The Battle of the 2001 Fashion Industry Parodies was a Race into the Darkness of the Human Soul

April’s​ Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters comedy Head Over Heels, is many disparate films tied up in a single package. At times a formulaic romcom, a Farrelly brothers-style gross-out comedy, a diamond heist action thriller, and a winking Hitchcock homage, this Freddie Prinze Jr./Monica Potter madcap romance is largely a fun watch due to its violent, unexpected shifts in genre & tone. At its core, however, Head Over Heels can be readily understood as a light-headed satire of the fashion industry. Constantly poking fun at Monica Potter’s befuddled lead’s supermodel roomates, borrowing some of their second-hand glamor for its central romance fantasy, and staging its climactic showdown on a Fashion Week runway, Head Over Heels is a silly, parodic stab at couture culture. It was not alone in its year of release, either. The similarly silly, but much more popular Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander also arrived in 2001, with its own jokes about fashion models’ supposed stupidity and its own climactic runway-set showdown. Head Over Heels & Zoolander share more than just their deliriously silly fashion world parody too. They also undercut the frivolity that drives their central fashion world gags with some truly depressive, cruel lines of pitch black humor, diving much deeper into the darkness of the human soul than you might expect from a Freddie Prinze Jr. romcom and a ZAZ-style comedy that proudly features a Fabio cameo.

Fashion models seem to lead surreal, absurd, almost inhuman lives. Zoolander & Head Over Heels build their humor around that perception. They introduce a “normal” person (movie-normal anyway; one’s an art-restorer and one’s a photo-journalist for TIME Magazine) into the otherworldly realm of superhuman fashion models, or in Zoolander‘s parlance “people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking,” to play off that eccentricity. Part of the humor they find there is in jealousy: lavish parties, beautiful clothes, a total lack of sexual inhibition, etc. are overwhelming to the two films’ non-model normies and both movies have a lot of fun indoctrinating them into this culture, which appears to be a live action cartoon from the outside looking in. To take the models down a peg, then, they also poke fun at the two things typically associated with people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking: low intelligence & eating disorders. Zoolander is a lot harsher on both of those topics than Head Over Heels. The Mark Waters film is a lot more humanizing in its portrayal of its star’s supermodel roomates, who are eventually proven to be a lot more cunning & self-aware than any of their foils give them credit for. I don’t really see the point in diving into the particulars of either films’ jabs at bulimia or stupidity, though, since it’s the easiest, most common sources of humor you’d expect from any fashion world comedy. What interests me, and I think what makes these films memorable, are the more unconventional places they find their dark humor, the real weirdo shit.

At its core, Head Over Heels is a much sweeter movie than Zoolander, with more of a sincere focus on its milquetoast woman/fashion world weirdo romance. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t indulge in its own forms of pitch black humor. The reason our generic romcom lead puts herself on the market for a new man at the beginning of the film is that her old biddy coworkers keep announcing, plainly, “You are going to die alone.” She then has her “meet cute” moment with Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hotshot fashion exec when the dog he’s walking tackles & mounts her in the lobby of their apartment building, which is a special kind of brutally embarrassing public humiliation for a cutesy romcom. The movie later indulges in other similar raunchy comedy moments, like a stray cunnilingus gag or an epic scene where the leads’ fashion model roomates are covered head to toe in human feces. What’s even darker is that the movie’s entire romcom plot is built on a Rear Window moment where the lead witnesses the fashion exec hunk “murder” someone through his apartment window, but romantically pursues him anyway, because of their overwhelming sexual chemistry. This includes a scene where she bangs the possible murderer before he’s convincingly absolved of the crime, an act her roommates gleefully watch through the window as if it were a plot point on a daytime soap. Sometimes these models’ lack of sexual inhibition is played for light laughs, like in an early scene when they aggressively catwalk nude through their apartment’s shared living space. Sometimes it gets much darker, though, like when the Russian-born model casually accuses a Girl Scouts troupe of being a childhood prostitution ring or when the Australian-born model (who has a crippling addiction to plastic surgery) constantly makes casual references to being molested by her uncle as a child, which is played for laughs. For all of its indulgences in cutesy romcom tropes, Head Over Heels can be a deeply strange, deeply fucked up comedy.

