Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke

Charles Manson is right up there with Adolf Hitler as a monstrous historical figure whose name is over-cited for easy, #edgy punchlines. The Manson Family murders obviously never came close to matching the body count or continued political atrocities resulting from Hitler & the Nazi Party, but there’s an easy shock value to Charles Manson’s sensationalist, highly-publicized crimes that makes his name just as frequent of a punchline. The joke, no matter how tasteless, has been run into the ground over decades of repetition in South Park episodes, Sam Kinison routines, and Marilyn Manson album titles to the point where it’s too old hat to be effectively offensive. There may have been some minor uproar after Quentin Tarantino’s recent announcement that he’ll be dramatizing the Manson Family murders in his signature tongue-in-cheek way with the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but most of the outrage surrounding the production has focused on the casting of known-abuser Emile Hirsch & Tarantino’s public statements making light of Roman Polanski’s rape charges. Outrage over his potentially glib treatment of the Sharon Tate murders has been put on the backburner as people address fresher wounds. Our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, was similarly too late to the table to shatter any monocles with its own Charles Manson humor. There’s a performative transgression to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! that acts as if making light of Charles Manson & Sharon Tate was crossing a sealed taboo barrier never before addressed in comedy, despite decades of preceding shock-value art to the contrary. Like Tarantino’s still-in-production Manson movie, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! had to find other, less seemly ways to offend than relying simply on citing Charles Manson’s crimes in a humorous tone (namely through “ironic” misogyny & homophobia).

If timeliness is the key to a truly offensive Charles Manson joke, it’s doubtful that anyone could claim the honor more convincingly than John Waters. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of his 1970 feature Multiple Maniacs, Waters explains the ways the developing account of the Sharon Tate murders changed the shape of the film during production, as the story was still playing out in the headlines. Early in the film, Divine teases her lover (played by David Lochary) by threatening to turn him into the police for killing Tate, even mocking the “P-I-G” carving in her stomach, a real-life detail. Waters explains, “When we shot this, they had not caught Charles Manson. No one knew who he was or anything about him.” Later in the film, Lochary says as much when he holds up an actual newspaper revealing Manson’s involvement in the Tate murder, absolving himself of the crimes Divine attempted to in pin on him, exclaiming, “I’ve never heard of these people!” That scene was quickly re-written the day the paper was printed, making for what has to be the earliest Charles Manson joke on celluloid. When John Waters & The Dreamlanders were joking about Charles Manson, the humor actually was transgressive, an effect that had only dulled & diluted by the time Live Freaky! Die Freaky! arrived over three decades later. When you read positive responses to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! online, they typically liken director John Roecker to Waters, saying his work is “in the comedy style of films like Pink Flamingos.” I’m not buying the comparison. The two directors may have overlapped in thematic territory & subject, but the timing of their arrival completely alters the effect & context of the material. When John Waters joked about The Manson Family murders it was a dangerous, culturally taboo act of true political transgression. By the time John Roecker did the same it was a hack bit that had lost all that impact through decades of dilution, like a kid playing dress-up as a Dangerous Artist.

It’s important to remember the cultural context in which John Waters was making his Charles Manson jokes. As he explains in it on the Multiple Maniacs commentary, the political upheaval of the late 60s countercultural made it feel as if the world were ending. Before turning to filmmaking, Waters poured his political angst into protesting, rioting, and writing for leftist mags. He describes his crew as being pissed-off, dysfunctional hippies who would later become punks & bikers – counterculture types who had not yet established their own niche. His filmmaking was an extension of that political unrest, using humor to both process the absurdity of a culture in chaos and “using humor as terrorism to embarrass your enemy.” When Waters jokes about The Weather Underground & killing cops in Multiple Maniacs, it’s coming from a real place of anger against the cops who arrested his crew while filming Mondo Trasho and added a homophobic slur to David Lochary’s name in their reports. When he jokes about Sharon Tate’s death, films anal lesbian acts involving rosary beads in a Catholic church, or *gasp* shows “two queers kissing like lovers on the lips!” in the film, he was bucking against very real constrictions of censorship, genuinely pushing the envelope of what was allowed by law. Censor boards in America attempted to shut the film down in outrage only for judges to shrug off the complaints because the acts were tasteless, but technically legal. When he sent prints to a Canadian distributor, border police confiscated & destroyed them, not waiting for a judge to weigh in on their legality. Roecker & Tarantino are only able to make their own tasteless Charles Manson jokes now because those censorship battles have already been won; as Waters explains it, “You can put anything in a movie now,” so that for-its-own-sake shock value no longer holds any political power. When hardcore pornography was legalized, Waters gave up trying to shock the censors and moved on to more narrative-focused works like Female Trouble & Polyester. Roecker & Tarantino are only playing with his broken, discarded toys that have been collecting dust in the attic for decades.

