persona, he’s deliberately choosing projects to challenge the wholesome image he’s developed within WWE in a shrewdly practical (and seemingly fun) way. What he didn’t admit, if you’ll allow me some room for editorializing, is that he’s also damn good at it. His roles in Trainwreck & Blockers especially got a lot of comedic mileage out of contrasting his straight-laced muscle man image with comedically incongruous raunch. It only makes the juxtaposition funnier to know that he’s incredibly aware of that image & how to actively subvert it.

To be honest, having children in the room for a raunchy sex comedy wasn’t even the most absurd touch to the Blockers Q&A. What was really bizarre was the image of a theater full of wrestling fans pawing at Cena for handshakes & autographs once they realized security was not going to impede their approach. It felt like watching the third act of mother!, except most of the admirers were children and a pro wrestler was attempting to maintain control at the godlike center. Children love John Cena and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hell, I think I love John Cena, even though I would have had a much more muted, complicated reaction to his persona just three or four years ago. My own turnaround on his presence is partly a response to WWE’s recent allowance for his spotlight to drift to other worthy performers on their roster, but it’s likely just as much due to his deliberate expansion of “depth of character” by participating in R-rated, horned-up comedies like Blockers. However, unlike The Rock, Cena still wrestles on TV fairly regularly, which means he’s maintaining his younger, more wholesome fanbase at the exact same time. For one wonderfully bizarre afternoon at the start of WrestleMania weekend I got to see both halves of that bifurcated fanbase converge for a screening of a very good, very much adult sex comedy. Only one end of the John Cena fanbase divide could have been corrupted or traumatized by that experience, though: the children. Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children?!

-Brandon Ledet

Bruce Greenwood is (One of Many) Batman(s)

There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.

Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.

19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

One of the most infamous scenes of onscreen cinematic violence is not actually as gratuitous in its visual depiction of brutality as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s staging of the shower stabbing in Psycho crams 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts into 45 seconds of footage (which is where the documentary on the scene, 78/52, gets its name), bewildering its audience with a fractured visual narrative that makes us feel like we’re seeing more explicit violence than we are. Our minds fill in the gaps. Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell sustains this technique for the entire runtime of a feature-length crime narrative. You Were Never Really Here is being frequently compared to the violent third act catharsis of Taxi Driver, which is understandable considering its on-paper premise about a mentally strained brute singlehandedly taking down a child prostitution ring while simultaneously uncovering a larger political conspiracy. Ramsay’s approach to violence is much less explicit & blunt than what’s delivered in Taxi Driver, though, obscuring its emotional release by instead focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. It’s remarkably similar to the Psycho shower scene in that way, a connection acknowledged several times in the dialogue (thanks to serendipitous adlibbing from Dead Silence‘s Judith Roberts, who plays the would-be stand-in for Norman Bates’s mother in Ramsay’s film). If you’re looking for a prolonged echo of the bloody catharsis that concludes Taxi Driver you’re not likely to find it here, no matter how similar the two films might sound in concept.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a mercenary muscle who specializes in rescuing underage girls from child prostitution rings. When this grueling job overlaps with a larger web of political intrigue involving a governor, a senator, and one particular underage victim, he suddenly finds himself alone in the world, attempting to take down an Evil force much larger than one man could possibly handle. He attacks this problem with brute strength by way of his peculiar weapon of choice, a ball peen hammer, but any minor successes he can achieve only open his life to more violent and emotional chaos. This one-dude-vs-a-human-trafficking-network narrative is now common enough to be its own genre, if not only through Liam Neeson’s recent catalog alone. Where films like Taken or Brawl in Cell Block 99 often feel like macho power fantasies, though, You Were Never Really Here shows little to no interest in offering any such release. Our broken macho man anti-hero cannot successfully beat his problems to pulp. Instead of making him come across like a heroic badass, his horrific line of work leaves him weeping, codependent with his elderly mother, and in desperate need of a kind stranger to hold his hand or kiss his cheek. Physical, masculine strength is a debilitating force for Evil in this picture. Our protagonist is haunted by past childhood, wartime, and occupational atrocities that we only glimpse in flashes, but leave him effectively crippled. In crime thriller terms, this is less the stylized romance of Drive than it is the dispiriting grime of Good Time. It resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester. We linger on her characters’ emotional pain without being offered any clear catharsis.

