Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

The House Bunny (2008)

The first time I ever really took note of Anna Faris was in 2009, watching the cult comedy Observe & Report with a few friends in an otherwise empty theater. Until then, I was mostly aware of Faris from the Scary Movie franchise, where she was burdened with performing a brutally unfunny parody of the Final Girl archetype from teen slashers. In Observe & Report, Faris found her sweet spot in a much darker, more incisive parody of the Dumb Blonde trope, a truly amazing, upsetting performance that haunts you long after her punchlines are supposed to relieve that tension. It felt like the delayed arrival of a formidable comedic talent, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up and give her bigger, more complicated roles to extrapolate on that dark, chaotic humor.

It turns out I may have missed out on Observe & Report‘s closest competitor as a darkly funny Anna Faris showcase by just a year. 2008’s The House Bunny even features the underutilized actor as its titular lead, a performatively ditzy (but secretly sharp-witted) Playboy Bunny who struggles to adapt to life in The Real World once she ages out of her usefulness as eye candy at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. She quickly adapts by finding a new coven of undervalued women who need her aggressively bubbly outlook to survive life & men’s nonstop cruelties: an unpopular, poorly funded sorority house on a nearby college campus. The resulting underdog story is a classic Animal House-style college campus comedy, in which a small crew of nerdy outcasts learn self-confidence and earn their right to exist in spite of the protests of The Dean & the more popular (i.e. wealthier) kids. And Faris is dead center of this slobs vs. snobs battleground, living her full Marilyn Monroe smart-ditz fantasy.

Sounds perfect, right? How I wish it were. The House Bunny shows flashes of the dark, subversive humor I was hoping to see more of after Observe & Report – a feminist streak assumedly stirred up by screenwriters Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, the same writing team behind Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, that sentiment is openly at war with the Bro Humor of the film’s production company, Happy Madison, which plays to the ugliest, most politically malevolent tendencies of mainstream American comedy. The very first gag of the film is Faris explaining in voiceover that she was abandoned at an orphanage’s doorstep in a basket, then her birth parents asked for the basket back. It’s a funny, concise, familiar introduction to the shitty life she’s endured since birth, conveying the exact lack of a safety net that would drive a person to survival-based sex work (even at as seemingly quaint of an institution as Playboy). Then comes a rapid series of jokes at the expense of homeless people, Latinx day workers, trans women, and the very sex worker contingent the movie initially seemed sympathetic toward.

I’m not going to exhaustively catalog the various moral or political offenses The House Bunny racks up over its 100min runtime, if not only because moral offense is the exact transgression these bro-friendly Sandler Crew productions thrive on. It’s just worth noting how deeply strange this film is in its continuous self-conflict. There’s a violent tug-of-war between it sympathizing with a ditzy blonde archetype that mainstream cinema usually treats as a passive, victimized sex doll and punching down at the expense of anyone who’s not Normal (read: straight, white, cis, attractive, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.), including that very same ditz. Ultimately, the Legally Blonde Redux undertones win that battle, if not only because Faris is funny enough to pave over the mood-killing Bro Gags that frequently interrupt her schtick. There are plenty of genuine laughs throughout. At the same time, the film often feels like a time capsule distillation of the worst impulses of the Paris Hilton 2000s and the Happy Madison brand at large (I didn’t even get to the grotesque ad placements or the bargain-bin CGI). I almost wish it were made a decade later so Faris’s darkly subversive performance could have shined without all that baggage.

Maybe now that Faris has recently freed herself from CBS Sitcom limbo (after 152 episodes of Mom) she can fulfill her obvious potential in a comedy with a lot fewer groans. It’s been a long, frustrating wait knowing she’s great and not seeing her given the proper space to shine. Although glaringly imperfect, at least The House Bunny tried.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Equation to an Unknown (1980)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

 

Matching Escort (1982)

Taiwanese martial arts entertainer Pearl Chang (aka Ling Chang) is mostly remembered in genre nerd circles for one accomplishment: the Bargain Bin Wuxia epic Wolf Devil Woman, in which she stars and directs. Chang had an expansive, regionally popular career in both film & television for years, but much of her output as an actor has been lost to archival rot, while half of her directorial efforts were miscredited to male pseudonyms. However, you only need to look to her uncredited directorial debut for it to become immediately apparent that Wolf Devil Woman was not some fluke in Chang’s career where she accidentally stumbled into Midnight Movie greatness. 1982’s Matching Escort telegraphs enough of the exact wuxia-on-the-cheap surrealism she’d soon expand on in Wolf Devil Woman to position Chang as a full-blown auteur. It’s shameful that so much of her output was allowed to slip through the archival cracks (especially her TV series The Protectors & Armed Escort) and that only one of her four public-domain feature films has been canonized as cult-worthy schlock. As soon as she debuted her filmmaking talents in Matching Escort, it was clear that Chang had a specific, highly stylized POV even while remaining limited to the parameters of low-budget wuxia. Credited as the producer, writer (alongside ninjasploitation shclockteur Godfrey Ho), and “planning director”, Chang was in total control of the film’s bizarro look & tone, and its overlap with her more widely celebrated accomplishments in Wolf Devil Woman suggests that she knew exactly what she was doing in that position.