That’s not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can’t or won’t find useful thematic material in the Manson Family murders. There’s no telling how that will pan out until we see the finished product. The dichotomy between the pointed political subversion of Multiple Maniacs and the pointless juvenile posturing of Live Freak! Die Freaky! does suggest that it will be a difficult task, however. John Waters snuck in his Manson Family humor when the wounds were still fresh and the topic was still taboo. John Roecker warns of what could happen when you pretend that same topic still has edge, despite it long having been made acceptable through repetition & familiarity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade.

-Brandon Ledet

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Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast: Art House Herstory with CeCe V DeMenthe & Cosi (1996)

Welcome to Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-fifth episode, Brandon & Britnee are joined by local drag performer CeCe V DeMenthe to discuss the ways the New Orleans art house & repertory cinema scene has changed since the 1970s. Britnee also makes Brandon watch the Australian opera dramedy Cosi (1996) for the first time. Enjoy!

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

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

The Nun (2018)

The modern mainstream horror is a lot like a haunted house attraction at an amusement park. The carnival barker outside promises more thrills than could ever possibly be delivered. The story told inside is never nearly as important as the craftsmanship of individual images and the establishment of a spooky atmosphere. The most you can really ask for is to be startled a few times by a well-executed act of misdirection; the communal experience of getting spooked in public before returning to your normal life, unaffected but amused, is entirely the point. By those metrics, The Nun is a perfectly average modern horror flick, delivering no more & no less than necessary to skate by as a passable novelty entertainment. Its phenomenal jump-scare trailer beckons passerby to wander to the ticket booth for the soul-shaking freak-out of a lifetime, only for the film to deliver the bare-minimum genre goods instead. Its narrative is a flimsy excuse to string together a series of cheap-thrill spooky images & startling noises. The communal experience of jumping out your seat with a hundred fellow novelty-seeking strangers in the film’s opening weeks is the best it can offer, a cheap thrill that’s quickly forgotten as you wander off to the next attraction.

The Nun’s mediocrity is announced as soon as its exposition, where the film is framed as an out-of-sequence spinoff from The Conjuring franchise with a “Previously on . . . “ flashback befitting a TV series. What follows is a prequel that over-explains the origins of a creepy cameo character from the original Conjuring movies, adopting the same approach as the Annabelle spinoffs. The Annabelle movies mire their origin story mythology in story, however, whereas The Nun does very little to pretend that it is anything but a haunted house attraction. In this case the haunted “house” is a ghostly convent, where The Gates of Hell were once opened to allow a demon to crossover & possess the unsuspecting nuns who live there. We join the action in the 1950s, where a young nun-to-be, a priestly “miracle hunter,” and their French-Canadian scamp of a tour guide investigate the mysterious phenomena of the haunted convent, only to be startled from all directions by the horrors they find inside. Big budget nunsploitation set dressing & familiar Gothic horror atmosphere are only mood-setting novelties meant to flavor the standard demonic jump scares & spooky Catholic iconography The Nun delivers. The characters are practically ushered down an assembly line conveyor belt for their own turn to be startled by the attractions inside, swiftly moving along to the next crop of willing victims can have their fun.

If The Nun were going to be anything more than a perfectly mediocre mainstream horror, its best chance would have been to lean into its value as a cheap novelty. Part of the reason that the film’s trailer is such a delight is that it wastes no time with narrative concerns and instead isolates a single scene of jump-scare misdirection, delivered without context. The film itself unwisely dilutes those types of thrills with an abundance of context that could only be described as a waste of time, especially when deployed to nest the film within The Conjuring’s overarching mythology. The machine-like efficiency of last year’s IT adaptation, where tension was built & released with regular-interval jump scares like a rhythmically reset rotary dial, is an excellent example of how that formula can be executed at a higher, more memorable level. As is, the pacing is a little too languid for the film to fully satisfy as anything more than a loose collection of cheap thrills & spooky nunsploitation-themed images. Any intense praise or condemnation of The Nun can only be hyperbolic, as the film is the exact medium of what big-budget horror looks like the 2010s. The Nun deserves neither ecstatic championing nor intense negativity – only mild, temporary amusement. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

Perfect Blue (1997)

The debut feature of tragically-deceased Japanese animator Satohi Kon (Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) is taking a 20th anniversary victory lap in digital restoration, so I had the unexpected opportunity to see it for the first time in a theatrical setting. What a fucked-up delight! Because Paprika is one of the few anime films I’ve watched repeatedly over years of admiration & study, I was somewhat prepared for the sugary pop psychedelia & loopy nightmare logic Satoshi Kon established in this predecessor. What I did not expect going in blind was that the film would fit so comfortably within my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, given that it arrived so early in the development of online culture. The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the Unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. I can only imagine that effect was even greater in 1997, when a global network of intercomputer communication felt like a man-made miracle. Perfect Blue not only exploits the eeriness of that brand-new unknown by reflecting it in the similar subliminal space of a bad dream & an unraveling mind, but it’s also prescient of the Internet’s worst functions as a future real-world evil – both as a tool for misogynist bullying & as a corrupter of personal identity. Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.