It never feels right to discuss a Lynn Ramsay film in terms of plot, since so much of her storytelling is paired own to elemental indulgences in imagery & sound. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood enhances the film’s emotional discomfort with slightly off-rhythm guitars, violins, and percussions. Any visual information missing from the obscured bloody hammer attacks is supplanted with the menacing specificity of other off-kilter images: burning photographs, mouths sucking on thin plastic, bloody tissues piling on an office desk, sugar peeling off a crushed jellybean, etc. If the film draws an aesthetic comparison to another title in Ramsay’s (depressingly limited) filmography it’s Morvern Callar, her most strikingly grimy descent into emotional chaos to date. Not only does You Were Never Really Here share that film’s impossibly dark humor and (despite its absence of heavy Scottish accents) necessity for subtitles, it’s also at its core an editing room achievement in cinematic sight & sound. This may be Ramsay’s closest adherence to a genre structure to date, outweighing even the Bad Seed & Omen vibes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s deeply seated in the increasingly fractured mental space she’s been carving out as far back as Ratcatcher. The film’s security camera sequence is also her most impressively staged set piece outside the hellish house party that opens Morvern Callar, a very high bar to clear for any filmmaker. Whether you want to compare individual details from the film to Taken, Psycho, Taxi Driver, or any number of past stylized crime thrillers (Nocturama also comes to mind, based on the fractured imagery of its own security cam sequence), there’s no denying that this is pure Lynne Ramsay. The director obscures, subverts, deconstructs, and viciously tears apart a traditionally macho genre until its only viable comparison point is the furthest reaches of her own sublimely upsetting oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

A Quiet Place (2018)

The production company Platinum Dunes’s recent trajectory is an illustrative microcosm of where mainstream horror filmmaking is currently situated in the 2010s. The Michael Bay-funded production brand got its start in horror in the early 2000s, buying up the rights to bankable intellectual properties like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and reshaping them into big budget Hollywood blockbusters, much to horror fans’ . . . horror. These passionless remakes, combined with that same era’s torture porn grime, painted a grim picture of where horror was going as a medium. Platinum Dunes made a sizable profit off a genre it only saw value in as a vehicle for making a sizable profit, but in the long-term found that exercise both creatively unfulfilling for themselves and alienating to the genre fans they were catering to (at least according to producer Brad Fuller in a recent interview with Shock Waves). Recently, they found much greater success by producing an original property helmed by a creative voice with a personal vested interest in seeing it done right. A Quiet Place has already made over $200mil on a $17mil budget without retracing the steps of a previous classic and without alienating the genre film fans that made it a success. Along with last year’s adaptation of IT, A Quiet Place’s overwhelming success indicates that although it’s possible to make a tidy profit off the horror audiences studios usually take for granted with thoughtless dreck, it’s even more rewarding to pay attention to the quality of the work instead of using the genre as an “Anything’ll do” placeholder. A Quiet Place is in many ways as a traditional mainstream horror with wide commercial appeal, but it’s an example of that medium done exceptionally well. It’s a shame Platinum Dunes and other well-funded production companies didn’t realize the financial potential for that balance back in the grim nu-metal days of the early 00s.

Although tracking A Quiet Place’s arrival through the trajectory of Platinum Dunes is illuminating in picking apart the status of the modern horror, the true auteurist voice behind the picture is The Office vet John Krasinski (another repeat Michael Bay collaborator). Like the producers behind the film, Krasinski admits to not typically being a fan of horror, but fell in love with the original script’s premise when presented an opportunity to play the lead role. Krasinski’s passion is exactly what was missing from the company’s early remakes of horror classics. He not only signed on to play the father figure at the center of the film’s dystopian creative feature nightmare, but also insisted on personally rewriting major elements of the screenplay, directing, and eventually casting his own wife (consistently impressive badass Emily Blunt) as his co-lead. This isn’t exactly the mainstream horror flick equivalent of John Cassavetes putting his own family through hell in projects like A Woman Under the Influence, but Krasinski does make this mainstream genre flick feel surprisingly personal. It’s easy to detect what drew him to the project. A real-life father, Krasinski turns this high-concept monster movie into an expression of fatherly anxiety over the traditionally macho concerns of serving as protector over a vulnerable wife & children. It’s a remarkably Conservative (and rigidly gendered) way of depicting a family-in-crisis dynamic (Michael Bay is involved, after all), but one that’s self-reflective & repeatedly challenged as it falls apart in the face of impending doom. Although each character in A Quiet Place’s drastically limited cast gets their share of the spotlight and their own internal conflicts, the film overall feels like a solid Dad Horror movie, a nice compliment to all the great Mom Horrors of recent years: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The trick is that even if these macho protector anxieties are as personal to Krasinski as they were to Trey Edward Schults in the superficially similar It Comes at Night, the Platinum Dunes commitment to commercial appeal makes sure they don’t distract the movie from delivering the traditional horror genre goods. It’s one of those rare instances where the personal & the commercial reach a wonderfully harmonious equilibrium, true movie magic.

