Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast: Truth or Dare (1991) & Madonna’s Erotic Era

Welcome to Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss Madonna’s erotica period in the early 90s, starting with a behind the scenes documentary on her iconic Blond Ambition Tour, Truth or Dare (1991). Enjoy!

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

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Movies to Stream at Home This Week 5/28/20 – 6/3/20

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

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

Streaming with Subscription

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)– From my review: “The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

Black Moon (1975) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Black Moon is extremely surreal. It has the rare quality of having the most dream-like logic of any movie I’ve ever seen. I frequently have sort of stressful dreams where I’m running in and out of buildings and rooms struggling to find something. The something is always vague. Watching this movie kind of put me into a familiar, trance-like state, which I’m not entirely sure if that’s a positive or negative attribute. In a way I think is dreamlike surrealism finds its own kind of horror whether intentionally or not.” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy.

The Neon Demon (2016) – From my review: “I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.” Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and for free (with library membership) on Hoopla.

Streaming VOD

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) From our Movie of the Month discussion: “A lot of what we think of as the hippie-dippie 60s came very late in the decade. The era-defining Summer of Love was in 1967, the same year Roger Corman dropped acid for the first time and fictionalized his experience in the film The Trip. The Masque of the Red Death‘s 1964 release positions the film as years ahead of its time. Corman was pulling off the Satanic psychedelia vibe the same year that Mary Poppins & My Fair Lady were huge cultural hits. I’m not saying Masque was particularly a major influence on the countercultural swell that was to come, but it at least was somewhat visually intuitive. And Corman himself did have direct influence on the later films that typified that counterculture, films like Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. Even back then, when ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30’ was a motto to live by, he was the hippest geezer in the room and a filmmaking rebel.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Peeping Tom (1960) From my review: “It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing pornography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho and predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Crimes of Passion (1984) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “In some ways Crimes of Passion, a 1984 sex thriller starring Kathleen ‘Serial Mom‘ Turner as a fashion designer by day & prostitute by night, is the prime example of Russell’s self-conflicting nature. It’s a visually stunning work that uses a Bava-esque attention to lighting to create an otherworldly playground of sexual fantasy & escapism, but it’s also just pure smut. It occasionally attempts to laud the virtues of sex work, but also uses the profession as a means to leer at naked bodies. It reads like an intentionally cruel vilification of marriage & monogamy that also has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of self-righteous religious piety, but it’s also just a long string of dirty one-liners like ‘Don’t think you’re getting back in these panties; there’s already one asshole in there.’ Crimes of Passion is thoroughly bewildering in its refusal to be engaged with as either high art or low trash, but instead insists that audiences simultaneously appreciate it as both. In other words, it’s pure Ken Russell.” A $2 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Jubilee (1978)

“If the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.”

The only Derek Jarman film I had seen until recently was his AIDS-haunted arthouse whatsit The Garden, which was just as depressing as it was confoundingly anarchic. I was prepared, then, for the doom-and-gloom overtones of his late-70s punk epic Jubilee, but I was not at all prepared for the film to have an actual plot – you know, with named characters and a linear progression of events. The Garden trained me to think of Jarman as an experimental artist who worked more in provocative, disjointed tableaus than in anything resembling narrative. By comparison, Jubilee feels like his version of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. His reverence for potent, abstracted imagery still overpowers his interest in telling a purposeful story, but there’s just enough narrative structure in Jubilee to hang those provocative images off of without ever feeling like the film is treading stagnant water. It’s only well-behaved when considered in juxtaposition with Jarman’s more experimental work, but that slight accommodation was the exact leg up I needed to fully get on his wavelength.

To be fair, Jubilee likely also resonated with me because it thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story here, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk nihilism & stage dressing of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest. Crass already declared that “Punk is dead” in 1978, only a year after the scene had broken out of its urban subculture dungeons to reach a wider audience through proper record distribution (and magazine-promoted fashion trends). Jarman seems to be on the same page but finds his own sense of beauty while gazing at the movement’s rotting corpse.