A female pop singer is pressured by her managers to leave her music career behind to pursue acting. This professional shift is coded as her public image growing up, leaving behind the girlish innocence of her pop idol persona to pursue a more adult, sexualized career. She lands a small role on a racy “Japanese psycho thriller” TV series (the kind of sensationalist drama that plays for high ratings on HBO in the 2010s), requiring her to perform increasingly sexualized acts for the camera, including participation a brutal rape scene. Pretending she’s okay with this career shift so she appears agreeable to her talent agency causes a rift inside herself, where her still-innocent inner voice (visualized as her former pop idol persona) screams out in dissent. Meanwhile, an online stalker blogs in first-person as her former self, reinforcing the bifurcation between her two personae. The pressures of her job & the online harassment amount to a fever pitch as she starts losing time and waking to find that the entertainment industry goons who pressured her into sexually compromising positions are being found systematically murdered. Her pop idol self, her TV show character, her dreams, and her false online persona all collectively unravel her sense of identity to the point where she can’t say for sure whether she is the mysterious murderer or even if the murders are actually happening. She can’t even answer basic questions like “Am I dreaming?” or “Am I alive?” with any confidence or certainty. Pressures from her pop music fans to remain an innocent child clash with the television industry’s pressures for her to expose her body & pretend to be a rape victim for commercial entertainment – two opposing, impossible standards only she suffers the consequences of as their target du jour. It’s no surprise that the internet is the primary tool of this misogynist cycle, as it’s only served that function more intensely in real life in the decades since.

Early on in Perfect Blue the protagonist receives a threatening fax from her stalker and the machine’s mechanical scrapes & hums mutate into an industrial pop score that overwhelms the soundtrack, heightening the eerie threat technology poses in her insular world. That’s when I knew I would be all-in for the movie’s technophobic feminist nightmare, which only became more rewarding the further it broke apart from reality to sink into the (literal & figurative) machines of misogyny. Like most well-regarded anime, Perfect Blue is technically impressive as a feat in traditional animation, fully utilizing its medium to achieve logic & imagery unattainable in live action cinema. The particulars of how it uses that medium to reflect the eeriness & artifice of the internet, nightmares, and the entertainment industry are a more rarified wonder, especially since it’s an effect that actually has something substantial to say about the exploitation & commodification of women in the public sphere. Perfect Blue can occasionally be super uncomfortable in its depictions of sexual assault, but at least in a way that’s relevant to those themes. Overall, it’s a strikingly beautiful, effectively creepy work of animated psych-horror, one that approximates the full danger & eeriness of the internet in a way that’s only since been matched by the likes of Suicide Club, Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror. I mean that as the highest of praise, as this is a genre I find consistently fascinating, but rarely this effectively scary. It’s worth noting too that the 20th anniversary digital transfer of the film has not seemed to sharpen, flatten, or distort its original appearance the way some digital “restorations” of animated classics have. Perfect Blue looked to me of the exact grainy, matte quality you’d expect an animated 90s movie to appear like on the big screen. Our relationship with the internet may have intensified drastically in the last 20 years, but Perfect Blue appears to remain untouched as a pristine, enduringly terrifying object – a beautiful technophobic nightmare worthy of continued discussion & preservation.

-Brandon Ledet

Fuck, Marry, Kill – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The general, perhaps hyperbolic consensus about Mission: Impossible – Fallout is that it’s the best action blockbuster to hit the big screen since Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films don’t seem to have much in common beyond being late-in-the-franchise sequels that shrewdly exploit the basic thrills of their shared genre by stringing together a nonstop onslaught of chase sequences through extravagant set pieces. However, they are two pictures that the Swampflix crew was a little too late to the table to add anything substantial to in our coverage. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a great action pic, matching even its predecessor Rogue Nation as one of the best entries in the franchise. As the film was initially released well over a month ago, however, you’ve likely already heard variations of that praise ad nauseam, so instead of properly reviewing the film we’re attempting to avoid excessive critical redundancy by having some late-summer fun objectifying the film’s Hollywood-handsome cast. The series-arcing plot of Mission: Impossible is effectively resettable & amnesia-inducing from film to film; its stunts are technically impressive, but like all amusement park rides are more fun in experience than in description or critique. The only questions we can answer here, then, are which hunky members of the cast we would fuck, which we would marry, and which we would kill.

Brandon

Fuck Henry Cavill – This choice seems self-explanatory to me. Henry Cavill looks like he crawled directly out of a Tom of Finland illustration in this picture; he’s just oozing sex. This is easily the most fun he’s been to watch on-screen since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (my non-apologies to DCEU die-hards who found a way to look past his digitally “removed” mustache in Justice League to see his true inner hunk), but I doubt he’s ever looked sexier, even in U.N.C.L.E.’s swanky 60s garb. Mustachioed meathead brute is a great look for him, one that turns even the nastier close-quarters fist fights into a homoerotic pleasure.

Marry Ving Rhames – This also seems obvious to me, as Rhames is already costumed like your middle-age husband, ready to barbeque a backyard meal while you & The Kids enjoy a swim. Beyond his Cuban button-ups & Target-brand brimmed hats, he’s also the most sensitive member of Ethan Hunt’s crew, shedding a giant man-love tear for his boss/bestie in one of the film’s defining dramatic moments. Rhames is an adorable middle-age teddy bear in Fallout, which promises a more long-lasting love than what Cavill’s mustachioed fuck-monster can likely offer.

Kill Tom Cruise – In deciding who to kill, I think you have to look past what these Hollywood Hunks are offering onscreen here to examine what they’re doing beyond the scenes. Not only is Tom Cruise a high-level operator of a dangerous global cult, but he’s also risking his life with each Mission: Impossible entry by performing a large percentage of his own increasingly dangerous stunts. It’s highly likely that the real-life Tom Cruise is going to die trying to distract his audience from his key role in Scientology through these over-the-top, life-risking stunts, so he might as well be sacrificed to the hypothetical consequences of this frivolous game. If you need that choice to be justified by the text of Fallout, consider that the film asks you to choose sides against anti-institutional anarchists in the favor of international government agents with free reign to interpret & execute the law, most significantly represented by Cruise as Ethan Hunt. It’s a political philosophy that’s tolerable enough in-film, but ultimately ACAB, so Cruise must die no matter the context.

CC

Fuck Henry Cavill – I mean, pretty much everything Brandon says. It’s not quite a full-blown fetish, but I definitely give extra (sexual) points to a man with a decent mustache*. In a Fuck/Marry/Kill scenario, who wouldn’t take the chance to shag a real-life Tom of Finland illustration?

*The pencil-thin pervert’s mustache and the thick-boi Henry Cavill-style mustache are the only two acceptable styles, however. Walruses, Fu Manchus, and handlebars need not apply.

Marry Simon Peg – He seems like a guy who is good with gadgets and can do a large portion of household maintenance. Even though he’s useless in a fight and lacks the raw sex appeal of pretty much every other guy in this film (background extras included), he seems like he’d be open to some pretty kinky stuff. At the end of the day, a useful pervert is more my speed than a sex idiot (even if it is King Sex Idiot).

Kill Tom Cruise (after fucking him too) – Oh yeah, I’d definitely kill Tom Cruise, but, like, there’s no sense wasting the opportunity to have sex with an ageless cult leader/god. Who knows, maybe magic is real? Let’s be optimistic during the impending End Times.

Adopt Ving Rhames – Ving Rhames and the character he plays in Mission: Impossible both seem like guys who LOVE their mama. I’ve never experienced that level of truly unconditional love and I feel like the intensity of its pure, wholesome light would burn a hole right through my soul – worth it, both for the release from the inescapable ennui of modern life and for how cozy & warm it sounds.

Start a book (wine) club with Michelle Monaghan & Rebecca Ferguson – In the Mission: Impossible movies, these ladies have to put up with so much shit from the men around them. Patriarchy, am I right? Even though one plays a human rights activist/medical doctor, the other plays a super spy, and both are real-life (probably?) wealthy, semi-famous white actresses, I still feel like we’d all have a lot to gab about, like how Henry Cavill is the raw-steak-eaten-while-still-warm-from-the-animal of men and Tom Cruise is a pretty lie we have chosen to believe for far too long. But to make sure we still pass the Bechdel Test when we’re not discussing the Patriarchy, we’d also have books, wine, and the never-ending depths of our existential despair to consider.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 9/13/18 – 9/19/18

9/13/18 – 9/19/18

Here’s a quick rundown of the movies we’re most excited about that are screening in New Orleans this week, including a couple repertory screenings of milestone classics.

Movies We Haven’t Seen Yet

1. Mandy This might be my most anticipated movie of the year. Nicolas Cage wields a chainsaw in a neon-lit Hell, as directed by Panos Cosmatos, the mad genius behind Beyond the Black Rainbow. Looks like a slow-moving, psychedelic freak-out and we’re extremely lucky that The Broad Theater is picking it up for a week-long run even though it’s also premiering on VOD this week. See this madness on the big screen while you can.