Story-wise, there’s nothing especially innovative about Matching Escort. It follows a very familiar tragedy→training→revenge template, in which Chang’s tread-upon protagonist overthrows the evil emperor who slaughters her village & family in the first act. It’s purely the film’s stylization that makes it wonderfully distinct to Chang’s sensibilities. Her broad humor, rapid-fire editing, dramatic costume changes, and D.I.Y. psychedelia are all consistent to the exact tones & tropes of Wolf Devil Woman, just with a few of the details scrambled for variety. Instead of the evil emperor wearing a rubber Halloween mask, he operates a lethal prototype of the Nintendo Power Glove. Instead of training for revenge among wolves in an ice cave, Chang’s hero incubates in a Hellish underground cavern under the tutelage of a kung fu master known as The Silver Fox (whom she sometimes teasingly refers to as “Uncle Strange”). She doesn’t wear anything as outrageous as the plushie doll “pelt” that tops off her signature look in Wolf Devil Woman, but her transformations from victim to trainee to warrior are all marked by similarly exaggerated costume changes. Although Matching Escort was produced & initially released a year before Wolf Devil Woman, it’s sometimes marketed as “Wolf Devil Woman 2,” as if it were a direct sequel (among other alternate public-domain titles like Venus the Ninja Wolf and Fury of the Silver Fox). That shameless post-mortem marketing somehow actually feels legitimate since there’s so much overlap in the two films’ DNA.

Noting the tonal & stylistic consistencies between Chang’s first two films is worthwhile for a couple reasons. Most importantly, it establishes that the broad slapstick humor, rapidfire edits, elaborate costume changes, and Spirit Halloween Store psychedelia of Wolf Devil Woman were not happenstances that Chang blindly stumbled into in her one cult-classic success; they were the distinguishing touches of a low-budget martial arts auteur. Additionally, I think comparing the two films is beneficial in counteracting the idea that Wolf Devil Woman is a “so-bad-it’s-good” novelty, or that Chang was somehow unaware of how over-the-top her tone could be. Matching Escort is just as cartoonishly stylized as Wolf Devil Woman (I particularly love the hand-made psychedelic flowers & plastic skeletons that decorate her training cave here), but it’s largely a more respectable, grounded picture in its minor variations. Without the rubber masks, plushie doll pelts, and Ed Woodian nature footage of Wolf Devil Woman, there’s much less room for irony-minded viewers to point and laugh at the film’s idiosyncrasies. You then have to take the geysers of stage blood, primary color gel lighting, aggressively choppy editing, and high-flying wire work at face value as delirious entertainments. I personally didn’t need the goofier details of Wolf Devil Woman to be stripped away to respect Pearl Chang as a martial arts performer & visual stylist, but Matching Escort is a valuable counterargument against naysayers who do. Now only if her work could be rescued from the hazy voids of archival rot & public domain transfers; it feels like her films are wasting away in a distant cave, impatient for their time to strike.

-Brandon Ledet

The Pool (2020)

I usually hate when a horror movie opens with a sneak preview of its own climactic violence, then rewinds the clock back to when everything to was peaceful just a few days before. It’s almost always a sign of the film not trusting its audience to be patient for the payoff, a cowardly reassurance that things will escalate if you hang around long enough. I’ll make an exception for the recent Thai creature feature The Pool, however, where that sneak preview serves an entirely different function. The film opens with its hero dazed & dehydrated at the bottom of a drained pool, fighting off a killer crocodile with only a bucket and few splintered furniture legs. In this case, the preview plays as a useful warning to the audience about the film’s budgetary restrictions. The CGI crocodile looks absurdly, unfathomably cheap, as if our sun-damaged hero is fighting a 2D photograph of a croc clipped out of a magazine. Instead of promising mayhem to come, the film is just being honest about the limits of what it can deliver, making sure the audience is on board with its bargain bin CGI upfront before wasting our time with less pressing concerns like dialogue, theme, or plot.