Much like how Head Over Heels builds its madcap romantic mixup around a possible cold-blooded murder, Zoolander finds its humorous A-plot in a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia so that child labor laws will relax enough in that country for fashion clothing production to pinch a few pennies. That’s pretty fucked. Its dark soul wasn’t lost on critics at the time of its release either. Ebert famously wrote in his post-9/11 review of the film, “There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander, a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor.” Besides that boldly crass plot line (which does have a pointedly satirical jab at fashion as an industry built into its DNA) and its much harsher stance on models being oversexed, anorexic idiots than the one taken in Head Over Heels, Zoolander ups the stakes of its dark humor by actually claiming a few human casualties. While the witnessed “murder” of Head Over Heels turns out to have been faked, one of Zoolander‘s first big gags (and easily the one that got the biggest laugh out of me as a teen at the theater) involves four of its idiotic lead’s closest male model friends perishing in a gas station explosion. It’s the kind of gag that you’d expect to see in the icily funny mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, where the punchline is a smash cut to a funeral service. Later in the film, the fashion industry is again skewered when Ben Stiller’s male model lead participates in a runway show that exploits/appropriates the tattered rags of the world’s “crack whores” & homeless for a marketable fashion aesthetic. And the darkest joke of all is that the film’s very first celebrity cameo (one of thousands) is none other than Donald J. Trump. Yikes.

As harsh as the humor can be in both of these movies, they’re still largely absurd, silly, light-hearted films. In both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, initial competitive jealousies in an industry where vanity is everything eventually give way to heartfelt camaraderie. Initial unease with the fashion world’s liberated, uninhibited sexuality eventually leads to sexual & romantic satisfaction. Models considered to be useless idiots at the outset save the day & prove their worth as human beings. Still, there’s a dark soul lurking at the center of both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, a black comedy undercurrent that occasionally cuts through the deliriously silly fashion world parody to laugh in the face of betrayal, death, bulimia, child abuse, etc. 2001 not only saw the release of two energetically silly fashion world comedies; it also brought out a surprisingly corrosive spirit in each of them that can disrupt & subvert the cheeriness of their shared mainstream comedy surface. Both movies were better & more memorable for it.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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It’s been fifteen years since the release of the original Zoolander, which seems like an awfully long stretch of time before deciding the world needs a sequel. A lot has happened since 2001, including (perhaps least importantly) a major turnaround on Ben Stiller’s fashion world comedy’s cultural cache. Zoolander suffered mixed-to-negative reviews upon its initial release, but has since grown a strong cult following that seems too large to even consider “cult” at this point. I even remember personally going into the theater prepared to hate Zoolander‘s guts as a grumpy teenager & being wholeheartedly won over as soon as the explosive Wham!-soundtracked gas station gag in the first act. The funny thing about Zoolander‘s fifteen-years-late sequel is that it’s on the exact same trajectory for long-term cultural success as the first film. The reviews are dire. The box office numbers are hardly any better. However, the dirty little secret is that Zoolander 2, while being nowhere near as perfectly inane as its predecessor, is actually a damn fun time at the movies. Nowhere near every joke lands in the film, but it’s smart to flood you with enough impossibly idiotic humor that you’re bound to laugh at something, maybe even more often than you’d expect.

In order to justify its own existence, Zoolander 2 has to undo a lot of the happy ending denouement of the original. Former male models/makeshift political intrigue heavies Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) & Hansel (Owen Wilson) must again start from the bottom. Hansel has been horrifically scarred & is experiencing growing pains with his in-effect wife, an orgy of weirdos. Derek’s own wife has passed away due to his own failures as a businessman & custody of his son has been revoked by the state due to his total lack of parenting skills in areas as basic as “how to make spaghetti soft”. In order to reclaim their estranged familial relationships & earn back their rightful place on top of the fashion world, Hansel & Derek have to repair their irrevocably broken friendship, putting aside the narcissism that plagues them both so deeply. Obviously, the plot doesn’t matter too much in a comedy as aggressively vapid as this, but I do think there’s something oddly sweet about Zoolander 2‘s central bromance that wasn’t nearly as fully realized in the first film. Derek & Hans really do need each other. They’re entirely codependent in their joint efforts to understand a world that doesn’t make sense to their tiny, uncomprehending minds. It’s a fascinating, even touching companionship even if it is an assertively brainless one.