2. The Miseducation of Cameron Post In most scenarios this indie drama mutation of But, I’m a Cheerleader! might not have been a must-see priority for me, as a miserable story about teens imprisoned in gay conversion camps seems like A Lot To Handle. However, director Desiree Akhavan’s debut film, Appropriate Behavior, was one of my favorite films of 2015, so I’m very much excited to see this follow-up. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

3. We the Animals A lyrical drama as interpreted through a child’s POV that’s been earning near-unanimous critical acclaim. Looks to be similar in tone to other traumatic first-person children’s dramas like George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, and Tigers Are Not Afraid, which is thematic territory I’m always a sucker for. Only playing at The Broad Theater.

4. A Simple Favor Paul Feig graduates from churning out over-the-top, female-led comedies like Bridesmaids & Spy to making an over-the-top, female-led noir in what appears to be a tongue-in-cheek riff on Gone Girl. I’m consistently pleased by his straight-forward comedy work, very curious to see what he can accomplish outside that genre.

5. The Predator Shane Black follows up his creative upswing in The Nice Guys with a decades-late sequel to an action classic he got his acting start in with a minor, throwaway role. The movie is reported to be obnoxious in its performative Political Incorrectness, but also looks cartoonishly violent in a potentially entertaining way.

6. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) – A three-hour, big-budget musical epic adapted from the Broadway stage to earn three Academy Awards, including one for Best Cinematography. I’ve somehow never seen this cultural milestone, so the opportunity to experience it on the big screen feels significant, even if daunting. Playing at The Prytania Theatre September 16 & September 19.

Movies We Already Enjoyed

1. Boogie Nights (1997) – It’s embarrassingly basic, but this is typically my answer when pressed for My Favorite Movie of All Time. I’ve never seen it projected on the big screen before (most of my early viewings were on a two-cassette VHS), so it’s incredibly cool that The Prytania Theatre is screening it September 13 in memoriam of the recently-deceased Burt Reynolds (on a double bill with Smokey & The Bandit, a movie Reynolds himself was much more positive about).

2. BlacKkKlansman BlacKkKlansman is a much better-funded, more commercially minded picture than we’ve seen from Spike Lee in years, one that filters satirical jabs at Trumpian racial politics through a classic buddy cop genre structure & a historical look back at the not-so-distant past of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea, making for one of the year’s most essential cinematic experiences.

3. White Boy Rick Extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster Video instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, but that’s not always a bad thing.

4. Mission: Impossible – Fallout Tom Cruise risks his life staging a series of increasingly dangerous stunts in hopes that it’ll make us forget that he’s effectively the figurehead of a global cult. It’s mostly working! The consensus seems to be that this is the best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m struggling to come up with a reason why that’s not true.

5. SearchingFull disclosure: this one is a controversial pick among the Swampflix crew. It’s basically the Lifetime Movie version of Unfriended, where a trashy genre we love for its cruelty & absurdity is softened by safer, less goofy sentimentality so that it can appeal to the cheesiest of suburban parents. James & I complained about it at length on the most recent episode of the podcast, but Britnee was a big fan, as she’s all-in on the Lifetime aesthetic. Either way you fall, it’s worthy of discussion and its success can only mean good things for a gimmicky, technophobic genre we all love.

6. Crazy Rich Asians – Part wish-fulfillment rom-com & part extravagant wealth porn, this comedic romance fantasy is a crucial slice of escapist fun. It’s also a much-needed corrective for Hollywood’s dismally deficient Asian American representation on the big screen, so it’s a worthy film to support while it’s playing in theaters.

-Brandon Ledet

White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

I didn’t feel at all great about our collective distaste for John Roecker’s stop-motion animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not only is picking on a microbudget, D.I.Y. art project the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was somehow the first animated feature we’ve ever tackled as a Movie of the Month, so it was a huge letdown that we couldn’t say much in praise of one of my favorite artistic mediums on that platform. Rocker’s film felt like a morally offensive letdown by design, however, so I can’t feel too bad that we took the aging punk scenester edgelord’s bait. The South Park-era satirical brand of “Nothing’s offensive if everyone’s offended” shock humor has not aged especially well in the decade since Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release and Roecker’s own version of mall punk aesthetic has grown just as stale in tandem. The tastelessness of staging a Charles Manson-themed musical in a medium traditionally aimed at children isn’t what offends me about Roecker’s directorial debut; after all, my favorite filmmaker of all time, John Waters, was making comedies inspired by Manson’s real-life crime spree weeks after the Sharon Tate murders that I find hilarious & worthy of discussion. What’s offensive is that Roecker seems to believe his dweeb edgelord audacity is in itself a subversive act, when the work has no particular political ideology or purpose beyond the juvenile desire to offend. John Waters was politically angry; John Roecker was an apolitical clown who just wanted an excuse to show off as a Politically Incorrect subversive with friends & collaborators among the L.A. punk scene elite. Rocker’s crudeness in craft and disregard for moral decency aren’t what’s offensive about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!; what offends is the intellectual laziness of his aimless “satire” & his sycophantic need to attach his name to mall punk collaborators in high-profile bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI.