In essence, The Pool is a bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a young couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. Between The Shallows, Crawl, and 47 Meters Down, we’ve been gifted a few solid confined-space aquatic horrors in recent summers, which does put The Pool at a slight disadvantage considering the limited resources it’s competing with. It has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor, then, making sure the audience has a fun time even if not an extravagant one. In most of our hero’s attempts to escape the 6-meter concrete walls of his swimming pool prison, everything is just out of reach, amusingly so. A charger cord saves his phone from falling into the water just long enough for him to barely miss catching it; a Pizza Hut® delivery driver misses his calls for help because he’s briefly tethered to the drain by his wallet chain; a ladder lowered into the pool by strangers rolls away as he approaches it because it’s attached to a precarious stack of pipes. There are two major obstacles to survive in this picture: a cheaply rendered crocodile & an absurdist Rube Goldberg contraption designed specifically to keep him in place.

And then, just when you think The Pool is going to play everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Its flash-forward preview of the killer croc warns the audience of the film’s limited budget, but there’s no such accommodation for its wild shifts in tone. This is fun, upsetting trash that’s eager to push its limited scenario to its furthest extremes, alternating between slapstick gags & vicious cruelty without much notice. I will not spoil the shock value violence of its third act, so I’ll just report that I genuinely gasped once I got there. Weirdly, there’s also a thematic undertone to the film that suggests it might be Pro-Life propaganda. Otherwise goofball characters discuss in severe, worried tones about how “abortion is illegal, and also a sin”, and the killer croc herself only really lashes out to protect her eggs from being eaten by her fellow starved prisoners. I honestly don’t know what to make of that thematic swerve, nor do I know what to make of the film’s harsh shifts from broadly comedic schtick to nasty ultraviolence. All I can say is that I’m impressed that a film this cheap & this unassuming managed to surprise me at all, especially considering its reliance on a flash-forward prologue.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

It took me a long time to learn that it’s unnecessary to force yourself to care about every movie & filmmaker that’re widely deemed Important. What I’m working on learning now is that it’s also unnecessary to broadcast the fact that you don’t care; it’s okay to just stay out of the conversation when they come up. It turns out that second lesson is much more difficult, which is why I’m reviewing a Charlie Kaufman movie even though he’s not really My Thing. After finding both Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa incredibly frustrating (even if formally interesting), I should have known better than to indulge Kaufman’s latest 135-minute mind-flattener, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Every one of his pretentious meta-crises has ecstatic defenders who find them to be the height of postmodern screenwriting and zealous buzzkills who find them to be morally repugnant drivel. By now it’s crystal clear that I’m not among either camp. Even just a few days after I’m Thinking of Ending Things premiered on Netflix, there’s already a sea of lengthy tomes praising its genius or its decrying its crimes against pop entertainment (or, more relatably, against the inner lives of women), but all I can really muster is a half-hearted “Meh.” I think that means it’s time to walk away from discussing this particular filmmaker, possibly forever.

To be totally honest, I already knew it was time to walk away. I was going to skip this film entirely until I read that Jessie Buckley (who still hasn’t earned sufficient accolades for her work in Beast) was starring in a trippy meta-horror about a psychological break with reality. That sounds like My Thing. I was on the hook for what I’m Thinking of Ending Things was up to for at least its first hour, wherein Buckley suffers a miserable, real-time road trip in a snowstorm to meet her boyfriend’s grotesquely annoying parents. The title is a refrain that Buckley repeats on loop in her constant internal monologue (hidden behind her trademark constant smirk), referring both to suicidal ideation and to her desire to break up with her pretentious asshole boyfriend (Jesse Plemons). Once they reach the horrifically awkward meet-the-parents dinner, the film shifts into an Exterminating Angel type existential crisis, where there’s no way to back out of the monogamous courtship ritual that led them there and all momentum is leading towards them aging into the same hideously uninteresting husks as the boyfriend’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). That is, until it stops caring about Buckley’s character entirely and goes all in on the pretentious asshole’s inner life instead – territory that Kaufman has covered all too extensively in his past work.

There’s a lot to admire here, which is always true of Kaufman’s films to some extent and always makes them even more frustrating when considered in totality. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tackles a lot of the universally relatable indignities of romantic courtship & growing old in the most obscure, unrelatable ways possible. It has an chillingly effective way of shifting minor details like wardrobe, set design, and characters’ entire identities to disorient the audience within its nightmarishly Ordinary hellscape, which works in its favor when it’s aiming for a Lynchian horror mood (complete with closed captions that read “[wind howling]” for Twitter-ready screengrabs). I’ll even admit that I was amused by its self-hating pretentiousness at times, especially in its absurdly lengthy allusions to outside texts like poems, musicals, and Pauline Kael movie reviews. Still, as engaging as the film could be intellectually, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to care about where it was going or what it was saying, especially once it left the hellish parental dinner of the second act.