Zoolander 2 does have an Achilles heel, but it’s not exactly the first place you’d expect. The film sidesteps most concerns about being late to the table in terms of following up its original iteration by making the outdated, past-their-prime cultural irrelevance of the its protagonists a major plot point. The redundancy of a second film following the same protagonists as they transition from male modeling to a life in political intrigue is also avoided by adding concerns about familial bonds and, absurdly enough, radical Biblical interpretations & quests for immortality into the mix. Where the film gets a little exasperating is in its never ending list of cameos & bit roles. Even in the film’s trailer swapping an appearance by David Bowie for the much lesser musical being/tabloid fixture Justin Beiber felt like a weak trade-off (although Bieber is actually far from the worst cameo on deck; his time is brief & fairly amusing). The film is overstuffed with both celebrity cameos & SNL vets dropping in for a dumb joke or two. Will Ferrell was a welcome return as the impossibly wicked megalomaniac Mugatu, Penélope Cruz was charming (not to mention breathtakingly gorgeous) as a secret agent for INTERPOL’s fashion division, and current SNL cast member Kyle Mooney proved himself to be a stealth MVP as a double-talking sleazebag hipster piece of shit who’s ironically stuck in the nu metal 00s (an archetype he always nails without fail). These are just a few faces in a sea of many, though, and the nonstop torrent of names like Kristen Wiig, Willie Nelson, Fred Armisen, Katy Perry, and whoever else felt like walking through the film’s perpetually open door did little for Zoolander 2 except to make it feel a little sloppy & out of control.

There were thing I loved about Zoolander 2 & things I easily could’ve done without. The film’s Looney Tunes physics & complete disinterest in stimulating the intellect felt entirely in tune with the original’s sensibility. The vaguely transphobic joke about Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All in the trailer is not at all improved by being expanded in the movie. Even though Hansel & Derek are close-minded imbeciles who believe things like fat = bad person, their treatment of All is an uncomfortable mixed bag at best & mostly just distracts from the film’s better realized gags. Many of the celebrity cameos & bit roles equally feel like a waste of time that could’ve been better step, but Zoolander 2 decisively aims for a quantity over quality M.O. & by the time the film finds its stride far more of its jokes land than fall flat. I spent most of Zoolander 2‘s runtime laughing heartily, which might as well be the sole requirement for a movie this militantly irreverent to succeed as a finished product. It’s not the best comedy in the theater right now (that would be Hail, Caesar!), but it’s also not the worst (*cough* Deadpool *cough*) & I could easily see myself watching/enjoying the film multiple times in the future. If nothing else, that’s a far better experience than I expected based on its early reviews, which is pretty much how this whole ordeal worked out the first time around in 2001.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Independent (2000)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Erin watch The Independent (2000).

Brandon: I first was alerted to the low-stakes indie comedy The Independent this past summer when Britnee posted an article about how our former Movie of the Month Highway to Hell happened to feature every member of the Stiller family: Jerry, Ben, Anne (Mearea), and Amy. An observant Swampflix reader, Tom Morton, was kind enough to point us in the direction of yet another film that featured every member of the Stiller clan, The Independent. I fell in love. I gushed heavily in my review of the film & added it to the growing list of our so-called Swampflix Cannon after just one viewing, despite it being a fairly simple, straightforward comedy. Something about the subject matter just clicked perfectly with my own pet cinema obsessions, especially in the B-movie spectrum. In the film Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an infinite stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Fineman is on the same violently explosive vibe Stiller brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”.

The great thing about this set-up is that Morty is not only a stand-in for Corman (who appears as himself within the film), but also fills the role of countless other legendary B-movie directors & producers: Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, David Friedman, etc. In other words, he is schlock personified. Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package. A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-sexy-robot blaxploitation called Foxy Chocolate Robot, and so on. These schlock spoofs are consistently funny & evenly spaced from beginning to end, supported only by the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a real-life serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews of The Independent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current cultural climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improv-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the schlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy.

Boomer, do you think part of the reason audiences did not connect with The Independent when it was released 15 years ago was that there was too much focus on the one-off B-movie spoofs & not enough of a fully-fleshed narrative to support a full-length feature? Do you think that breaking up the spoofs into a weekly sketch comedy format would’ve benefited the story it was trying to tell or was the film satisfying enough as a self-contained, low-stakes tale of a struggling, past-his-prime director trying to keep his family & his business intact?

Boomer: When watching this movie, the thing that struck me most about it was, as you noted above, how ahead of its time it felt. Debuting a year before the original UK version of The Office, it was not the first mockumentary, but it was made during a time when the tropes and rhetorical shorthand methodologies of the genre were largely unknown by the general population. I’d wager that if The Independent were to have been made after the airings of Arrested Development and, to a much greater degree, the US version of The Office, then the film would have seen wider appeal. We live in a world full of sitcoms that use talking head confessionals as a quick and dirty way of telling jokes in a more succinct way, for better or worse, even when the show itself doesn’t lend itself to that (for instance, it works for The Office, and that show eventually incorporated the film crew as part of the action in its final season, but why exactly do the Dunphys and Pritchetts of Modern Family mug for–and talk directly to–the camera?). I think it’s safe to say that, should there be an interested producer looking for a project, a series adaptation of The Independent would not be out of place in today’s television landscape.

I’m hesitant to commit to watching this hypothetical series, however. So much of what makes The Independent work is that the film’s tone never becomes too sentimental or unfocused on Stiller’s objectively reprehensible but subjectively human protagonist, and I feel like a series, even a serialized, single season adaptation, would find itself going to the well of emotional pathos much more than the source material did. The quick shots we see of his films contribute to the sense of his character, and his films convey a great deal in their (relative) understatement, regardless of how outlandish the films themselves may be. I get the feeling that an adaptation would rapidly experience diminished returns as we saw more and more of his body of work, pushing beyond their initial humor into exponentially more outlandish film outings that would undermine the film’s taut use of this device. Der Ubergoober, Truckstop Nurses, and The Despot Removers are all film titles that are pure perfection in the abstract but wouldn’t work, or would disappoint, if we were presented with them on film (although I have to admit that I would love to see Hot Justice in Thirty Minutes or Less, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Golem sounds like a blast).

That the film is simply that, a film, works best for me personally. That we see Janeane Garofalo’s Paloma exact revenge on facsimiles of the cheerleaders who spurned her in less than thirty seconds of Cheerleader Camp Massacre, for instance, shows that the strength of The Independent lies in knowing what to expand and what to explore only briefly. Given contemporary television’s tendency to decompress storylines at the expense of consistency and viewer patience, as well as the general saturation of the mockumentary-as-comedy style, I feel like a series adaptation would be a letdown. As a concept, it was ahead of its time, and now that its time has come, it has no real place among its contemporary peers.

That having been said, there are quite a few of these films that I would love to see in full, especially with a little MST3k-esque riffing. What about you, Britnee? Are there any of Fineman’s movies that you would desperately like to see as real films? Any that you think are best left imagined rather than realized? And why?

Blombas: Without a doubt, I would love to see Whale of a Cop (1981) as a full-length film. From what the trailer implied, a cop, played by Ben Stiller, is the human form of a whale, and he has a close friendship with a 8-10 year old kid. Stiller makes all sorts of whale noises, and he even spits out water! In the trailer, the kid is having one of those shoo-the-dog goodbye moments. Stiller looks all dopey-eyed and confused while this kid is crying up a storm and yelling something along the lines of “go be with your own kind!” I was crying from laughing so hard during this scene. How did the spirit of a whale end up in the body of a cop? Why is this super young kid with a bowl cut his best friend? These are all questions that I am dying to have answered. Hopefully, they were both once whales, but the boy fully turned into a human while Stiller is only half human. The police department recruited him because his special whale senses were helpful with their criminal investigations.

Another film that sounds like a blast would be A Very Malcolm Xmas. It’s never discussed during the actual film, but the title is shown during the credits (along with the rest of Fineman’s filmography). As an admirer of Malcolm X, I would love to know how Fineman would blend his legacy with Christmas traditions. As a lover of bad films and just being a curious person in general, I can’t really think of any fake Fineman movies that I would not want to see as actual films.

Other than the many “fake” film trailers featured in the movie, something in the film that really stood out to me was the duo that is Jerry Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. The chemistry between the two was so unexpected but, by God, it was extraordinary. They both have such different styles of comedy, and I think that’s why they got so many laughs out of me.

Erin, did you feel the same about Garofalo and Stiller? Would you like to see the two act in similar roles again? Or was this more of a one time thing?

Erin: I have to say, seeing Janeane Garofalo as a fake-tanned daddy’s girl was a lot of fun, since I’m most familiar with her acidic side, a la Heather of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.  And Jerry Stiller is perfect as Morty Fineman.  After watching The Independent, it’s hard to imagine him as any other role (although, I suspect that Stiller’s acting talents often lie in adding quite a bit of himself to his roles).  I liked seeing Garofalo and Stiller playing off each other, and the were really, truly believable as adults navigating a parent-child relationship.  Oddly enough, though, I would have to say that while I would like to see more of Jerry Stiller in similar roles, I’m not sure that I’m sold on Garofalo in similar roles.  I think that it might be because Garofalo was acting against type that her performance in this movie comes off so well, and I think that this kind of magic might lose its luster if repeated too often.

To change the subject a bit, I think that one of the things that made this movie so watchable was the pacing, the way that little glimpses of the Fineman world were revealed in a way that eased us into the madness of it all.  I wouldn’t have accepted the immediate introduction of Fineman’s car-dwelling ex wife, even after the strangeness of the opening scene.  However, by the time we meet her, we’re fully prepared for the next wacky turn of events. The Independent takes us by the hand and leads us happily down the lane, and by the time we think to ask where we’re going we’ve left the real world behind.  It’s the skillful story telling that makes me think of The Independent as a filmmaker’s film, something made not necessarily to entertain the masses but turn the lens of film back on itself.

The Independent is like watching a home movie.  I think, perhaps, that this home movie is meant for filmmakers, to see themselves and their passions through the fiction of a movie.  It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers portray themselves here – confident, persistent, optimistic, and terrible to live with.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is The Independent a self portrait, meant for filmmakers?  Is is self-indulgent, or a surreal confessional asking for atonement?

Brandon: So far I’ve honestly only thought of this movie as a film for schlock junkies. Fans of the trash auteurs of yesteryear will find plenty to chew on in The Independent, especially in those short-form spoofs & Roger Corman interviews. I don’t think that descriptions excludes filmmakers from the intended audience, though. A lot of filmmakers, even the ones who make endless piles of garbage, are really at heart just big movie fans who can’t help but make the the things they love. For example, Morty Fineman didn’t make hundreds of movies on accident. He made it because them because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s in his blood. Also, because he liked “the tits, bombs, and ass,” as he confessed in the fabulous scene in his ex-wife’s house/car Erin just mentioned.

Something I always wonder about directors like Roger Corman & Morty Fineman is whether or not they ever have time to actually watch movies for fun. In the documentary Corman’s World (which is required viewing, by the way) Corman recalls an anecdote where he was running almost a dozen simultaneous film production. When his wife asked him if he could actually name them all from memory, he could only recite the titles of all but two & then said something to the effect of, “Well, whatever the rest are, I’m going to cancel them in the morning.” Folks like Fineman & Corman are constantly swamped with shooting schedules & issues of financial backing, but their work is obviously influenced by the cinematic world surrounding them, so they somehow have to be watching movies in their leisure time. For instance, Fineman’s lost herpes PSA film The Simplex Complex was a spoof of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Corman’s production of Joe Dante’s Pihranna was a thinly veiled response to Spiendberg’s Jaws (which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Corman’s own creature feature work). I have no idea how an over-productive schlock director could find the time to keep up with their contemporaries that way, given the near impossible weight of their workloads.

To bring it home to Erin’s question, if this film were made with any particular filmmaker in mind it’d be Roger Corman, but would he even have had time to watch it? Even his contributions as an extended cameo seemed to be brief & succinct, probably shot on a break between a dozen other projects. It’s interesting to think of a what a Fineman-esque schlockmeister would get out of The Independent, considering the film’s admiration of their work & acknowledgement of their sleaziness, but I’m not sure they’d ever have the time to engage with it in that way. Did Corman ever sit down to watch this movie even though he appears in it? I’m curious, but doubtful.

It seems that The Independent‘s best chance for a cult audience is in comedy nerds who enjoy a Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries & weirdo sketch comedy and in schlock junkies who genuinely love bad movies as an art form, even beyond the MST3k brand of sarcastic derision. My question is whether or not you’d have to exist in the overlap of that Venn diagram to enjoy the film for all it’s worth. It’s obviously difficult for me to discuss The Independent without droning on about folks like Roger Corman & Russ Meyer, so I’m wondering if someone without that sense of B-movie context would get the same kind of appreciation of the movie’s insular little world of shoddy filmmaking.

What do you think, Mark? Is familiarity with the world of folks like Roger Corman necessary for loving this film beyond a tossed off “That was pretty funny, I guess.”? Is being a fan of irreverent comedy enough to fully appreciate The Independent or do you also have to be a little bit of a B-movie nerd to get on its wavelength?

Boomer: It’s interesting to me that you mention Christopher Guest, especially since his movies were the first point of contact I thought of when viewing The Independent, not Roger Corman, despite Corman’s cameo in the film’s opening moments. There’s a fine line tread here between the kind of zealous schlock that characterizes Corman’s work and the nuanced character work that typifies Guest’s. To be honest, I think that an appreciation for the kind of work that Guest does may be more integral to the overall enjoyment of The Independent as a movie than an appreciation for Corman and his ilk. Guest’s films generally feature a mixture of understatedly human emotions acted out by larger-than-life characters in situations that are incredibly idiosyncratic, be it a high-stakes dog show or a folk music reunion concert. The characters that populate the faux-documentary, especially but not limited to Morty, his assistant, and Paloma, are very much Guest-type people.

Of course, the prevalence of Corman-esque style in Morty’s works themselves can’t be ignored, either. Morty is Corman as a Guest character, and it works very, very well. It’s not hard to imagine Corman creating a film like Bald Justice, and a line like “You’re gonna like Leavenworth; they’ve got a great barber,” could have flowed from his pen just as easily as it did from Stephen Kessler and Mike Wilkins’s. Overall, though, I think it would be easier to enjoy the movie if you knew Guest but not Corman, rather than Corman but not Guest, simply given the fact that the homages to Corman, while pitch perfect and hilarious, don’t carry the weight of the narrative in and of themselves.

I would love to see more films of this type. Maybe a satirical slasher film that centered around a Hitchcock type, or a desert island survival story wherein all the characters are the stars of a seventies sci-fi show reunited for a convention cruise that goes awry. Or, of course, more mockumentaries about eccentric artists who are secretly self-deluded hacks. What about you, Britnee? How would you adapt this format into a personal instant classic?

Britnee: I’ve always wished and hoped for someone to make a John Waters biopic that would depict his work with the Dreamlanders crew. Could you imagine such a treat? So when thinking about what sort of film I would like to see in the style of The Independent, I would love to see a film that follows the journey of a Waters-like director and his band of misfits. The crew would travel the country creating snuff films in small, all-American towns. They would have a cult following of all ages willing to “die for art.” If anyone with the connections and resources ever reads this, please, oh please, make this happen.

Come to think of it, there really aren’t enough films that focus on the careers of movie directors, and they have one of the most interesting jobs on the planet! When director roles are featured in films, they are usually portrayed in a negative way. Most of the time, they’re sleazy douchebags that promise cast members leading roles in exchange for sex. It was nice to see a director portrayed in a positive light in The Independent. Morty has so much passion for filmmaking, and he truly loved all 400+ of his terrible b-movies. What an inspiration!

Going back to the discussing the film’s unique style, I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if it were anything other than a mockumentary. Erin, if The Independent was not filmed as a mocumentary, but was still a comedy, do you think it would still be as likeable? Why or why not?

Erin: Interesting question, Britnee!  I agree with you.  The mocumentary style of The Independent is an important part of its charm.  It allows for Morty’s character to be portrayed as humanly as possible.

That’s where I connected most with The Independent, with its portrayal of humanity.  The hyperbole used in the storytelling lets the actors tell a deeply human story about the the struggle to balance the compulsion to create and live according to one’s own heart against the very real impact that every human has on those around him or her.
As fluffy and ridiculous as The Independent is, there are moments of genuine pathos and discomfort.  Those moments, in a way, make the movie. They use of comic relief and exaggeration to tell real truths about the human condition is one of our best introspective tools as a species.

Lagniappe

Erin:I really, really want to see Whale of Cop brought to fruition.  There’s no shame in that game.

Britnee: I’m so glad to know that there’s another film other than Highway to Hell that involves all members of the Stiller clan. I have to say, I really wish there was more Rita (Anne Meara)!  Rita (Morty’s ex-wife that lives in a luxury car) was probably my favorite character in the film, but she was definitely not given enough screen time.

Boomer: Rita was definitely a character that I would have loved to see more of, especially with regards to her relationship with her eternally devoted doorman/chauffeur/lover. I also really loved the moment of footage we saw of Rat Fuck; it was such a great, minimal joke. In my notes from watching the film, I noted that Christ for the Defense reminded me, at least visually, of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which never came up organically in this discussion but which I think bears mentioning, if anyone feels like watching a movie that Morty may as well have directed.

Brandon: When started doing Movie of the Month Swampchats this past February I joked that the cold weather was making us a depressed bunch. The first few movies we discussed (The Masque of the Red Death, The Seventh Seal, Blood & Black Lace, etc) were a morbid procession of death & pestilence. I’m glad to say we pulled out of the funk in the past few months & started having some fun with a few comedies & even a kids’ movie, but it’s also remarkable how the year came full circle, beginning & ending with Roger Corman, who directed Masque & had a large influence on The Independent. There are few filmmakers out there who I love more or who could better represent this site’s love of where trash meets art. Let’s hope next year’s just as tidy & well-rounded. It’s been fun.

-The Swampflix Crew

While We’re Young (2015)

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threehalfstar

As I explained in my review for Mistress America, Noah Baumbach is remarkably talented at making me feel like shit while also enjoying a good, old fashioned nervous laugh. I ended up appreciating Mistress America a great deal more than I did Baumbach’s earlier release from this year, While We’re Young, but the pair did work together nicely as two sides of the same coin. In Mistress America, we’re swept away by & quickly grow disgusted with a pretentious free spirit who lives a frivolous life in the magical version of NYC that only exists on film. In While We’re Young, on the other hand, we’re similarly disgusted by a go-getter of a young documentarian who embodies every disdainful idea about what it means to be a hipster to an infuriating degree in an all too real NYC we wish didn’t exist in real life. Part of the reason While We’re Young‘s self-absorbed sociopath of a subject doesn’t excite the audience in the same way Mistress America‘s does is that he feels more like a carefully selected collection of quirks than a real person, never really evolving beyond much of a caricature, so your feelings towards him are much less complex. He is exceedingly fun to hate, though. Baumbach at least got that part right.

The sycophant in question is Jamie, a role Adam Driver plays like a bizarro world version of Joey Ramone where everything he does & says, right down to the basic motions of his limbs, are vile affectations worthy of vitriol (just look at the way he holds beer cans if you’re looking for something to angry up your blood). Jamie’s latest victims/”friends” are a middle aged couple played by Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts, who are attracted to the excitement of meeting younger versions of themselves in Jamie & his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) because it allows them to escape a dull life where their contemporaries use peer pressure to convince them to do things like have children instead of younger-oriented fare like experimenting with drugs. In the compare/contrast portion of the movie, Jamie’s victims are portrayed as Gen-X squares who watch digital television & listen to CDs instead of enjoying the finer antiquated formats of vinyl records & VHS tapes. Despite how things may seem on the surface here, however, the true difference between the two couples is that the older set is a normal pair of human beings while the younger ones are a curated set of dishonest affectations.

While We’re Young is most alive when it aims for cringe comedy in the never-ending gauntlet of indignities that accompany a midlife crisis. Once Stiller & Watt’s older couple start dressing younger, wearing stupid hats (including indoors! at the dinner table! yuck!), tripping & puking at an phony shaman’s apartment, and failing miserably to look competent at hip-hop dance classes, the movie not only earns most of its genuine laughs, it also effectively depicts modern life in NYC to be a nightmarish hellscape. That’s not to say that Baumbach goes anywhere near the jugular here. If you’re looking for a full-on scathing takedown of the Brooklynite hipster, you’re much better off watching the Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy. The saddest moments in While We’re Young mostly amount to minor embarrassments & the distinct feeling of losing touch with old friends while chasing new ones. There may be a bitter remark here or there about The Baby Cult of new parents or rampant cellphone addiction or how the millennial generation are a collection of “entitled little brats”, but for the most part the film is well aware that it’s being an old curmudgeon in these moments. That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of venom in the portrayal of Adam Driver’s horrendous hipster abomination Jamie, who is at one point described with the phrase, “It’s like he once saw a sincere person & has been imitating them ever since.” The movie is ostensibly willing to let him off the hook for his transgressions, though. In the end what Jamie is up to doesn’t really matter, because he’s young & frivolous. It’s the emotional journey of the film’s middle aged characters that carry most of the film’s heart, which makes for a serviceable cringe comedy & lightly romantic indie drama depending on the scene in question. It’s nowhere near the forceful impact of the more pointed Mistress America, but While We’re Young is another success for Baumbach nonetheless.

-Brandon Ledet

Highway to Hell (1991): A Stiller Family Affair

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I know that we lightly touched on the fact that both Ben and Jerry Stiller made appearances in our discussion of July’s Movie of the Month, Highway to Hell, but I recently found out that two other members of the Stiller family were in the film: Ann Meara (Jerry’s wife/Ben’s mother) and Amy Stiller (Jerry’s daughter/Ben’s sister). The family members have appeared in multiple films with one another (Heavy Weights, Zoolander, etc.), but I can’t think of any other film that has four Stillers in it at the same time. What exactly happened here? Did Jerry beg the casting crew to allow his wife and kids to tag along? Was Jerry even the first member casted? Highway to Hell has a special connection to the bizarre Stiller family, and I’m determined to find out why.

Ben Stiller was given not one, but two small roles in Highway to Hell: a demented fry cook at Hell’s only diner (Pluto’s) and Attila the Hun. I have to say, this really shows off his versatility as an actor. Prior to this film, he had a pretty short acting resumé with a couple of minor television/film appearances, so I think it’s safe to say that Ben wasn’t the first of the Stiller’s to join the Highway to Hell cast. The same goes for Amy. She only appeared in a couple of movies prior to her forgettable performance as Cleopatra in Highway to Hell.

Now, Ma and Pa Stiller are a completely different story. Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara both had lengthy careers as comedians at this point, and after all, Highway to Hell was a horror/comedy. In the film, Jerry is a cop that sits in Pluto’s waiting for a cup of coffee he will never get, and Ann is the diner’s waitress that will never fill up his cup. It was like one of their classic skits on the The Ed Sullivan Show, except it was terrible and not really funny.

My official conclusion is that Jerry and Ann’s career as variety show comedians and sitcom stars was dwindling down. They needed money and their kids needed acting experience, and lucky for them, Highway to Hell needed cheap actors. It was probably like some sort of buy one et one free deal. Sadly, the film was a flop and no fame or fortune was attained by the Stiller clan.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s 1991 action comedy Highway to Hell, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at De Jong’s other (more successful) 1991 cult classic Drop Dead Fred.

-Britnee Lombas