Roecker’s ideological laziness & punk-royalty sycophantry can only be further evidenced by his follow-up feature, the documentary Heart like a Hand Grenade. Presumably filmed around the same time that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was in production in the early 00s, Roecker’s follow-up is a document of the band Green Day’s recording studio sessions while making their hit 2004 album American Idiot. What’s remarkable about that timeline is that Heart like a Hand Grenade wasn’t completed & distributed until 2015, more than a decade after American Idiot’s release. That delayed release does not feel at all intentional either, as the film plays like a promotional ad for an upcoming creative project, describing at length what the album is going to be and what Green Day fans should expect from the band’s mid-career shift into politically-charged art, when it should feel like a look back at a past accomplishment. American Idiot ultimately did not need Roecker’s promotional help, as it rode the aughts’ anti-George W. Bush political rhetoric to the greatest financial success of Green Day’s then already decade-long career. Roecker would have to strive pretty hard to justify releasing a feature-length promotional ad for that record a decade after its success was already solidified, then, and Heart like a Hand Grenade fails to accomplish that on any count. Padded with full-length music videos, live performances, and studio downtime shittalking, the decade-late documentary struggles to justify its own existence beyond shrewdly cashing in on mall punks’ continued interest in the album and allowing Roecker to show off his friendship & collaboration with the band. Roecker mythologizes a phone call lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made to him about documenting the album’s production and films himself mugging in a recording studio mirror, inserting himself into a supposedly iconic moment in mall punk history. Heart like a Hand Grenade was too late to do Green Day any promotional favors; if anything, it muddles the band’s reputation of being political instigators at the time by associating them with Roecker’s apolitical non-ideology.

2004 was a lucrative year for anti-Bush protest art. Agitated by the War on Terror, unexpected successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Daily Show, and Team America turned cultural unrest with the US’s empirical response to the World Trade Center attacks into major profits. Even pop-country darlings The Dixie Chicks got in on the anti-Bush sentiment, despite operating far outside traditional counterculture circles. Green Day’s American Idiot album was one of the many benefiters of that political unrest, leading to the band’s greatest period of popularity to date & even a Broadway stage musical inspired by the album. Heart like a Hand Grenade completely undermines the perception that the album was a deliberate act of anti-Bush political protest, so it’s probably best (for the band’s profit margins) that Roecker’s film arrived long after the album’s success was solidified. Multiple times during studio sessions, band members boast to Roecker’s camera “Politically on this record, we don’t really have an agenda, not against a particular politician […] The song ‘American Idiot’ isn’t really saying, you know, this politician is wrong, this is wrong. It’s saying I want to think for myself.” The band tries to have it both ways, crafting a concept album about “a lower middle class American adolescent anti-hero” named “Jesus of Suburbia”, but also keeping its “anti-establishment” politics so vague & aimless that it means nothing beyond juvenile posturing. Roecker attempted the same spineless bullshit with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, claiming in interviews that the film had some vague sentiment about blindly-followed political leaders that likens Bush to Charles Manson, but including no actual anti-Bush satire in the work itself. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! didn’t manage to ride that vague anti-Bush protest sentiment to the heights of American Idiot’s commercial success (thankfully), but both conceptual musical pieces share a common mall punk non-ideology. They exploit a privileged position of performative subversion that looks like politically pointed satire, but actually has nothing to say once you look past the punk-costumed surface. Green Day was just slightly better at promoting their ideologically empty non-provocation to great commercial success, with no substantial help from Roecker’s camera.