To access this futuristic vision of punk rock rot, Jarman first looks to England’s past. Out of idle boredom, Queen Elizabeth I tasks her royal alchemist to entertain her with a vision of the future. With the help of a goth theatre angel, the black magic ritual is a rousing success, transporting the queen to a near-future London that had been doomed by the prophetic Sex Pistols to have No Future at all. All art & culture has been decimated except for Top of the Pops & The Eurovision Song Contest, which have swapped out traditional Top 40s pop music for first-wave punk acts like The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Adam Ant. She mostly observes this dystopia through the daily goings on of one core group of female rebels: unrepentant degenerates with social ties to the pop music scene but anarchic personal politics that make them a target for police state oppression. There’s no sense of communal cohesion among these street-punk lowlifes, outside their disdain for wealth & the old-guard. One is a nymphomaniac; another would rather burn the entire world to the ground than ever have sex. One is a self-appointed fascist historian; another is an idealistic leader who believes their punk enclave is the future, etc. Their communal desires & politics are just as obscured as the intent of their pointless daily antics; the only clear message is that there truly is no future (and England’s dreaming).

I can’t pretend that I understand what Jarman was attempting to say with Jubilee any more clearly than what I picked up from The Garden. Both films are extremely difficult to decipher in the moment as they indulge in opaque images & dialogue, but both still communicate a personal & cultural feeling when considered in their entirety. In The Garden, that feeling was one of devastating post-AIDS grief. In Jubilee, it was a punk rock brand of nihilism that could only have been built on cultural foundations as fashionably hedonistic as The Sex Pistols and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which are both quoted in-dialogue with the hushed reverence that straight circles save for Bible verses. John Waters’s own femme punk dystopia, Desperate Living, was released a year earlier than Jubilee and made much more overt strides to turn the abrasive anarchism of punk subculture into populist entertainment (at least in a midnight circuit context); it very well may be my favorite film of all time. Jubilee falls more towards the experimental art end of that academic/populist spectrum, but it’s just as abrasive & (literally) trashy in its own jumbled nightmare interpretation of the time. It hit me right in my femme-punk sweet spot, and I’m more excited than ever to see what other stomach-turning tableaus Jarman’s filmography has to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Since the city’s stay-at-home orders took effect this March, I’ve watched no fewer than six (six!) fashion-related reality competition shows: Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Glow-Up. A major part of these shows’ appeal to me during the pandemic has simply been the pleasure of watching someone routinely complete an artistic project from start to end without taking a second’s pause. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting a lot of the downtime I’d usually dedicate to writing & illustrating by staring slack-jawed at my phone, endlessly scrolling through the same three or four apps long after I’ve drained them of their entertainment or informational value. These runway competition shows would have eventually snuck into my media diet with or without a global pandemic, however, since fashion is an artform I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in general. It’s probably the most vital artistic medium I’ve overlooked & undervalued throughout my life – an oversight I’ve been actively striving to correct in recent years. After tiring out on podcasts & documentaries, fashion competition shows have been an excellent crash course in the terminology & history of fashion as artform, but they aren’t the only resource that have guided me through this personal journey in recent months; they had a little help from a mid-00s romcom.

The Devil Wears Prada is more overtly about the fashion industry as a business rather than fashion as artform. Based off the memoirs of a disgruntled former assistant to longtime Vogue editor & industry tastemaker Anna Wintour, the film is presented as a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how stressful & cruel the industry can be for unsuspecting artsy types who get sucked into its orbit. It’s hardly the tear-it-all-down exposé that dating competition shows like The Bachelor got in the similar tell-all series Unreal, however. Instead, its peek behind the Vogue Magazine curtain is utilized as a backdrop for some fairly straightforward romantic comedy storytelling, which both helps & hurts its value as fashion-world insight. To its detriment, The Devil Wears Prada suffers the classic romcom problem of cornering its lead (Anne Hathaway, playing a fashion-ignorant academic who improbably lands a job at the fictional Vogue surrogate Runway Magazine) into choosing between two dweebs who don’t deserve her (a snobby line-cook who believes fashion is for vapid rubes and a publishing industry bigshot who believes she’s outgrown her former social circle). However, since the film mostly focuses on her terrified admiration of her boss (Meryl Streep as the tyrannical Anna Wintour avatar), it more or less gets away with that cliché. This is mostly a story about a woman falling in & out of love with fashion itself; the men she dates along the way are just accessories.