This film is fine overall, I guess, but I personally got a lot more out of Vivarium‘s amused hatred of aging & monogamous courtship with nearly an hour less investment. It’s probably best that I walk away from the already excessively vast conversation surrounding I’m Thinking of Ending Things without saying more than that. I may not care much about what Charlie Kaufman is up to but, to quote his own screenplay (or maybe the film’s source-material novel), “It’s good to remind yourself that the world is bigger than inside your own head.” Hopefully by the next time he releases one of these self-indulgent meta-provocations I will have learned to leave the conversation to people who actually get something out of them, positive or negative.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast: All About Almodóvar

Welcome to Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna continue their Movie of the Month conversation about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by discussing the career highs of provocateur director Pedro Almodóvar. They particularly focus on his award-winning hot streak between All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).

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

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer,  Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.

The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.

Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?

Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.

Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?

Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?

Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?

Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.  I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here.  It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled.  Ivan, I could live without.  If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.

My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho.  When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque.  She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho).  Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party.  It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).

My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality.  The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop.  Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice.  Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact.  I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot.  There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing!  I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.

Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.

Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide).  It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.

Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bat Pussy (197?)

Bat Pussy has proudly earned two distinguishing titles in the annals of schlock history. It’s believed to be both the first feature-length Porn Parody film and the absolute worst porno ever made. The first claim is the most difficult to verify since no one knows exactly when Bat Pussy was made or who was involved in its production. The film was discovered in a Memphis porno theater store room in the 1990s. The only indications of its time of production are a 1970 issue of Screw Magazine featured heavily in its opening scenes and the fact that it was a contemporary spoof of the Adam West-starring Batman television show, which ended in the late 60s. Thus, the exact whos, whens, wheres, hows, and whys of Bat Pussy are likely never to be solved, other than in vague estimations like “sometime in the early 70s” and “somewhere in the American South.” What’s much easier to verify is that it is, in fact, a spectacular failure of a porno film and very likely the worst of its kind to ever achieve theatrical projection (and decades-delayed home video distribution through AGFA & Something Weird).

A bitter married couple have fumbling, non-starter sex after finding foreplay inspiration in an issue of Screw. They are aggressively Normal people working mostly unscripted, obviously just having a goof. As the couple feebly attempts to mutually perform oral sex, the man struggles to maintain an erection while the woman frets over the tussle’s damage to her beehive up-do. Unsure what to say or do as the sex is obviously going nowhere, they riff in a faux-agro banter, like a shittily improvised spoof of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where every other word is “motherfucker.” They’re incredibly Southern and likely just as drunk. The bedroom set where they’re fooling around echoes as if it were a cavernous warehouse instead of a private home. 35 minutes into the 50-minute runtime, the titular superhero Bat Pussy arrives to rescue the audience from these hostile, lazy sex acts. She’s immediately stripped of her superhero costume and joins the couple for an equally uninspired threeway, which continues until the production abruptly runs out of celluloid.

Obviously, the main attraction of this pioneering Porn Parody is Bat Pussy herself. The second she’s announced as Dora Dildo, aka The Mighty Bat Pussy, it registers as a huge relief, as her far-off Pussy Cave (later revealed to be an outhouse) is our only locational reprieve from the frustrated sex in the married couple’s “bedroom.” The hope is that Bat Pussy will break up the proceedings with some much-needed levity, but the reality is she takes her sweet time getting there. Apparently, her crime-fighting motivation is an urge to stop all citizens of Gotham from making “fucking movies” unless she is involved herself. Superpowered vaginal twitches alert her that the married couple is planning to make a porno without her involvement, so she dresses in her knockoff Batman costume (an awkward ceremony we watch in real-time), and speeds off to the couple’s “bedroom” via an exercise bouncy ball while nondescript surf rock drones in the background. It’s a hilariously vicious prank on the audience, then, that she’s immediately stripped of her costume once she arrives at the couple’s bed, joining the impossibly shitty sex instead of putting a stop to it.

Dora Dildo is too limited of a player here to totally save the movie from its aggressively unerotic tedium, so the remainder of its entertainment value lies in its Ed Woodian incompetence. The most alarming, memorable moments are when the three actors are unsure about what to do next in bed, and fearfully look to the crew behind the camera for direction (which is sometimes audibly shouted back to them mid-scene). Those frequent fourth wall breaks feel like a violation of an unspoken artist-audience agreement and add an even more sinister tone to the endlessly awkward sex that eats up most of the runtime. My favorite moment of the entire picture results from the mean-drunk husband repeatedly referring to Dora as “Batwoman” in the midst of their threeway, until his costars finally can’t take it anymore and correct him, “It’s Bat Pussy!”. Then they all laugh. It’s moments like that and the bouncy-ball Pussymobile that make me want to hail this film as classic underground schlock, but the eternal belligerent improv that fills the gaps between them are too torturous to fully forgive. Bat Pussy may very well be the worst porno film I’ve ever seen, bless its drunken Southern heart.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.

If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.

Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.

I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.

-Brandon Ledet