I will concede that empty political non-ideology & self-promotion as a noteworthy L.A. mall punk scenester are not the only signifiers of what makes a John Roecker film. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! & Heart like a Hand Grenade share enough overlap in art direction & mall punk aesthetic to suggest that Roecker is somewhat of a visual auteur. The crude hand-drawing collage of Heart like a Hand Grenade’s intro & its mid-film sci-fi skit where Green Day is interviewed 1,000 years in the future both recall the general aesthetic of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Heart like a Hand Grenade also opens with a title card command to “Play this movie fucking loud!,” recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s similar title card warning that it is “Not for the easily offended.” The Green Day documentary even includes a tangential anecdote about a studio fire reenacted by dolls, recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s stop-motion medium. This shared mall punk aesthetic looks like a preteen’s middle school notebook, just short of hand-drawn “Anarchy” & Dead Kennedys symbols being scribbled in the margins. The middle school mall punk is the perfect target demographic both for Roecker & for his Green Day cohorts, as deliberately vague political rebelliousness & desire to shock The Masses are the source of punk’s attractiveness to that age range. D.I.Y. ethos & more focused anarcho ideology are something punks grow into as they learn to look past the safety pins & hot pink mohawks that signify the culture to those outside it looking in. Roecker’s version of punk, as evidenced by his two feature films, never dug any further past those surface signifiers to achieve any of the substantial ideology or political action punk offers outsider artists & alienated youth. Maybe his mall punk ideology has deepened & gathered nuance in the 15 years since his two features were initially in production, but Heart like a Hand Grenade’s 2015 release date suggests there hasn’t been much change at all, if any. It’s a release that not only reflects the worst assumptions about Roecker you can infer from Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, but it also damns mall punk staples like Green Day through association with his brand.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is just about the phoniest movie you’ll see all summer, but that’s by no means an unintentional effect. The movie opens with the giant hotel lobby setting, swanky music, and block lettering text of an Old Hollywood comedy – promising all the laughs, romance, and lavish imagery you’d expect from that traditionalist fare. The main update to the formalist Hollywood spectacle offered in Crazy Rich Asians is the one indicated by its title. This is a type of film usually populated by and targeted at white people reclaimed for a more historically underserved demographic. While the romantic comedy and wealth porn pleasures offered by the film are generic to the point of pastiche, its Asian & Asian-American cultural context anchor them to a specificity & a social politics POV that distinguish it from the phony Hollywood fare we’re most used to seeing on its scale. It’s damning to the reputation of mainstream filmmaking to consider that this well-behaved, phony romance spectacle is a subversive work merely for casting non-white leads, but that’s how representation-starved most POC audiences are on the pop culture landscape. Crazy Rich Asians is both a cookie-cutter Hollywood romance fantasy we’ve seen plenty times before, and paradoxically a political breakthrough for a cultural dinosaur that’s stubborn to change with the times.

The romcom A-plot pretty much writes itself. An NYU economics professor falls for a hunky bachelor who describes his family as “comfortable,” but is secretly one of the wealthiest lines of unofficial royalty on Earth. The “What if you accidentally married a prince?” fantasy offered in the film only takes on a specificity & a subversion when adapted to its cultural setting. Here, an Asian-American academic with a poor immigrant mother is dropped into a fish-out-of-water fantasy where she meets her secretly-wealthy beau’s absurdly monied family in the most extravagant corners of Singapore. Her culture clash of being an Asian-American woman in an alienating Asian environment is best exemplified in her icy relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who subscribes to traditionalist divisions of class & culture that make her an unworthy candidate to marry into the family. The wedding preparation drama, makeover montages, and social power struggles that result from that conflict are all genre-faithful romcom material, but the specificity of their circumstances are consistently distinct & defiantly foreign. It’s no surprise, then, that Crazy Rich Asians’s best strengths lurk in the details outside its main romance plot.

Since Crazy Rich Asians is largely faithful to the familiar payoffs of Old Hollywood spectacle & the romcom genre, its more distinguishing details are hiding in the periphery. The wealth porn on display in Singapore’s more extravagant settings play almost like a travel ad, but that same luscious photography being applied to street food & homemade dumplings is a more rarified, gorgeous wonder. The central conflict established in the main romance is familiar to the genre, but the comedic sensibilities of weirdo side characters played by Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos are an anarchic presence that transform that genre formula into a new, exciting beast. You just have to be all-in on the typical payoffs of romcom & wealth porn indulgences to fully appreciate those deviances; this is a fun, beautiful film, but it’s one that’s aimed directly at wide, mainstream audiences. Culture-clash drama between Asian & Asian-American people can be found in select small-budget indie films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; what’s significant about Crazy Rich Asians is that it balloons that perspective to a massive, big budget, Old Hollywood scale. If you’re more likely to watch an escapist fairy tale that’s unashamed of reliving Old Hollywood phoniness than a small-scale indie drama aimed at artsy fartsy types, the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is a revelation. Old Hollywood romantic spectacle has been a traditionally all-white affair, so it’s wonderful to see that hegemony broken up by something so unashamedly fun & beautiful, even if narratively generic.