Hathaway may be the least convincing dumpy-nerd-next-door casting since Sandra Bullock play a l33t hacker in The Net. She’s a perfectly cromulent choice for a romcom lead, though, especially as the fashion-ignorant academic turns up her nose at an entire artform for supposedly being beneath her intellectually. By contrast, Streep is without question perfectly cast as a tyrannical auteur who barely speaks above a whisper but still has an entire industry groveling at her stilettoed feet. There’s rarely a crack in her emotional armor that reveals any vulnerability or trace of humanity, but she’s consistently the film’s most useful keyhole into the power of fashion as an artform (in her confident editorial eye) and its destructive nature as an industry (in the fear-based environment she runs as an employer). Streep is fascinating to watch, so much so that you never question why her least fashion-aware employee would stick around for the daily abuse – even when her closest friends do. In the film’s best scene, Streep delivers a distinct, cutting monologue about the couture to ready-to-wear pipeline that influences Hathaway’s dumpy lead’s daily life while she naively believes fashion to be an inconsequential frivolity that does not affect her personally. It affects & influences us all, maybe more so than any other modern artform, and the journey Hathaway goes on here is mostly in learning how to accept that inescapable truth and use it to her full advantage.

There’s nothing especially novel about The Devil Wears Prada in terms of craft; it looks & acts like almost any post-80s studio romcom you can name (which is especially apparent in its refusal to challenge the fashion industry’s addiction to weight-shaming). Its earned foundational respect for fashion as an artform is what really saves it from falling into total tedium, an accomplishment it could not manage without Streep’s steely presence as an industry figurehead. Hathaway holds her own as an audience surrogate despite her naturally glamorous beauty (in a role that makes her image-subverting turn in Ocean’s 8 even funnier in retrospect), as does Stanley Tucci as the fashion insider who teaches her that clothes equal confidence (a role that feels like the birthplace of Modern Tucci). This is somehow still Streep’s movie, though, even if she barely ever lifts a finger or speaks above a whisper. I’m not well-versed enough in fashion industry lore to comment on whether she captured Wintour’s specific persona accurately, but she’s effortlessly electric throughout the picture the way all enigmatic auteurs are within their own artistic fiefdoms. If nothing else, that monologue about the ready-to-wear pipeline really is an all-timer, maybe the most succinctly insightful summation of fashion’s undetected importance I’ve come across so far in my scramble to play catch-up.

-Brandon Ledet

Family (2019)

Nathan Rabin’s pop culture travelogue You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is one of my favorite books of the past decade – an incredibly empathetic portrait of two pop music subcultures who are too-often, too-openly mocked by outsiders: Phish fans & Insane Clown Posse fans. Of those two groups, it’s the juggalos who could use the empathy boost the most in their public esteem, especially after the mockery that accompanied the release of the Insane Clown Posse single “Miracles” (you know, the one with the magnets). To outsiders, juggalos are unfashionable, uncultured, low-intelligence dorks with a penchant for violence & a hideously tacky horror-clown aesthetic. The FBI even recently went as far as to classify them as a gang. By spending time amongst them on their own turf (and unexpectedly becoming a juggalo of sorts himself), Rabin discovered a different side of the much-mocked subculture. He found them to be a wide, dependable network of societal misfits who offer a chosen-family safety net to anyone who needs it. The public perception of juggalos is that they’re low-life, hedonistic criminals with no moral code. In practice, they’re shockingly wholesome and bonded by a strong sense of solidarity.

If you’re not fully convinced that gaining greater juggalo empathy is worth reading an entire book, maybe watching the 85min mainstream comedy Family is an easier sell. Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling stars as a family-negligent businesswoman whose self-absorption drives her niece to run away to become a juggalo. The film opens with a genuine, in-the-wild “You’re probably wondering how I got here” gag as Schilling stumbles through the annual juggalo convention (and open-air drug market) The Gathering in a clashing business suit & clown makeup lewk. While that introduction teases that the film will be fully immersed in the juggalo deep-end, most of its Insane Clown Posse content is saved for its final half-hour, once her wayward niece has already been indoctrinated into the “gang” as a full-blown juggalette. The movie’s eventually really sweet about juggalos as a subculture & a Family once it gets there, though, with all of the drug-addled, Faygo-soaked horror clowns banding together to help find a missing child who might be in danger. It’s an oddly touching portrait of an unfairly maligned community, one that feels very much true to how juggalos are portrayed in Rabin’s lengthier defense of their collective character.