The surprise of A Quiet Place’s commercial success is neither Platinum Dunes finding a second chance on the horror media landscape nor how personal Krasinski made the project feel. It’s that a largely silent, subtitled monster movie was able to appeal to such a wide audience. In the not-so-distant future, a species of blind, bug-like creatures with an exceptional sense of hearing has seemingly wiped out the majority of the human race. This isn’t explained in an opening text crawl or expositional dialogue, but rather the block letters of newspaper headlines that were used for similar information dumps in 1950s sci-fi B-pictures. A small family carefully maneuvers through this environment, speaking only subtitled sign language and tiptoeing barefoot in avoidance of the aggressive monster-bugs that will destroy them if they make a single peep. This delicately quiet environment sometimes makes for a distracting theatrical experience (I was very aware of the rest of the audience and the sounds of Avengers: Infinity War bleeding over through the walls), but it also sets the mood for an excellent jump scare environment. Loud noises and sudden monster attacks are heart-stopping in their intense clash with the near-silent atmosphere they erupt from. It also helps that the monsters themselves are impeccably designed (appearing to be a gumbo of details borrowed from Alien, Cloverfield, and Starship Troopers), with features that only become more interesting as their onscreen exposure increases late in the runtime. The “If they hear you, they hunt you” gimmick is a fantastic starting place for a horror film, but given general audiences’ aversion to subtitled dialogue and impatience with quiet builds (that were a few compulsive cellphone-checkers in my own audience) it’s amazing that the film could make its world so instantly accessible to so many people. It’s probably the closest a largely silent feature film has had to wild commercial appeal since the Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Artist nearly a decade ago.

While the wonderfully tense creature feature atmosphere is what got butts in the seats, it’s Krasinski’s commitment to the film’s familial drama that affords it a lasting effect. This is the story of a flailing father figure struggling to maintain traditional family values (with prayer before meals, clearly defined gender roles for his children, the whole deal) in a world thrown into chaos by hearing-sensitive monsters. Early on, when he’s shown surveying his farmland dominion from atop a silo while his wife preps a nursery for their unborn baby inside, the movie feels like a North-Western survivalist power fantasy where the bearded flannel men of Instagram can daydream about their macho roles as Protector after the inevitable downfall of society. The subversion of this Doomsday Prepper fantasy is much subtler than the critique that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the initial rustic Pinterest calm is thoroughly disrupted by the film’s chaotically violent conclusion. The first cracks in his macho armor are presented by his deaf teen daughter (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmons, whom Krasinski smartly insisted on casting over hearing-abled actors), who is vehemently frustrated with the traditionally femme domestic roles he attempts to force on her. This is matched by her perpetually petrified brother’s reluctance to being trained as a hunter-gatherer future-Dad. What’s even worse is the father’s failure to protect his wife & kids form the monsters invading their idyllic Norman Rockwell homestead. When his wife asks, “Who are we if we cannot protect them?” you can see Krasinski slipping into an existential Conservative Dad crisis both in front of and behind the camera. For all A Quiet Place’s merits as an adventurous, high-concept creature feature with wide commercial appeal, it’s that protective paternal anxiety, especially skewed towards Macho Dads, that makes the film feel like a substantial work. Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.

-Brandon Ledet

Son of Kong (1933)

Most discussions of cheap cash-in horror sequels are framed as if they were a phenomenon born of 70s & 80s slashers that have carried over to the modern day. The truth is that it’s a time-honored tradition almost as old as horror cinema itself. For a classic example of the shameless cash-in horror sequel, 1933’s Son of Kong serves as a fascinating specimen. Rushed to market just nine months after the 1933 creature feature classic King Kong, Son of Kong is a massive, kaiju-scale step down from masterful to cute. At a mere 70 minutes, this incredibly thin sequel aims for a lighter, more comedic tone than its predecessor to cover up the fact that it couldn’t match that picture’s scale of production. Grand sequences of stop motion spectacle depicting tribal warfare & a dinosaur stampede were cut for time & budget, leaving the film hanging without a third act. The titular monster was also a goofy echo of the original film’s infamous ape, offering audiences a cutesy, infantile version of a creature they once feared (like, less than a year earlier). Baby Kong’s adorability is almost irresistible as a novelty, though, and the film that contains him is likewise charming in its own limited, misshapen way. Like most modern horror sequels, its genuine thrills are cheap echoes of its predecessor’s former glories, but there’s something amusingly absurd about the lengths it goes to keep an already concluded story alive & open to profit.

The disappointing thing about Son of Kong is that, on a script level, it has a decent foundation for an interesting King Kong sequel. A month after the city-destroying tragedy of the previous film, Kong capturer/promotor Carl Denham is left in unfathomable debt & legal trouble for the damages caused by his now-dead super ape. It’s the logical fallout of an illogical conflict, one the movie talks itself out of as it constructs a reason for Denham to return to Skull Island to meet Kong’s orphaned baby. Exhausted by his status as a public pariah and fearful of rumored criminal indictments, Denham again sails on an explorer’s mission that leads him back to Skull Island in search of legendary (and nonexistent) treasure. There, he’s met with the consequences of his greedy transgressions in the first film: a mutinous crew that refuses to return to the dangerous island, native tribes that embargo the entrance of white colonists because of his theft, and most notably Kong’s helpless baby ape who can barely fight off the island’s other monsters as a goofball orphan with no parental projection. Denham bonds with this pitiful, adorable creature (as well as a female musician he picked up along the journey), feeling immense guilt for the harm he inadvertently caused it. The trouble is that the return of his presence on the island is still unwelcome and puts Baby Kong in just as much danger as his dead ape father.

Although the reduced shooting schedule & budget wiped out her planned third act spectacle, screenwriter Ruth Rose did a commendable job of both keeping the mood light and upping the active involvement of the female co-lead, dampening the original film’s damsel in distress dramatic impulses. The jokes are plentiful and often surprisingly funny, especially in a pure anti-comedy sequence where a musical band of trained monkeys perform for unenthused bar patrons for a relative eternity. Other deadpan reactions like “My father is dead.” “What a tough break,” and a stammering “Well, uh, captain, uh . . . about that mutiny,” also play surprisingly well as the movie often finds genuine humor without delivering outright jokes. Still, it’s difficult to determine exactly how humorous Baby Kong is intended to appear, as many of his action sequences are repeats of the exact stop-motion dino fights that served as genuine special effects spectacle in the first film. Son of Kong is essentially the opening, island-set half of King Kong without the third-act payoff of the city-destroying conclusion, except now everything is twice as goofy & half as visually impressive. The sequel unfortunately also echoed the racist impulses of the first, even adding to its depictions of native savages & undertones of interracial romance paranoia by introducing the character Charlie the Chinese Cook. As amusing as the film can be at any given moment, its faults are both plentiful and glaring.

Cheap sequels have long relied on audiences’ contentment (and even enthusiasm) for reliving former pleasures on a smaller scale and with a goofier flavor. Yes, the creature battles in King Kong are more technically impressive and lead to a more spectacular end, but Son of Kong still features a sequence where a giant ape fights a giant bear in an all-out brawl. Take your entertainment where you can get it. It also helps that the film is at times genuinely humorous in a way that suggests its overall camp value may be somewhat intentional (for those willing to be a little forgiving). It’s difficult to imagine looking at Baby Kong’s exaggerated, googly-eyed mug and suppose the filmmakers were looking to deliver a serious-serious masterpiece, even if is ultimate trajectory is dramatic. Comparing Son of Kong to the original King Kong does it no favors, but it still has an interesting enough premise for a sequel to a film that obviously didn’t need one. In this way, it persists as a mildly delightfully oddity, which has been more than enough to justify fandoms of other cheap, rushed horror sequels released in the decades since. At the very least, I’d like to submit the film’s musical monkeys scene as a genius stroke of proto-Tim & Eric anti-humor, a 90 second stretch of pure cinema bliss that more than justifies the rest of the film’s existence:

-Brandon Ledet

Double Agent 73 (1974)

One of the most oddly entertaining aspects of Doris Wishman’s first collaboration with the impossibly buxom Chesty Morgan, Deadly Weapons, was how frustrating it was in its avoidance of delivering on its premise. As the title suggests, Deadly Weapons was billed to feature Chesty Morgan dispensing of bad-guy criminals by killing them with her enormous breasts. It’s a novelty that only occurs twice onscreen in the film, absurdly late into its comically short runtime. Wishman’s punk amateurism & effortless ability to de-sex the sexploitation genre carried the movie through as a bizarre delight, and the film was followed up with a “spiritual sequel” in Double Agent 73. There’s only one boob-related kill in Double Agent 73, and it involves Chesty’s chest being smothered in poison instead of crushing or suffocating her criminal victim. Her titty-enabled espionage takes on an entirely different flavor in this follow-up, one that elevates the entire concept to an even more absurd level of camp cinema delight. Here, Morgan’s weaponized bosom is made to be an espionage tool instead of a lethal weapon. Through surgery, her rack is fashioned into essentially being the world’s largest, most conspicuous “hidden” camera. The results aren’t as sexy as they may have been intended to be, but they are far more hilariously absurd & more plentifully deployed than the killer tits conceit of Deadly Weapons, which stands out as the lesser Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a minor distinction, but an important one).

Chesty Morgan stars as the titular Agent 73, a James Bond-modeled international spy who hides in plain sight as a burlesque dancer. Her latest mission is to assassinate an evil syndicate of heroin dealers headed by the mysterious crime boss Toplar (sometimes humorously referred to as “Mr. T” for short). Toplar’s true identity and Agent 73’s descent down the heroin crime ring rabbit hole are obviously not the main draw in this soft-core nudie thriller. The glory of the movie’s hook it that a spy camera is surgically implanted in the buxom agent’s ample breasts. She’s instructed by her higher-ups to assassinate several men within the heroin ring and to take a picture of every kill after completion, a mission that conveniently requires her to frequently strip to the waist. Her camera isn’t necessarily aimed at anything in particular when she snaps these photos and every deployment of it is matched with a loud shutter sound that consistently elicits giggles. It’s difficult to pick a favorite deployment of the titty-cam conceit in the film: The post-surgery nurse-kill where she takes a picture even though the camera is still covered by a bandage? The scene where she sneaks into a criminal’s office to whip out her titties over a stack of top secret documents? The Deadly Weapons callback with the poison bosom? Double Agent 73 gets a lot more mileage out of its booby-themed espionage than its predecessor, while still sticking to that sweet, sweet 70min runtime.

I’m still getting accustomed to what distinguishes A Doris Wishman Film from other examples of blissfully absurd sexploitation, but Double Agent 73 more than earns her signature cartoon title card in the opening credits. Wishman has a distinctly anti-erotic approach to filmmaking that’s on full display in this movie’s uncomfortable close-ups, heavy breathing, and bizarre intrusions of bloody violence. A trip to a nudist camp recalls her early nudie cutie works like Nude on the Moon. A bizarrely edited homage to the shower scene from Psycho recalls her total-meltdown slasher A Night to Dismember. The snazzy jazz & sped-up fistfights recall her roughies like Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man. In its own way, Double Agent 73 might be the distilled ideal of a Doris Wishman film: it’s short, blissfully absurd, oversaturated in aggressively unerotic nudity, and follows through on its over-the-top premise in a way more of her films could stand to. There’s a consistency to Wishman’s D.I.Y., unerotic filmmaking craft that never changed over her decades as a schlockteur, for better or for worse. The gems in her catalog, then, are naturally going to be the ones built on ludicrous premises like Double Agent 73’s. It’s not only her best collaboration with Chesty Morgan; it’s likely one her most worthwhile films overall.

-Brandon Ledet

Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture (2018)

I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.

Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.

Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.

Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.

-Brandon Ledet