-Brandon Ledet

A Touch of Zen (1971)

I’m not the most patient of audiences; while I may be impressed by the technical achievements of a three-hour epic from a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s unlikely that type of grand-scale exhibition of auteurist hubris will ever fully steal my heart. My favorite films are often low-budget, D.I.Y. outsider art projects that could comfortably fit on a drive-in double bill, less than half the length of what anyone would considered an epic. That impatience keeps me at a fearsome distance from the wuxia genre, a subset of martial arts cinema that adapts action movie payoffs to Chinese historical epic narratives. Until recently, I’d only ever seen the Hollywood bastardizations of the wuxia aesthetic that arrived in the early 2000s: Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger was the more transcendently beautiful of the pair, but Hero was much closer to a speed I could easily keep up with in my hyperactive, cheap thrills-craving mind. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the goofier, trashier genre payoffs of Hero were not at all uncommon with the classic Chinese wuxia epics that preceded it. Wuxia films can be long, reflective, and overly patient, but they can also be wildly goofy in their isolated genre thrills. I recently took a rare opportunity to see one of the defining films of the genre, King Hu’s 200min epic A Touch of Zen, in digital restoration on the big screen and was surprised to discover how much over-the-top, delirious fun it was willing to have with its martial arts payoffs, as patiently as they arrived. A Touch of Zen was basically the goofiness of Hero at the austere pace of Crouching Tiger, giving me a much better understanding of what the wuxia genre can offer, as long as you’re willing to afford it over three hours’ running time.

Oddly, my impatience with A Touch of Zen mostly manifested in its first hour, which is largely expository & action-free. The opening beats of the film are a slow-motion sinking into Nature, patiently observing the mountainside greenery & nighttime spiderwebs of Japanese provinces in an establishment of the film’s upcoming dichotomy in settings. This Nature photography serves as the film’s overture (there would be no intermission, unfortunately), the exact kind of mood-setter you’d typically expect from an overlong epic. The story it serves is an episodic journey that begins with a small-town artist living frugally with his overbearing mother in an abandoned temple. With no ambitions outside painting portraits & surviving the ghosts he’s superstitious of in their spooky squat, he dodges all pressures from his mother to marry & to become a respectable government bureaucrat. This changes with the arrival of a mysterious woman who takes residence in a neighboring squat, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost before taking her as a lover. The woman proves to be a fugitive from the Empire who, while in hiding, builds a small militia of martial arts masters to challenge the tyranny of encroaching government goons. In a gender-reversal of the typical damsel in distress dichotomy, she protects the artist from Empirical harm as their affair puts him at risk, fighting off entire armies with her physics-defying fighting skills while he cowers in awe. The affair eventually drags the artist away from the comfort of his “haunted” squat into a treacherous, spiritual journey in the wild mountainside terrain. The resulting battles are shockingly violent, spiritually transcendent, and often unashamedly silly, but require a patience with a quiet, darkly lit exposition that nearly constitutes the typical runtime of the smaller-scale genre gems I’m more used to watching. It’s the kind of slow-moving pleasure that’s greatly benefited by being experienced in the distraction-free environment of a theatrical screening; I just didn’t expect that its first act would be the most difficult to remain awake for.

A Touch of Zen is most impressive for its extravagant set pieces. Like the two most recent American action films to receive near-unanimous critical praise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout & Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is for the most part an episodic sequence of successive set pieces; it just happens to start with an hour of pre-action exposition that affords it the shape of a historical epic. The same gravity-defying, physics-transcending martial arts spectacle that’s become synonymous with the wuxia genre because of Crouching Tiger (at least in America) is on full display in A Touch of Zen. Warriors hop over roofs & take their swordfights to the impossible heights of treetops, lightly traveling across flimsy branches that could not support their weight short of an act of magic. The two most remarkable set pieces are an elaborate haunted house-themed prank involving mannequins & a cliffside confrontation with monks who can trigger forced enlightenment in their opponents with a strike to the skull. In isolation, they’re beautiful, admirably humorous achievements in pure cinema bliss. The question is whether they fully serve the needs of a larger epic when considered in sequence, of which I’m not so convinced. I’m always going to be on the hook for a story about a badass female warrior who takes on an entire empirical government, as ACAB. When considered as a whole, however, the sequencing of A Touch of Zen’s set pieces doesn’t appear to achieve a clear, fully satisfied narrative arc, but rather feels like a couple isolated pages torn from a much longer book. That’s a lot to ask for a film with a 200min runtime, no matter how occasionally transcendent. Maybe a greater familiarity with Chinese history referenced in the film would reshape how I think about how the episodic set pieces come together as a whole. As a trash-gobbling genre film enthusiast with an embarrassingly short attention span, however, I found the film’s payoffs to be a little too spread out & mired in mood-setting Nature photography to full convince me that I need to sink further into the niche cinema of wuxia epics. The film did initiate me to the full beauty & unashamed goofiness that the genre is capable of in a way I wasn’t previously aware, which is almost enough to convince me to push through my childish impatience to pursue this subject further.

-Brandon Ledet