Before its juggalo redemption arc hits its full stride, Family is fairly low-key in how it distinguishes itself as a modern comedy. Only Schilling’s presence as the family-ignoring, business-obsessed lead who eventually learns her lesson about what’s really important in life stands out as anything special, and only because Schilling pushes that archetype’s usual narcissism into an unusually dark extreme. Before it stumbles into uncharted territory at The Gathering, the film reminded me a lot of The Bronze in how it looks & acts like a normal mainstream comedy in all ways except in how it allows its lead to be incredibly selfish & cruel without worrying about whether audiences will find her “likeable.” Schilling’s absurdly self-absorbed lead is the perfect POV for a juggalo skeptic, as she’s skeptical of anything & everything that’s not a lucrative business opportunity or a tall glass of white wine. She’s deeply relatable to any of us who’ve found ourselves lashing out as closed-minded cynics who see everything in the world we’re not immediately interested in as total bullshit (I’ve been there, at least), and there’s something remarkably charming about her learning to be more open-minded & considerate from a group as low in her estimation as pot-smoking clowns who consider listening to novelty rap a lifestyle.

If Family falls short as a juggalo story, it’s in not affording as much of an inner life to the juggalette-niece character, played by Bryn Vale. She’s broadly characterized as an awkward social outcast in search of an empowering identity, so it makes sense that she’d find comfort in the all-accepting, outcast-embracing juggalo Family. A movie that focused entirely on her journey & inner-life could have played like an Insane Clown Posse-themed variation on Eighth Grade, which might have been even more fascinating than the low-key mainstream comedy we get here instead. Family gets by just fine distinguishing itself as is, however, establishing a peculiar, R-rated wholesomeness that’s just as darkly funny as it is oddly sweet. Schilling’s juggalo-skeptical audience surrogate is a perfect encapsulation of most people’s initial attitudes toward uncool, unfashionable subcultures on the wrong end of the poverty scale, and it’s just as satisfying to watch her learn to empathize with weirdos that far outside her comfort zone as it is relatable to watch her in full-cynic mode in the film’s opening act. It’s not as comprehensive of an argument for juggalo empathy as You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, but it’s just as funny & much more succinct.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to Stream at Home This Week 5/21/20 – 5/27/20

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

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

Streaming with Subscription

Society (1992)– From our Movie of the Month discussion: “Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way.” Currently streaming on Shudder, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and Tubi.

20th Century Women (2016) – From my review: “Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a ‘good’ man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never ‘got.’ Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.” Currently streaming on Netflix and for free (with a library membership) on Hoopla & Kanopy.

I Married a Witch (1942) – From Britnee’s review: “It’s very cliché to say that a film is ‘ahead of its time,’ but I can’t think of a better way to describe Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!” Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and for free (with library membership) on Kanopy.

Streaming VOD

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) – From my review: “It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: ‘It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.’ Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘s frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Queen of Earth (2015) From Boomer’s review: “As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and Queen of Earth manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.” A $4 rental on all major VOD platforms.

Innocent Blood (1992) – From our Movie of the Month discussion: “A decade after An American Werewolf in London, John Landis brought the public Innocent Blood, a movie about a French vampire in … Pittsburgh. Marie, the fey French vampire, decides to help herself to Pittsburgh’s criminal element. Mistakes are made, spinal cords are left intact, and before too long Marie and ousted undercover cop Joe are duking it out with a proliferating vampire Mob. There’s something for everybody! Stunts! Grotesque special effects! Gallons of blood! Strippers! Don Rickles! Innocent Blood is entertaining, weird, and a little self-conscious.” A $2 rental on all major VOD platforms.

-Brandon Ledet

Dildo Heaven (2002)

Schlock legend Doris Wishman made an honest-to-God, shot-on-video nudie cutie in the early 00s, about four decades after the nudie cutie genre was no longer of any real use to anyone (thanks to the legalization and increased accessibility of actual pornography). Wishman filmed Dildo Heaven in her 80s while working in a Florida sex shop called The Pink Pussy Cat (which is proudly featured in the film). She recycled footage from better-funded works in her heyday to pad out the runtime, further drawing attention to Dildo Heaven‘s jarring quality as a nudie cutie dislodged from its proper place in time. While it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of Wishman’s accomplishments as a smut-peddling auteur (that honor likely belongs to her 1970s collaborations with Chesty Morgan), it’s still a fascinating document of a filmmaker continuing to do her thing whether or not anyone else was interested. Wishman was the master of unerotic erotica, a schlockteur whose work prompted the question “Who is this for?” even when she was on top of her game; watching her stick to her guns four decades after appropriately-timed nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon only makes that question more humorously bizarre.

Three hot-to-trot roommates scheme to seduce their bosses: thoroughly uncharismatic men whose small-time authority make them irresistible to the bored nymphs. Meanwhile, the girls’ Peeping Tom neighbor (an adult man who dresses & acts like a schoolboy) occasionally checks in to hopefully catch them naked in their own apartment. That’s it; that’s the plot. As written-on-a-bar-napkin simple as that premise sounds, Wishman still felt the need to introduce each of these characters and their shallow motivations in an opening exposition dump, narrated like a movie trailer. This is mostly an effort to sweep any pedestrian narrative concerns out of the way so that she can get to the true business at hand: shoehorning in clips from nudie cuties, roughies, and other sexploitation ephemera from her heyday. In the laziest examples of this device, Wishman’s old movies happen to be playing on television while the girls are lounging around their shared apartment, waiting for the right time to jump their bosses’ bones. More frequently, the clips are integrated through the Peeping Tom’s adventures outside the apartment as he peers into keyholes, shrubs, and curtainless windows looking for some action. Even then, the clips are amusingly disjointed from the movie’s SOV reality, often represented with black & white film grain or roaming TV bars as if the Peeping Tom were tapping into an alternate dimension just on the other side of a keyhole.

If there’s any true letdown in Dildo Heaven, it’s that the movie doesn’t incorporate a lot of genuine dildo content. It mostly blows its load in an opening title sequence where deliriously repetitive images of clouds accompany a low-energy rap song about reaching for your dildo because it’s “HIV negative” and “fills the void” left by sexually unskilled men. Otherwise, there’s only one physical dildo that genuinely factors into the “story” Wishman tells. One of the three roommates purchases that dildo from the aforementioned Pink Pussy Cat after being haunted by the sex toys advertised in its display window on a casual afternoon stroll. This monumental purchase only really amounts to two significant moments: a nightmare sequence in which floating dildos swarm the poor girl’s bedroom while she tosses in her sheets and a hilariously dull Pink Pussy Cat store clerk explaining in exhausting, monotone detail the technical difference between a dildo and a vibrator. That’s hardly the dildo quota you’d think a movie would have to hit to declare itself a dildo heaven, but that kind of unerotic letdown is, in a way, Wishman’s personal stamp as an auteur. Her entire career was packed with sex movies that are thoroughly uninterested in sex – something that had to be a personal, artistic choice as she continued it into the long-obsolete days of early-2000s softcore.

Even beyond the absurd anachronism of brining the nudie cutie into the VHS era and the jarring frugality of Wishman pilfering her own back catalog, Dildo Heaven has plenty of minor quirks & gags that keep it entertaining as a lost trash relic throughout: winking fantasies where a man sprouts a second boner to facilitate a threesome, go-nowhere montages of girls idly hanging out on playground equipment while incongruous thriller music sets an ominous tone, a movie-length gag about the world’s cheapest wig, etc. Best of all, it’s readily apparent that Wishman was having fun while filming this unrepentant trash, enjoying her late-career celebrity as “The Female Ed Wood.” She allows herself a Hitchcockian cameo where she practically winks at the camera as she strolls by, directs a character to exclaim “What a cool magazine!” while flipping through an issue of Psychotronic Video, and even promoted the film on a legendarily bizarre episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien where she got to tease Roger Ebert for his boyish crush on Chesty Morgan. The best quality of the nudie cutie as a genre was that it was having lighthearted, knowingly campy fun with the idea of erotic titillation (a welcome contrast to the dark days of the roughies that followed). While the genre may have been long-obsolete by the time Wishman made Dildo Heaven, the novelty of that kind of playful, weirdly innocent erotica is eternal.

-Brandon Ledet

Detour (1945)

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet