Movie of the Month: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

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 Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch An Unmarried Woman (1978).

Boomer: Back in August I surrendered to the heat and, instead of walking down to Guadalupe Street to catch the Number 3 Cap Metro bus to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I took an Uber. My driver was an older man named Buzz, who asked what I was going to see, and I told him that they were doing a special showcase called “Women Under the Influence,” and that I was going to see An Unmarried Woman. “AH!” he said. “Jill Clayburgh. I remember going to see that one back in ’78 or ’79. What a performance.”

Buzz had a bunch of other stories, too, which he shared while we took a circuitous route to the theatre (he overshot by a mile or so and we had to turn back around): he had spent lots of time growing up in New Orleans and known the family that oversaw Galatoires; he had served overseas and seen a lot of native tattoo art, and regaled me with the way that American cultural attitudes about tattoos had grown and changed; when he lived in Hawaii, he used to play tennis Lolo Soetoro (aka former President Obama’s stepfather). With a life so full, one wouldn’t think that he would have space to remember going to see a movie forty years ago, but not only did he remember the movie, he remembered Clayburgh’s performance, which was my first clue that I was in for something really special.

Inspired by one of his wife’s recently divorced friends’ identification on a mortgage application as “an unmarried woman,” Paul Mazursky penned and directed a film with that appellation as the title. Erica Benton (Clayburgh) is a modern woman who seems to have it all: a loving husband with whom she’s casual but not caustic, intimate but independent; a smart, capable, socially aware teenage daughter; a great group of friends; a huge apartment with a lovely view of New York. This all comes crashing down around her when her husband admits that he’s fallen for a younger woman that he met while running a routine errand, and he intends to leave Erica for her. Suddenly single after seventeen years, Erica emerges into the newly sexually free world of the late seventies, only to find it as confusing as it is liberating, populated by gatekeepers and horndogs, friends and lovers, creeps and honest men alike, and none of them any less complex than she is.

This is a beautiful movie, from the sweeping shots of Erica dancing around her apartment, to her poignantly singing “Baby I’m Amazed” at the piano with her daughter, to the understated elegance of a dialogue-free skate around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. I would almost call it a perfect movie, save for one thing: I’m still a little disappointed that the film ends with Erica deciding to pursue a relationship with a man, albeit a decent and mostly likable one. In my vision of this as a perfect movie, the ending is more ambiguous about whether or not Erica will commit to a new partnership or continue to live as a single, not just unmarried, woman for a time before giving it another go, long term. Brandon, what do you think? Was this ending satisfactory for you, or would you have preferred a slightly tweaked one? How much, if any, do you think the era of this film’s production affected that ending?

Brandon: I would be in total agreement if the film ended with Erica following her new painter boyfriend to his yearly retreat into Nature with his family. She’s tempted by his offer to spend her days lounging around reading books, watching him paint, and forming a new idyllic family in the woods, but she ultimately rejects it in favor of staying behind in New York City to continue her personal work at the art gallery. That decision is a major personal crossroads for Erica, because the painter is essentially asking her to become a married woman again, to define her life by the needs & accomplishments of a husband, and she refuses. Even if she does remain romantically attached to the painter for the rest of their lives, she appears to be much more independently minded than she was when we first meet her as the dutiful wife of a business prick.

Instead of Erica caving to the painter’s relentless, childish insistence that she tag along, the ending we do get is something a little more lyrical. The boyfriend unloads a massive painting of his onto her as “a gift” and leaves her to carry it across the city to her new apartment all by herself. It starts out as a childish prank on the painter’s part, as he’s frustrated that he can’t control Erica’s behavior and finds a cheeky way to punish her for it. As the image of Erica dragging the painting through crowds & against gusts of winds develops, though, it stops being about the painter at all and starts reflecting more on Erica’s determination & resilience. Life is just as absurd & unmanageable of an obstacle as that painting, yet she carries on anyway.

That ending plays ambiguously enough for me as is. I’m not sure whether Erica’s new relationship with the painter will work out long-term, but I also don’t think it matters. Although the men in her life are certainly significant as a source of conflict, this is ostensibly a film about women. My frustration with watching Erica’s romance develop with the artist wasn’t in where they settle by the end credits, but rather in how much screen time the new boyfriend was siphoning away from the women in Erica’s life. I was fascinated by Erica’s headstrong daughter, her proto-Sex and the City gal pals, and her spellbinding therapist (played by Dr. Penelope Russianoff, a real-life NYC psychotherapist who specialized in helping women feel independent & self-sufficient outside male companionship). Any minute spent away from them in favor of profiling Erica’s relationship with a man felt a little like time wasted.

Paul Mazursky’s signature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was iconic for capturing the American sexual zeitgeist at the height of Free Love politics in the late 1960s. Nearly a decade later, An Unmarried Woman finds him attempting to do the same for the psychology of women’s liberation and its social fallout as traditional marital norms faded away. A major difference in his approaches to these works seems to be a choice of POV. While Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice spreads its POV across two couples, An Unmarried Woman is largely about Erica’s inner psyche, to the point where we’re invited to sit in on her most intimate therapy sessions & look in on her dancing alone in her underwear to Swan Lake as if no one is watching.

Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman benefited from focusing on Erica as our centering protagonist? Do you think Mazurksy could have said more about the state of The Woman in the late 1970s by spreading its POV around to include her daughter, her therapist, and her proto-Sex and the City crew, or were we better off anchored to a fixed, deeply personal portrait of one woman in crisis?

Britnee: Erica is such a likeable character, so I think the heavy focus on her experience as a single woman was what made this film so wonderful. However, my favorite parts of the film involved Erica’s interactions with her amazing group of friends and her fabulous therapist, Tanya. Experiencing the POV of all the wonderful women in this film sounds great, but there’s no way it would’ve turned out as cohesive as it did if the screen time was shared. I would have loved to see more focus on Erica’s relationships with the women in her life from her own POV. There was a little too much time spent focusing on her budding relationship with her boring artist lover. I wanted more fun nights out on the town with the girls and more sessions with Tanya. Having an such a prominent real-life therapist playing the role of Tanya is such a treat, and it’s a shame that we only got a few minutes worth of her advice and guidance.

I truly loved how An Unmarried Woman didn’t follow the same route as most other films that focus on women dealing with a cheating husband and failed marriage. Erica didn’t give her husband a pass on his mid-life crisis and fall into his arms when he came crawling back to her, and she didn’t seek revenge on her husband or his mistress. Erica had such an admirable attitude through it all. She invested her time and energy in herself and created a new chapter in her life.

As much as I like Erica’s character, she is a privileged white woman living in a high-end apartment in New York City, which means she has access to more resources to help her through her divorce (therapy, income, housing, etc.). In reality, most women going through a divorce don’t have it so easy, and this is especially true for the time period of this film. I think An Unmarried Woman could have benefited from incorporating some real-life struggles that newly divorced single mothers had to deal with in the late 1970s.

CC, do you think Erica’s character could have been more relatable?

CC: I thought this film was . . . fine. I loved the scene where Erica & her daughter belted “Baby I’m Amazed” together at their piano and I thought the scenes with her girlfriends and therapist were generally amusing, but overall I was just kinda . . . eh on the film as a whole. I do think that’s largely because I don’t relate to Erica or her struggles. The idea that she could go to a therapist and fully expect her ex-husband to fund her appointments is mind boggling. I’m sure we could all take the time to become happier, more independent people if we had the means, but many of us are too dependent on constant, never ceasing employment to ever take a moment just to figure out who we are and who we’d like to become.

As unrealistic as her financial situation may be, there were still several naturalistic scenes that resonated with me. The reason I loved the “Baby, I’m Amazed” scene in particular is because it felt like a genuine moment shared between real people. I found it both comical and fascinating that the two actors can’t sing especially well, but belt the entire song out with all their heart anyway. This sweet, joyous scene is as understandable as Erica’s wealth and privilege are incomprehensible.

Boomer, you also pointed out the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene as a highlight. Were there any other moments that stuck out to you as humorously or peculiarly naturalistic in the same way? Also, I assume Erica’s wealthy New Yorker life is no more relatable to yours than it is to mine, yet you seem to appreciate the film way more than I do. Was it the naturalism that stuck out to you as well or something else entirely?

Boomer: While I certainly find that Erica lived a more privilege life than most (I already mentioned the spectacular cityscape that can be seen from her apartment), I suppose that I was also primed to accept that Erica’s husband was indebted to her via their matrimonial arrangements even after their split by several seasons of Mad Men which showed Don Draper’s ex-wives receiving pretty hefty alimony payments while not working: Betty got to keep their house following their divorce and received consistent money from Don, and Megan got enough money to buy her own place in the LA hills despite not being able to make it financially as an actress. Those divorces (and the resultant alimony settlements) came in the sixties, but the seventies setting of An Unmarried Woman is closer in time to that period, when divorced women largely found themselves without any means of support post-separation due to the way society frowned on women having occupations outside of the home, and thus having huge gaps in their resumes if they were suddenly in need of employment. It’s a reflection on a particular time in American society from which we are removed by forty years of social and economic change, various movements for (and unfortunately against) wider roles for women in the workplace and in the upper echelons of management, and wider employment for women, despite continued income inequality for women and other sex- and gender-based biases that create unjust stratification in the workplace.

This was something that I found annoying when watching Mad Men as well–that Don, as much as I detested him, was so financially responsible for his former spouses despite no longer being legally joined to them–but like many things in that program, it exists as a reminder of that show’s thesis, that no matter how much we may feel the need to romanticize the past, the rampant injustices and social evils of that era (homophobia, sexism, systemic and individual racism, sexual abuse of spousal privilege, disrespect for natural resources, child abuse) must always be remembered and used to temper any nostalgic reminisces as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. That we are so far removed from the expectation that ex-husbands should prop up their ex-wives’ finances can lend itself to us being more unkind to women like Erica (and Betty, although not really Megan) than is strictly fair. The difference is that Mad Men was an intentional demonstration of this, while An Unmarried Woman is more of an unintentional period piece in this way, capturing a snapshot of American society at the time and the expectations that would have been normal when looking at Erica’s role (or lack thereof) in society, the economy, and her own family.

That’s not to say that Erica’s privilege isn’t something that can make the audience feel removed from (and thus somewhat unsympathetic toward) her trials and tribulations, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking that this New Hollywood/New Wave film chose to put the focus of this narrative solely on Erica and her friends. Compared to other female-led films that came out that same year, it’s not surprising that the film was so different from the status quo that it stood out enough to garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress: we have two “women in peril” horror/thriller films in the form of the original Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars; the abysmal sports/romance flick Ice Castles; the extremely controversial Louis Malle film Pretty Baby; and two disco queen vehicles, Diana Ross’s The Wiz and Donna Summer’s Thank God It’s Friday. An Unmarried Woman was genuinely something unseen before as it focused so completely on Erica’s journey, even if the changes in her life are made more manageable and navigable by her relative financial freedom, opening doors for other films to explore more down-to-earth scenarios about women who are not positioned as well as Erica was to explore her post-marriage life and psyche. That having been said, you’re not alone in your dismissal of the film’s messages on the basis of Erica’s privilege: Todd Gitlin and Carol S. Wolman wrote in the Autumn 1978 publication of Film Quarterly (unfortunately, only the first few paragraphs can be read without going over to JSTOR, which I can no longer access) that An Unmarried Woman “wants to capitalize on feminism” but “is more a cartoon about the condition of life among the Manhattan chic,” and that Mazursky’s films are “something of a melange of New Yorker stories and New Yorker ads” with this one in particular having “the familiarity of a string of cliches” (ouch). And this is coming from a contemporary criticism, not one that looks back at the film after decades. I certainly can’t dismiss your criticism (and I agree with you about much of it), but that didn’t stymie my appreciation.

As far as the scenes that struck me as particularly naturalistic, we’ve already noted the “Baby I’m Amazed” scene and the final scene in which Erica is forced to carry the large painting across New York, but the one that was most noted by the friend who saw the film with me last summer was the skating scene at Rockefeller center, a lovely bit of dialogue-free exploration of Erica’s newfound freedom. On a darker note, the scene in which Erica’s (much older) physician immediately attempts to flirt with her so soon after her divorce reflects an ugly truth about men in general and especially about men in a position of authority and who approach women at their most vulnerable (in this case, as both a recent divorcee and as his patient), and the scene in which Erica fends off the advances of one of her first dates in the back of a cab. There’s a naturalness to both these scenes that reveal something ugly about human nature, in contrast to the veritable incandescence of Erica in the scenes in which she is flying free, as when she dances or skates. The best, however, is in the moment she gathers up the reminders of her ex-husband and piles it all in one place, seeing for the first time how little he has truly left behind while also observing how dense his presence is: there’s not much there, but it weighs a lot.

Brandon, even in a film with such an intense focus on a singular character, it’s unusual for a movie to have its protagonist present in every single scene, as is the case here with Clayburgh. Can you think of any other films that are so tightly focused on a single character? Do they work as well as this one does, or not? Would this film have been any stronger if, for instance, there were scenes in which she was absent, or would that have weakened the overall movie?

Brandon: Because I very recently watched all of her feature films, Josephine Decker’s work is what most immediately comes to mind. In Madeline’s Madeline, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and Butter on the Latch, Decker also sinks her audience into the life & psyche of a single protagonist (typically a young woman on the verge of mental collapse), and wastes very little energy on the concerns of the world at large. The difference there is that Decker’s aggressively immersive filmmaking style is an overwhelming sensory experience where we filter the world outside the protagonist’s head through their own warped, disjointed interpretation of reality. Mazurksy’s approach here is more detached & academic. We exclusively follow Erica around New York City as she navigates her new post-divorce reality, but when her own inner thoughts & emotions are reluctantly dragged out of her by her therapist they’re less distinctively warped or personal. They’re more indicative of societal pressures on women in general than they are specific to one woman’s mind. I don’t think that difference in approaches indicates that either Decker or Mazursky are superior or inferior to each other as filmmakers. I think they’re just working at different goals (and in different eras). Decker’s arthouse sensory immersion style allows the audience to peer in on the very peculiar, singular POV of a character on the fringe, while Mazursky uses Erica as an indicative archetype of where The Modern Woman at large was in the late 1970s.

To that end, if Mazursky were to open this movie up to include other characters’ inner lives, the choice of where to expand is obvious. The other women in Erica’s life are all rich, nuanced characters despite their presence depending on her own narrative. Her daughter’s declaration that she will never marry because it’s a bum deal; her therapist’s quietly perceptive challenges to her self-policed desires; her friends’ own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and casual sex (especially in the arc involving Gilmore Girls‘s Kelly Bishop): all the women in Erica’s life have scene-stealing moments that suggest the film could’ve been more of an ensemble-cast narrative while having just as much to say about the state of The Woman in late-70s NYC. That’s a massive topic to cover in under two hours, though, so the film was probably better off as a concise, cohesive product by sticking to just one character’s POV and allowing the other women to develop sharply in the periphery. Expanding on their personae without losing sight of Erica’s journey would require seasons-long efforts of TV-style writing, as in the aforementioned Manhattanite programs Mad Men & Sex in the City that this movie occasionally recalls.

Part of the reason it’s so frustrating that An Unmarried Woman wastes time detailing Erica’s relationships with the men in her life is because they aren’t nearly as richly fleshed out as the women around her, who all could have used more screentime. From her skirt-chasing husband to the taxi cab groper to the numskull artists who hit on her at the gallery, the men in Erica’s life are cartoonishly simple buffoons. The most buffoonish of them all, a knuckle-dragging sculptor named Charlie, even boils down his life philosophy to the simple explanation, “There’s work, there’s food, and there’s sex. Nothing more.” Britnee, do you think An Unmarried Woman was purposefully trying to say something about the animalistic simplicity of men versus the emotional nuance of women in these characterizations or was that an accidental result of this being a film primarily about women? Were the men in Erica’s life ever as interesting to you as the women or were they just wasting valuable space?

Britnee: The women in Erica’s life were much more interesting than the men, but I think the men in the film were purposefully meant to be terrible. Mazursky was trying to show that it’s not so easy for newly single, straight women to jump into a new relationship with a decent man. Even in this day and age, I all too often hear people give the same advice to female divorcees: “You’ll find someone before you know it!” The truth is that not every man is a gem, and women have to deal with sleazy douchebags far too often. I can’t help but think of Charlie when I say “sleazy douchebag.” At the beginning, he seems to be a harmless pain in the ass that likes to eat sandwiches in art galleries. After Erica has a one night stand with him, he insults her in front of a huge group of people at a party because he’s jealous of her more serious relationship with Saul. Charlie obviously sucked, but his character was necessary to show the ugly side of being “single and ready to mingle.”

Speaking of men in Erica’s life, I didn’t really like Saul. He wasn’t a monster or anything like that, but he was so dull (and his paintings were terrible). I wish Erica’s first boyfriend post-divorce would have had more personality. CC, how did you feel about Saul? Would this movie have been better if his character was a little more interesting?

CC: Ugh, better not call Saul, am I right? But no, seriously, Saul was terrible. The bar of human decently was set so low for the men of this film and he barely squeaked by. All he had to do was not dump her for a younger woman & immediately crawl back (check), not call her a whore in a room full of people including her new boyfriend (check), and not attempt to assault her in a cab (check). He still manages to throw a temper tantrum, smashes a mug on purpose, and passive aggressively gifts Erica an unwieldy painting he assumes she will not be able to transport on her own as punishment. His art was as mediocre as his personality. I hope Erica dumps him the following winter, outside in front of her brownstone, and after she’s left to go back into the cozy refuge she’s created for herself a cab drives by and splashes frigid, NY garbage water on Saul.

Do I want Saul to be better? Do I wish Erica had met someone else that was more charming, kind, interesting, and talented? Honestly, not really. This film is about Erica’s transformation into an independent being and putting her back into a “perfect” relationship at the end would have shifted the message of the film: from, “Women should be happy, self-sufficient people who don’t need another person to give them meaning” to “If you work hard and become a better version of yourself, you’ll find your Mr. Right in no time.” A film that’s attempting to portray the realities faced by divorcees of a specific demographic in a specific time period should not try to shift style and end as a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies aren’t realistic, and by the end of this film Erica no longer needed that type of happy ending.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I’ll also chime in here to note that my dissatisfaction with Erica ending up in a relationship may have more to do with my dislike for Saul than my disinterest in her having a relationship at all.

Brandon: I absolutely love the opening scene to this movie. We enter Manhattan through a sweeping, saxophone-heavy 70s schmaltz style that promises a very calm, adult picture about serious, mature topics. Then, on a couple’s morning jog, Erica’s husband steps in a pile of dogshit and starts raving like a lunatic, recalling Mink Stole’s hateful rants at the top of Desperate Living. He exclaims, “This city’s turning into one big pile of dogshit!,” a hilarious opening note of seething anger that completely (and intentionally) undercuts the measured, mature credits sequence that precedes it. It’s a choice that smartly assures the audience the following film will not be humorless, despite the seriousness of its subject.

Britnee: I cannot shake the scene of Erica throwing up after finding out her husband is having an affair. I didn’t expect her to spew out vomit on screen. It was just so brutal.

CC: I really liked the metallic silver wallpaper in the bathroom of Erica’s home with her husband and I accidentally stumbled across a really similar print the other day:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: CC presents Love Me If You Dare (2003)
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2012)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

-The Swampflix Crew

Advertisements

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2018

1. Annihilation A beautifully terrifying tale of life, death, rebirth, and the trauma that haunts us throughout it all. On one level, Annihilation is just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Our bodies and our minds are fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part of our original form remains. The fact that the movie itself is its own creature separate from its source material novel also makes it an oddly fitting adaptation, since transformation and change is an essential part of its DNA.

2. Mandy The most metal movie of 2018 (and maybe even of all-time?). When Nicolas Cage axe-murders biker demons & religious acid freaks in an alternate dimension 1980s, Mandy is headbanging party metal, a blood-splattering good time. In its quieter moments it also captures a stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs version of metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

3. The Wild Boys An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part James Bidgood, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic. Both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender, it lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar.

4. Sorry to Bother You Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. Boots Riley’s debut is remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

5. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a purely Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. Since it trades on the worn-out clichés and tired tropes of the Scary Asylum genre to induce its ugly, cheap-thrills panic attack, it’s not the most original movie in the world, nor the most sympathetic or responsible. However, it does use that unlikely genre platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every tier of society.

6. Paddington 2 We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands. It’s timelessly wholesome, visually precious, and emotionally fragile – all while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. After praising so much exploitative horror & lowly genre trash year after year, Paddington 2 was a welcome change of pace for the crew. It lifted our spirits and made us want to be better people. (It even inspired James to learn how to make marmalade).

7. Hereditary Effectively gaslights the audience by starting as a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and grief before fully descending into the supernatural – striking an uneasy balance between heart-wrenching family drama & spine-chilling horror. Where Hereditary overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase to reach the big screen since Muriel’s Wedding.

8. Cam A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable nor protectable. It mashes up Unfriended-style user-interface horror about the Evils of the Internet with smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace. It’s excellently written, staged, and performed for a movie of its modest budget, one bolstered by subversive politics that will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly extraordinary for its subject & genre.

9. You Were Never Really Here Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. This is a powerful film about the tolls that violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul. It hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just in a way that makes you feel hollowed & alone.

10. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from that of-the-moment focus on social media. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our own past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world. It’s both a fresh, important coming of age story for modern kids and a timeless anxiety Litmus test for all ages.

HM. Dirty Computer An anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones of Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. Its story of non-conforming Others being captured to have their culture erased becomes such an explicit expression of Monáe’s own identity as a queer black woman in an increasingly hostile world, it reaches a point where a tyrannical government is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion. It’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #74 of The Swampflix Podcast: 2018’s Honorable Mentions & A Simple Favor (2018)

Welcome to Episode #74 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-fourth episode, the podcast crew continues our discussion of the Top Films of 2018 with some honorable mentions, including a Movie of the Minute discussion of the Paul Feig comedy-thriller A Simple Favor. Enjoy!

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

-Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and CC Chapman

CC’s Top Films of 2018

1. Dirty Computer – A feature-length series of music videos from Janelle Monáe that combine to tell the story of a dystopian future society where non-conforming others are captured to have their memories & identity erased. On the surface, it’s just one of the most visually lush works of artistic beauty in recent memory. Beyond that, it’s fiercely queer, femme, and black – the most defiant, punk thing you can be in modern times.

2. Sorry to Bother You – Remarkably well executed despite the sheer number of ideas it throws in your face, especially in how it handles its brazen, astonishing third-act rug pull. Still, its most impressive feat is how it captures the moment we’re currently struggling through, but somehow finds a way to make it even worse.

3. The Favourite – The costume drama & the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy wrestle each other in this tale of two women wrestling for their queen’s affections. I’m always onboard for costume dramas for their visual treats alone, but they are rarely as adventurous in storytelling or tone as this stunning examination of power, aggression, and desire.

4. The Wild Boys – An erotic fever dream that’s part Guy Maddin, part William S. Burroughs, and part Treasure Island adventurism. Its visual experimentation, transgressive gender politics, and surreal depictions of sexual violence achieve an unusually focused version of imaginative dream logic.

5. Cam – The best horror film of 2018 is set in a digital world where identity is no longer stable or protectable. Its subversive politics will have you cheering for a sex worker to return safely to her profession instead of being punished for her supposed sins, which is sadly rare for the genre.

6. Eighth Grade – Holds up remarkably well on rewatches in terms of basic technical craft. The performances, editing, music, and narrative are all in service of a concise, precise story about something most modern audiences can relate to: anxiety. Following an actual 8th grader as she relives our past moments of unbearable anxiousness, we both identify with her all too well and feel a desperate need to protect her from the world.

7. Beast – A repressed young woman from a semi-abusive home falls in love with a mysterious stranger who may not be as harmless as he initially seems. There really aren’t enough modern takes on the Gothic romance, especially not enough that compete with this one’s plunges into Wuthering Heights levels of darkness.

8. Mandy – The scene where Mandy is violently abducted, involuntarily dosed with psychedelic drugs, and expected to bask in the splendor of her abuser but instead laughs loudly in his face is an incredibly cathartic moment to witness as a woman.

9. You Were Never Really Here – Narratively mimics the plot of a Taken-style thriller where a macho man rescues a young girl in crisis, but filters that formula through Lynne Ramsay’s very peculiar sensibilities, becoming a much stranger beast as a result. This is a powerful film about the tolls violence takes on its enactors & its witnesses, tracking the many ways it can destroy a soul.

10. Annihilation – The fact that this is its own creature separate from its source material novel is partly what makes it a fitting adaptation, since it’s a story about transformation and change. It’s also remarkable that it’s the third sci-fi film featuring Tessa Thompson on my list, making her the clear MVP of the year.

-CC Chapman

Sylvie et le Fantôme (1946)

The final film in the Claude Autant-Laura box set Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (for our other reviews look here), Sylvie et le Fantome is the most famous of the four due to its clever visual effects and a starring role for future beloved director Jacques Tati. Before writing, directing, and starring in the ‘Monsieur Hulot’ films, a youthful Tati incorporates his signature graceful slapstick physicality into the co-titular role of “le Fantome.” As the only real ghost in the film and the only one not wearing a bedsheet, he pirouettes unseen around the living with his adorable side-kick, a floppy incorporeal spaniel also known (in my heart, at least) as Puppy Ghost. In my opinion, this film should be famous for Puppy Ghost rather than Tati, but you should decide for yourself.

Sylvie et le Fantome is a lovely romantic fantasy involving a lovelorn girl on her birthday and an assortment of ghosts, both real and hired. Sylvie (played by Odette Joyeux, who stars in every entry in this series) is a spiritual predecessor of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, a dreamy girl who has convinced herself she in love with the ghost of her grandmother’s long-deceased lover, Alain de Francigny, who died in a duel for her honor. Although Sylvie’s once-wealthy family lives in a large castle, they are reduced to selling off their antiques to an art dealer. In both an effort to raise money and wean Sylvie from her impossible infatuation, her father schemes to sell of an heirloom painting of Alain from under Sylvie’s nose using the house’s secret tunnels. During an encounter in the tunnels, the son of the art dealer develops a crush on Sylvie and unintentionally rattles Alain from his long-slumber. Now freed, Alain, played by Tati using some very clever visual effects, notices and appreciates Sylvie’s affection. He gently teases her and her relatives with simple ghost tricks—blowing out their matches, preventing Sylvie from blowing out her birthday candles, etc. At the same time that Alain and the art dealer’s son, Frederick, are sneaking around the castle, a reform-school dropout turned petty thief has also managed to break in, but becomes trapped when the police begin combing the countryside for him.

Sylvie’s father gets the idea to hire an actor to play Alain de Francingy at Sylvie’s birthday as a fun midnight surprise during an adorable scene where his butler reads him bedtime ghost stories. When Frederick and the thief, Ramure (aka Branch, “It’s my winter name”), get caught by Sylvie’s father he simply thinks they were sent by the actor’s agency. By the time Sylvie’s birthday starts, we’re up to three fake ghosts and one real ghost all playing overlapping tricks and having separate encounters with Sylvie. Romance and ghostly hijinks ensue as Sylvie becomes confused about which version of Alain’s ghost she’s truly in love with, while all four “phantoms” (including the real one) compete for her affection.

Sylvie et le Fantome does not offer the frothy costuming of Le Mariage de Chiffon and Lettres d’Amour, nor the emotional depth of Douce, but it is still a playful delight. Despite the sophisticated effects and the overwrought comedy of errors plot, this film seems like the only one of the four that could work as a play. It has the same nimble wordplay as the other three, but a greater number of intimate moments between characters that would translate well to the stage. Overall, this was the least political, but most poetic of the series. Perhaps it was the cachet of Jaques Tati, but it was probably the utter-adorability of Puppy Ghost that cemented this film as my favorite in the box set.

-CC Chapman

Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast: Romantic Escapes from Occupied France & Trouble Every Day (2001)

Welcome to Episode #72 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-second episode, Brandon and CC close out the year with a discussion of fancy-schmancy French cinema. They discuss four escapist romances directed by Claude Autant-Lara during Germany’s WWII occupation of France. Also, CC makes Brandon watch Claire Denis’s New French Extremity horror Trouble Every Day (2001). Enjoy!

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

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

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

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

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 Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Cloak & Dagger (1984).

Britnee: Even as a grown woman, I find that I still watch a lot of children’s films, which is obvious from some of my past Movie of the Month choices (e.g., Magic in the Mirror, Something Wicked This Way Comes). The reason I get so much joy from indulging in films created for kids is that watching them whisks me away from my boring life of being a lame adult. Children’s films are full of imagination, creativity, and nostalgia – all things that I love. And so my selection for December’s Movie of the Month is yet another imaginative, nostalgic children’s film: Richard Franklin’s 1984 children’s adventure classic, Cloak & Dagger.

Cloak & Dagger is different from the average children’s movie, though, because it is extremely violent, making it super fun to watch as an adult. The film is about a dorky kid named Davey (Henry Thomas of E.T. fame) that spends most of his time going on adventures with his imaginary friend, Jack Flack (Dabney Coleman). Jack is the main character of Cloak & Dagger, a spy-adventure Atari game that Davey is obsessed with. After Davey is handed a Cloak & Dagger cartridge by a dying man in a stairwell, his life becomes Cloak & Dagger for real instead of for pretend. The cartridge contains top-secret government plans, and he must protect it at all costs. Things get crazy when a mysterious group of men hunt Davey down, intent to get their hands on the game (and to murder Davey in cold blood).

Brandon, were you surprised by the amount of violent action in Cloak & Dagger? What kind of reception do you think this film would receive if it was released in theaters today?

Brandon: I was definitely taken aback by the violence of Cloak & Dagger. Shocked, even. The film’s Video Game: The Movie gimmickry and casting of Dabney Coleman (in a dual role as both father & imaginary friend) promises a fun, goofy knockoff of WarGames about a young boy’s spy-mission fantasy antics. Instead, Cloak & Dagger mostly plays like a terrifying thriller about an international network of ruthless child murderers, only wearing its PG kids’ adventure movie pedigree as a disguise. The gleeful brutality of the child-hunting terrorists in Cloak & Dagger extends far beyond the normal Bad Guy goons just doing their jobs that typically fill the villain roles in these kinds of movies; they’re really looking forward to destroying their pint-sized tagrets (E.T.‘s Henry Thomas is paired up with a precocious Drew Barrymore-type for a sidekick, go figure), even more so than recovering their top-secret video game cartridge. The children of Cloak & Dagger are throttled, shot at, nearly stabbed, delivered bombs and, most cruelly, locked in car trunks with the corpses of their dead friends. Burly men burst into their homes, growling threats of how they’re going to blow up the entire neighborhood or shoot out the kids’ kneecaps before actually killing them, just to watch them bleed. All of this violence is supposedly in service of teaching Davey a lesson about how the adventurism he craves is no match for the stability of the loving home his father provides, but it is pushed to a traumatic extreme that definitely feels distinct for the genre.

As extreme as the brutality of Cloak & Dagger feels in retrospect, the film is clearly a product of its time. Sneaking into theaters just before the advent of the PG-13 rating, it got away with a lot of its violence because of the amoral grey area of not-quite-children’s-media that arose & died in its era. Along with Spielberg productions like Gremlins & Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Cloak & Dagger presented a confounding trend for the uptight pearl-clutchers at the MPAA: films that weren’t sexually crass enough to earn an R-rating, but were far too violent to be rated PG, requiring the invention of an entirely new rating. If released even months later, Cloak & Dagger would have been saddled with a PG-13 rating, which likely would have preempted it from becoming a modest hit. Cutting out that much of its potential customer base (by making a children’s movie only teenagers could see without a guardian in tow) would likely mean that a modern release of Cloak & Dagger either wouldn’t be greenlit in the first place, or would be sanitized of the violence that makes it distinct. Modern audiences struggle with embracing violent children-in-danger narratives in general, and the few that sneak through (Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Tomorrowland, to name a recent few) are often commercially shrugged off until they effectively disappear. The PG-rated brutality of Cloak & Dagger is just as 1980s-specific as the kids in the film being given free reign to ride the city bus wherever they like without chaperones and waving around black plastic toy guns in office buildings; it simply wouldn’t be permissed in modern day.

Of course, Cloak & Dagger is also adorably dated to the 1980s in its treatment of video game culture as an opportunity for a cash-grab, a flash-in-the-pan fad. One of the first instances of corporate synergy in the cinematic video game tie-in market (via a real-life Cloak & Dagger game simultaneously released to arcades by Atari) this film could have just as easily been titled Video Game: The Movie. Yet, it doesn’t seem to understand video games at all, likening all types of gaming (role play, cards, board games, arcades) as if they were all of the same cloth and not separate forms of amusement. CC, what do you make of Cloak & Dagger‘s adorably antiquated understanding of video game culture and how that tone clashes with the severity of its children-in-danger brutality? Does that juxtaposition date the film in a delightfully entertaining way or is it prohibitively distracting?

CC: I wasn’t there to experience it, so I could be wrong, but I feel like leisure activities have dramatically evolved in the past 50 years. When Cloak & Dagger came out, I’m not 100% sure that video games were seen by the wider culture as any different from table-top RPGs, card games, board games, or the games of skill seen in arcade halls. The types of amusements depicted in Cloak & Dagger were once considered the amusements of children – and children only. The only adult who plays video games in the movie was portrayed as a socially awkward nerd who is coded as existing in a state of arrested development. Now that video games are mainstream and firmly established as their own multi-billion-dollar industry, separate from all other types of gaming, I feel like the distance between these types of amusement has expanded. Further, the desire of the children of the 1980s to continue playing video games as they got older pushed it into the mainstream and increased the age of the average player. Today, I feel like table-top RPGs and campaign board games are more of a late-teen to adult amusement. Or perhaps I’m overestimating the level of perceived difference in types of gaming among actual gamers and the jumbling of elements has more to do with the writers’ cluelessness?

I never really felt that the clash between the gaming sensibilities and the violence were what was jarring. It was simply the protagonist’s young age that made the level of violence seem discordant. Personally, I liked the level of violence in this because it drove home the point that the Cold War Era table-top RPGs our protagonist was obsessed with included a huge amount of senseless violence. It’s only when you see that gore portrayed onscreen that you understand the intensity of the violence in the fantasy world he was already immersed in. On the page it’s fun and games, but in real life it’s terrifying.

Boomer, during our October Movie of the Month discussion for The Pit we talked a little bit about the mental health of Jamie, the sociopathic (but previously written as autistic or at least on the spectrum) lead. I feel like this film also walks a fine line between portraying its protagonist, Davey, as an obsessed child who gets carried away with his games to the point of hallucinating his hero Jack Flack – and a normal, but imaginative child who is truly trapped in a dangerous situation. How do you think this film handled Davey’s mental state? Did you feel that the level of judgement towards Davey’s game-playing was warranted?

Boomer: There’s certainly a level of “the newest form of entertainment is evil” panic present in the film, at least as far as Davey’s father is concerned. Some of this could simply be a filmmaker’s panic about video games; after all, history is filled with (externally moralized) panic about television replacing film, phonographs replacing people’s desire to learn how to play a musical instrument, and the printing press being an invention of the devil. With the advent of home gaming in the early 80s, there were many attempts to demonize that there newfangled video console. (Given that the video game industry is making money hand over fist and pulling in more revenue than movies, perhaps their concerns were justified.) Within the context of the film itself, Davey’s father’s concerns are justified: while he’s at work, his son gets so into his fantasy world that he’s wandering around downtown San Antonio and flashing very realistic toy guns in front of office lobby security. The security guard who sees a kid with what could easily be a real gun and doesn’t do anything about it is really bad at his job. While it would have been pretty bad for the elderly spies to escape with the secret stealth bomber plans hidden on the cartridge, this plot should never have happened, because Davey should have been asked where his parents were and his dad should have been called at work as soon as he flashed his piece in a crowded building. I live in Texas and the open carry laws are pretty lenient, but even in the 80s this wouldn’t have flown. The film sets up Mr. Osborne to be, within the context of this narrative, rightfully concerned that Davey is experiencing some degree of difficulty separating reality from fantasy, and so the lesson for children does seem to be that video games (and by association tabletop RPGs, etc.) are not to be trusted. Alternatively, a reasonable kid could also take away the lesson that, should you happen to witness a murder or something else you can’t immediately prove, maybe you should explain it to your parents in a realistic way and not talk about your imaginary friend in the process; that ups your credibility. Further, as with most stories in which new media are denigrated, most kids will recognize that the people making it have no idea how any of it works, which is in full evidence here in the way that no one making the movie understands how video games work or how figurines could play into it.

Brandon noted that this is part of that 80s zeitgeist of movies in which kids are doing pretty spectacular things, and they either fool their parents (who are useless), or their parents don’t believe them (again, useless), until at the end of the film Mom or Dad (never both in the 80s: Dad’s either left the family or Mom’s dead) demonstrate that they really do love Child Protagonist in a way that could be dangerous to them, but it all works out in the end. One of the things that this film didn’t do was have the two single parents of the kids have that moment at the end when everyone’s safe and they look at each other with a “maybe romance?” twinkle in their respective eyes. In fact, given the overall level of violence (it hasn’t been mentioned yet, but our Child Protagonist kills a man) and a pretty winding plot, there are probably more “rules” of kids movies from this era that are being broken that I’m overlooking. Britnee, as the expert on this genre and the person who’s seen Cloak & Dagger more than once, what are some of the other subversions and broken rules at play here?

Britnee: Piggybacking off your statements about the role of parents in 1980s kids’ movies, often when the child has a deceased parent there’s at least one or two scenes where they have an “I wish Mom/Dad was here” moment, or something is done to honor their parent’s memory. A memorable example would be when Bastian from The NeverEnding Story calls the Childlike Empress “Moonchild,” which is believed to be the name of his late mother. This trope even persists in animated children films of the 1980s. In The Land Before Time (which I still truly cannot watch without crying like a baby until this day), the spirit of Littlefoot’s deceased mother guides him on his journey to The Great Valley. The only mention of Davey’s deceased mother in Cloak & Dagger is from his father. Davey never talks about her or references her, and she never shows up to give him any sort of spiritual guidance. Perhaps having the memory of his mother more present in his decision-making would have softened up the film a bit?

What really stood out to me after watching Cloak & Dagger recently is how Davey was so willing to go with the elderly couple who end up being total creeps. For some reason, in both film and in real life, the older a person is, the safer they seem to be. The sweetly helpful elderly couple is all too common of a trope in children’s movies, so the twist that they are villains here is shocking. Trusting the old couple was the biggest mistake that Davey made because they were just as evil as the pack of child-killers chasing him. The most important lesson that can be learned from Cloak & Dagger is that Stranger Danger has no age limit.

Cloak & Dagger also strays away from the average 1980s kids’ movie because there’s really nothing magical or whimsical in it. There are no buried treasures or mythical creatures. The villains are grown men with guns; it takes place in San Antonio, Texas; and all that’s at stake are some lame secret government plans. Even though Jack is an imaginary friend, he doesn’t have any superpowers or magical abilities, which are typical imaginary friend qualities. The only thing in the film that was a little outside-of-the-box is the giant multi-sided dice in the opening scene. The more that I think about it, Cloak & Dagger is essentially a kids’ movie made for old men.

Brandon, do you think the film would have been better if Jack had superpowers? Like making weapons appear out of thin air for Davey to use against the bad guys?

Brandon: I was delighted by the jarring, Top Secret!-style spy-movie spoof that opens Cloak & Dagger, but I’m also glad the fantasy stopped there. That run-in with the giant dice is a concise, disorienting taste of Davey’s inner-fantasy life before the film moves on to contrast that escapism with the harsh, violent realities of the real world. Giving Jack Flack real-world superpowers might have made for a different kind of fun kids’ movie, but it would have ruined the dynamic that makes this one so special: the disconnect between Davey’s swashbuckling boys’ adventurism and the real-life implications of the violence that often defines those adventures. That dynamic is not only fascinating because of the horrific levels of 80s action movie violence leveled on children in a PG context, but also because of how it affects Davey’s relationship with his overworked father.

As Boomer already touched on, Cloak & Dagger stands out as the rare children’s film where both the kid & the parent actually have a point in their central conflict. Yes, Daddy-Dabney Coleman faces the same resentments about valuing career over family that plague most single parents in kids’ media. However, his explanation to Davey that “real heroes do boring things” like provide stability & shelter for their loved ones (instead of saving the world in grand, bullet-riddled adventures) is more justification than most single-parent archetypes get in this context. At the same time, Davey’s insistence that his dad play along with his interest in gaming so that they can spend intimate, quality time together is also justified by the danger that envelops him when he’s left to his own devices (namely, an Atari & a bus pass). Giving Imaginary Dabney Coleman real-life superpowers might have tipped the scales of justification further in Davey’s direction, which would be a shame since it’s rare to see such an evenly weighted parental conflict in a kids’ movie.

Cloak & Dagger was originally adapted from a short story (presumably written solely to pitch the movie) titled “The Boy Who Cried Murder,” so there’s plenty of implication that the film was meant to serve as a cautionary tale about getting lost in the fantasy of gaming – the same alarmist territory covered in the Tom Hanks Dungeons & Dragons cautionary tale Mazes & Monsters. At the same time, the film really wants you to invest in the struggling Atari console, so much so that it’s directly marketing a tie-in Cloak & Dagger video game by incorporating its cartridge & gameplay as a central part of the plot. Daddy-Dabney Coleman is also taught a lesson that parents should not blindly dismiss their kids’ interest in gaming, encouraging them to play along so they can be involved in their kids’ inner lives. CC, what do you make of this self-contradictory moralizing about the dangers of gaming and encouragement for parents to play Atari with their kids? Does Cloak & Dagger attempt “to have its cake & eat it too” or does it make a clear, substantive statement about whether gaming is a danger or if it’s harmless fun?

CC: It’s difficult to parse out the filmmakers’ intent, but there is definitely an internal struggle between the idea that games are a dangerous mind-suck and the reaction that golly-gee, that new Atari game sure looks swell. Even when they’re trying to sell you a new video game, they make it very clear that, unless you’re a well-adjusted parent trying to forge a stronger bond with your child, the only adults that play games are socially awkward nerds. They certainly spend more of the film’s runtime emphasizing the dark sides of gaming (obsession, fantastic delusion, misplaced trust in the elderly) that any pro-gaming messages seem like an afterthought, or were perhaps shoehorned in after Atari’s team watched the rough cut.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the intent was. Due to the video game crash of 1983, Atari halted production on the home console version of Cloak & Dagger (and the company went bankrupt shortly after). All of the screenshots in the film were pulled from the arcade version and the cartridges were fakes. Perhaps the conflicted tone of the movie gives us some insights into the turmoil of Atari’s marketing department. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Mark, imagine you were the right age when Cloak & Dagger came out (and Atari had released the home console version). Would you have wanted to purchase your own copy after seeing this movie?

Boomer: You know, I don’t think that I would have been that into it, but I’m not sure. I like video games and always have, but I’ve never really been much of a “gamer” (especially as, almost from its inception, online gaming has been a cesspool of homophobic and racist language used by children without oversight or parental guidance), and I’m old enough to remember when the gatekeepers of that fandom looked down on me for my unending love of Halo (then derogatorily referred to as a “Doom clone” before we came to call those games by the more appropriate term “first person shooter”). But as a kid growing up in economically depressed Southeastern Louisiana, we were always behind the times technologically, although I still clearly remember getting the original Game Boy for Christmas in 1995, six years after its release, and I’ve been lagging behind ever since; I bought my Xbox 360 in 2008, three years after it hit the shelves and even then only because my tax return that year was pretty good, and ten years later it’s still the most sophisticated thing that I own. That having been said, the depictions of video games in movies rarely piques my interest, and I don’t think that this would have been any different had I been the appropriate age for this film when it was released. It makes an interesting companion piece to The Wizard, which came out 5 years later and which I do remember from its television airings when I was younger; I remember being fond of that movie, but that might simply be the fact that even as a child I knew that I would follow Jenny Lewis to the ends of the earth. The first video game I can remember playing in the home (the local seafood po-boy place at the corner of Plank and Hwy 64 had both Pole Position and Ms. Pac-Man, both over ten years old by that point) was the bizarre Bouncing Babies, which came with our monochromatic MS-DOS HP that was inherited from a friend of the family in 1996 (again, 12 years after that game was originally released) and which I loved.

The actual gameplay of the Cloak & Dagger video game that we see doesn’t look like much fun, to be honest, and I don’t think even child-Boomer would have been impressed or interested. The graphics are bad, even for that time; compare the onscreen presentation to something like Frogger, Donkey Kong, and especially Dragon’s Lair, all of which predated or were contemporaries of C&D, and there’s really no contest. Cloak & Dagger looks muddied, clipped, and just plain ugly. Of course, that may just be the way that the refresh rate on the monitors that characters are using in the movie interacted with film, since actual screengrabs from the game look amazing in comparison. Still, as a kid, I don’t think that I would have been that interested, especially since even for a patient kid like me, this movie was long, and the gameplay was the least captivating thing about it. I would have been much more interested in the real-world make-believe play-acting that the kids in this movie did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I used to desperately want a pair of amazing walkie-talkies that I could use to talk to my best friend from a long way away more than I wanted anything else as a kid, a desire that was fanned by other movies with similarly unrealistic performance ranges (I’m looking at you, Three Ninjas).

The other thing that would have really stood out to me as a kid, even more than its video game subplot, were the villains. The elderly couple make for pretty memorable antagonists. I told a friend that I had watched this movie the day before, and he said that this was on the movies that his elementary school had on VHS to be pulled out on rainy days (which . . . yikes). When asking questions to make sure he was remembering the right movie, he didn’t mention any Atari cartridges or an imaginary friend: his strongest memory was of the evil elderly spies. Take from that what you will.

Lagniappe

Boomer: So this movie is pretty blatantly propaganda for San Antonio’s public transportation system, right? That and the River Walk.

Britnee: Dabney Coleman looks like he smells like a mix of chewing tobacco and fabric softener. This applies to his role as Davey’s father and as Jack Flack.

Brandon: It was kind of a bold move both for Henry Thomas’s agent and for Atari to risk associating the young actor with gaming so soon after the E.T. video game disaster. The E.T. tie-in video game was such an embarrassing flop for Atari (due mostly to poor craftsmanship in its rush to market) that it’s cited as one of the major contributing factors for the video game industry crash of 1983 – the very thing that made desperate last-ditch revitalization efforts like Cloak & Dagger necessary in the first place. As confirmed in the 2014 documentary Atari: Game Over, thousands of copies of the E.T. game were buried in a New Mexico landfill to clear the unsold stock, each with Henry Thomas’s face on the cartridge. That’s not necessarily the first face I would think to cast in my movie about a video game fantasy adventure.

CC: As much as I like kids in danger, I dunno, this one doesn’t do it for me. I think Britnee got it right when she said it was a kids film for old men. Plus the opening scene reminded me of Top Secret! & The Naked Gun and I hate ZAZ/Leslie Nielsen films.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

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 Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and CC watch Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).

Brandon: Full disclosure: for a long time, I had planned for my final Movie of the Month selection for the year to be Mario Bava’s space exploration creep-out Planet of the Vampires, but I decided at the last minute to swap it out for another highly stylized sci-fi horror instead. When recently watching Panos Cosmatos’s grueling, psychedelic descent into human misery Mandy in the theater, I felt compelled to switch tracks and bring the Swampflix crew back to the director’s 2010 debut, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Mandy has been a highly divisive film, splitting audiences between finding its slow-motion, style-over-substance psychedelia frustratingly stubborn and being wholly won over by the pure sensory pleasures therein. I personally found Mandy’s religious worship of 80s genre cinema’s neon & synths aesthetic to be wonderfully stupefying, a technical & emotional knockout that had me stumbling from the theater in a daze. Oddly, I’ve also been obsessively reading fiercely negative takes on the film in the weeks since, browsing complaints as varied as it being too macho, too nostalgic in its retro genre pastiche, and too arbitrarily Weird as a for-its-own-sake indulgence. This happens often when I latch on to a new highly-divisive, highly-stylized genre film: it’s all I want to think or talk about for weeks, but I only want to read the most bitterly negative takes on its merits available, almost as if to challenge my own admiration. It’s happened recently with titles like The Neon Demon, Tale of Tales, We Are the Flesh, Double Lover, and mother!, but more importantly it also happened in the early days of Swampflix when I first discovered Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos’s debut (and one of our very first five-star reviews). As I’ve been obsessing over both the immense sensory pleasures & fiercely negative critical takes of Cosmatos’s latest work, it feels like I’m re-entering a cycle I already lived through with his previous feature, making an intensive re-examination of Beyond the Black Rainbow practically mandatory.

Like Mandy, Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in an alternate-dimension 1983 overrun with evil LSD cults and heavy metal mysticism. This particular neon-lit nightmare is mostly contained in the (literally) underground Arboria Institute, a medical research facility dedicated to the Scientology-reminiscent goal of achieving happiness & inner peace through a melding of science & theology. This pseudoscience approach to achieving “serenity through technology” is vaguely defined at best, but mostly appears to be hinged on two key experiments: a 1960s LSD ritual explained in horrific flashbacks to open participants to Lovecraftian knowledge of the Infinite and current, ongoing research of a young woman with telepathic abilities who mysteriously seems to have been born of these earlier acid rituals. Most of the narrative (what little there is) focuses on the young woman, Elena, who is held captive at the Arboria Institute via a glowing pyramid-shaped contraption that limits her telepathic abilities when activated. Although the institute’s mission is to find happiness through science, this captivity has only served to make both the captive Elena and her menacing captors (especially the menacing brute Dr. Barry Nyle) the most miserable beings on the planet. Elena silently weeps in a depressed haze under the pyramid’s invisible oppression for most of the runtime, until she manages a slow-moving escape from the facility in the final act. The concluding minutes of Beyond the Black Rainbow make for a jarring tonal shift, as Elena & Barry’s violent clash with unsuspecting, beer-swilling metal heads in the real world feels like it’s from a cheap VHS-era slasher, whereas all the pseudoscience LSD mysticism that precedes it feels like it’s from another planet. There’s flashes of kitschy humor in the film’s earlier indulgences in 1980s genre imagery, but so much of the film is so stubbornly slow & relentlessly dour that the audience is not at all prepared for the more conventional horror payoffs of the concluding bloodshed.

It almost feels beside the point to discuss Beyond the Black Rainbow in terms of plot choices, but I feel like that final-minutes shift from ethereal mysticism to humorously familiar genre tropes is where this film loses even potential fans who are okay with its stubbornly quiet build-up. After so much careful attention is paid to the sensory delights & horrors of the first section’s reaches beyond perceived reality, that intentionally comedic return to pedestrian knuckleheads sharing cheap beer on Planet Earth has turned some audiences off for making the film play like a feature-length prank, whether or not they found any humor in the earlier stretch. Boomer, what do you think of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s balance between genuine filmmaking beauty and prankish 80s pastiche humor? Was your overall opinion of the film challenged or reinforced by its concluding minutes of genre-traditional bloodshed?

Boomer: It is interesting that, for the second month in a row, we’ve watched a horror movie that starts out as a psychological thriller, albeit one with pseudoscientific elements (the cryptozoological tra-la-logs in The Pit and the bizarre fringe parascience of Black Rainbow) that turns into a more conventional genre film toward the conclusion. Whereas that was something that I didn’t care for in The Pit, I found it less intrusive here in Black Rainbow, if for no other reason than that the latter seems to be entirely predicated upon both being extremely conventional in its subject matter while defying convention at the same time. Nostalgia for the horror of the late-1970s-bleeding-into-the-1980s is pretty much my jam, and although it’s certainly reaching a saturation point in the wake of Stranger Things, I had to keep reminding myself throughout the entirety of Black Rainbow that it predates Things by a the better part of a decade—beating some of the more triumphant examples of this subgenre, like 2014’s superb The Guest (which is the perfect distillation of this concept into a modern environment), 2015’s It Follows (which helped popularize the style in the mainstream, paving the way for Stranger Things, IT, and many others), and M83’s 2011 “Midnight City“-“Reunion“-“Waitvideo cycle (which, for my money, is probably the purest and most beautiful example). So while Black Rainbow was ahead of the curve, riding the wave before the tide came in, its reversion to a more typical kind of 80s horror in its final minutes isn’t surprising or, to my mind, detrimental. Like the film overall, its magic (and madness) lies in invoking the rhetorical space of one concept and juxtaposing it with a dissonant one. For me, the best example of this is when the film forsakes its hypnotic droning during the emergence of the Sentionaut for a more evocative, almost peppy motif. It’s not just an auditory break in the—for lack of a better term—monotony, but its visuals as well, with the emergence of a Daft-Punk-by-way-of-Dave-Bowman entity into the Kubrickian ascetic aesthetic that permeates the film.

My roommate and I joked that the script for Black Rainbow was probably about 15 pages long, full of directions like “[droning]“, “[higher pitched droning]“, and “[buzzing]“. We got a kick out of the film, despite his general objection to films like this that he considers “self-indulgent.” Here’s a direct quote: “I”m really liking this movie, despite its best attempts to make me hate it.” Also: “See, this is what I thought Raw was going to be, which is why I resisted it for so long. Is this what Neon Demon was like?” And one from me, from the scene in which Elena (slooooowly) telekinetically crushes the head of Margo, the cruel nurse: “Man, they should have called this movie Scannerzzzzzzz.” It’s strange, because I often find myself drawn to movies that I would consider to be feature-length music videos and completely immerse myself in their worlds (Oblivion is a film I would consider to be part of this list, although it has a lot more going on narratively than most examples, even if said plot is fairly run-of-the-mill), but he and I both found Black Rainbow entrancing and sometimes it pushes you right out of the moment. What he calls “self-indulgent” I would consider to be more bathetic: many of the moments of Dr. Nyle staring into the middle distance hold on a frame (or thirty) too long, effectively losing the tension instead of sustaining it. Granted, this is a matter of interpretation, and likely has more to do with environment and frame of mind than the filmmaker’s intention. It’s all intentional and demonstrates a masterful ability of filmcrafting, not to mention a fearlessness when it comes to creating a piece of art that will not only be “niche,” but actively and viscerally rejected by the majority of the filmgoing audience. Black Rainbow is exactly the kind of sententious film that I imagine making, all maximal style and minimally substantive, hearkening back to the visual and visceral horror (that which was viewed and that which was imagined) of my youth, more imitative and moody than necessary. I would make a much worse movie, however.

One of the things that caught my attention in reading about the film after screening it was that director Cosmatos would often walk the horror aisle of the video rental shop and have to imagine what the film was like based on the cover and the title alone, as renting them was forbidden. This, too, I did as a child, and I vividly remember the giant cardboard standee of Silence of the Lambs and the cover art for Chopping Mall and So I Married an Axe Murderer (my imagined version of this was neither better nor worse than the real thing, but it was certainly gorier). Black Rainbow owes a lot of its plot (such as it is) to re-imagined bits and pieces of various 70s and 80s media, most notably taking visual inspiration from 2001 and borrowing most of the plot from a mishmash of Altered States (notably the mutation from psychedelic and hallucinatory experimentation), Akira, Firestarter, The Fury, and even a little bit of D.A.R.Y.L. with visual flair from Poltergeist for good measure. CC, do you think that this borrowing of visuals and ideas from other films strengthens or weakens Rainbow? What are some of the visuals that came from elsewhere that I’ve overlooked? (For instance, I know I’ve seen that mutant before, and the glowing pyramid, but I can’t figure out their origin.) Would the film have benefited from using more original concepts and ideas, or would that have missed the point?

CC: As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I really love the current trend of atmospheric horror filtered through half-remembered nightmares and analog equipment [see: The Void (2016), Berbarian Sound Studio (2012), We Are the Flesh (2016), High-Rise (2015), The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), and Too Many Cooks (2014)]. Beyond the Black Rainbow predated these films by at least a couple years and really set the stage for things to come. I think that for a film so sparing with dialogue and narrative explanations, having those familiar visual and auditory clues gave viewers something to grasp onto. In my case, I really latched onto Beyond the Black Rainbow‘s use of the popular 80s trope of children either in danger or the source of danger (which I have already mentioned in the last MotM as one of my favorite tropes). (Also, thank you Mark for sending us those M83 videos! They had completely escaped my radar.)

I think we’ve all done a good job so far of identifying the specific cinematic influences and tropes in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so I’ll address the weirder influences I noticed. Looking back at my notes on the Sentionauts (terrifying helmeted golems of red leather and black plastic), I wrote down Garth Nix’s book Shade’s Children, a 1997 YA novel where it is revealed that the gigantic humanoid soldiers (myrmidons) engineered by the bad guys are actually captured human children who are sterilized by excessive steroid use and put inside mind controlling mechsuits, which is a pretty good description of those things in the red suits. And, Mark, as for the zombie mutant she encounters, I keep trying to figure out what it looks most like and it’s a three-way tie between Dr. Pretorious in From Beyond, Bib Fortuna from Star Wars, and a neomorph.

I’ve never had an issue with a film borrowing the style or ideas from another movie, unless it constantly tells you it’s doing it [see: Deadpool]. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven and Wes Craven’s Scream are both examples of loving tributes to their source material and exemplary works in their own right. I feel like the endless rebooting, remaking, and remixing we’re seeing in popular cinema today is a natural outgrowth of post-Modernism and a defining characteristic of our cultural landscape; it’s not necessarily good or bad on principle (even though the films produced may certainly be judged on their own merits). We have access to so many sources of inspiration nowadays that a person can be influenced by the non-Euclidian angles of German Expressionist cinema and the garbage bin unsavoryness of 1980s video nasties. Pastiche is a way for filmmakers to explore the ideas that they’re most interested in through the visual language they were influenced by. In writing, pastiche is often used to better hone your own voice because using an exaggerated version of another author or genre’s style can help you figure out what’s unique about your work. It’s a useful tool.

Britnee, we keep looping back to all the ways Beyond the Black Rainbow pulls from other sources, but never really talk about what makes it original. Even though it is in constant dialogue with its influences, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. But maybe I’m wrong? In your opinion, what are, if any, the unique elements of this film?

Britnee: I don’t know if there’s something seriously wrong with me, but when I reflect on everything that happened in Beyond the Black Rainbow, my brain immediately goes to the scene where Barry’s wife, Rosemary, is caught sleeping/meditating (don’t ever let Barry catch you sleeping!), and she comes out of her trance to say, “If you’re hungry, there’s some brown rice and steamed asparagus in the refrigerator.” A leftover meal of brown rice and steamed asparagus is just as bland as the relationship between Barry and Rosemary, which is one of the more unique elements of the film. Sure, a miserable marriage in cinema is nothing out of the ordinary, but the way in which Barry and Rosemary communicate with each other is unlike anything I’ve really seen before. Rosemary makes only a few small appearances, but in each one, it’s obvious that she is terrified of Barry. After all, he is the living definition of a creep. Her fear of Barry is present in the way she speaks, her body language, and her mental state when she is in his presence. It’s not the type of fear that would lead one to believe he’s an abusive husband, but it’s more of a fear that he’s some sort of creature, keeping her captive in a remote house in the woods. Rosemary plays such a minor role in the film, and I’m amazed at how much of her character impacted me.

Another element that is unique to Beyond the Black Rainbow is the transitions between scenes. It reminds me a lot of the nuclear shadows caused by the bombing at Hiroshima. The slow transitions burned images from one scene into the next, and it was difficult to tell when they disappeared completely. I was hypnotized as I kept my focus on Elena’s face and it turned into a mere shadow in the bright, neon red screen before shifting to Barry lingering around the Aboria Institute. The way these scene transitions slowed my breathing and relaxed my muscles was super weird, but I was really into it.

Barry’s obsession with Elena has been sitting in the back of my mind for a while. He seems to get some sort of erotic pleasure from her, but I can’t figure out if it’s because he loved her mother or if he’s a sadist that gets off on her pain. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Barry’s fascination with Elena? Is she merely an experiment he’s highly interested in or is there something else going on?

Brandon: It’s difficult to say what any character in Beyond the Black Rainbow is thinking or feeling, since the film’s basic narrative is so opaque & stubbornly vague. The most emotion I sensed from Barry throughout the film was a seething resentment for everyone around him, almost in a macho midlife crisis reaction to the monotony his life had devolved into. The three women in Barry’s life (his captive Elena, his eternally sleepy housewife Rosemary, and his bumbling coworker/subordinate Margo) all receive the same hushed, barely-restrained anger from him, so it’s difficult to say if his resentment of & fixation on Elena is any different in tone than the mood he projects elsewhere in his miniscule social circle. The only insight we get into why he’s so corrosively resentful is in the flashback to the mysterious LSD ritual that transformed him (Altered States-style) into a new, inhuman beast. In a literal sense, Elena is a prisoner to the Arboria Institute’s experiments, as she’s physically held captive under Barry’s “care” (via the glowing pyramid contraption). To an extent, Barry himself is a figurative prisoner of the same experiment. He’s continuing the work of the decrepit, senile Dr. Arboria long after the research meant to achieve “serenity through technology” had demonstrably, disastrously failed. Elena personifies to Barry a failed experiment that he must see to the daily monotony of continuing out of habit & lack of other options. He’s technically freer than Elena to roam wherever he likes, but they’re both stuck on either side of the same observation glass, prisoners to the same never-ending, increasingly pointless research. That must be a difficult daily monotony to subscribe to after “looking into the Eye of God” in the earlier LSD experiment where he was the subject, a frustration he nastily takes out on everyone around him.

What I find most interesting about Barry’s seething, resentful anger is how it contrasts with the deep, unending despair suffered on Elena’s side of the glass. Elena is not afforded nearly as much backstory as Barry (read: any), yet Eva Bourne’s physical performance of total emotional devastation in the role conveys the full severity of what she’s feeling. I had remembered Beyond the Black Rainbow as being less plotty and less emotional than Mandy, but after this revisit I’m not convinced that’s entirely true. Between Barry’s resentful anger & Elena’s silent anguish, Beyond the Black Rainbow traffics in plenty of extreme emotional expression; it’s just not the aspect of the film that stuck with me most on first watch. Boomer, did any of the emotional havoc wrought by the Arboria Institute’s experiments on this small, quiet cast of characters resonate with you on your own initial viewing or was all of that effect overwhelmed by the film’s sensory pleasures and nostalgic genre throwbacks?

Boomer: Although I share Britnee’s enthusiasm for Rosemary (largely because the actor looked so familiar and I just could not place her until I looked her up; she was one of the representatives on the Quorum in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica!), the person I most connected to was Margo. It’s not that I was fond of her at all—she was cruel, almost needlessly so. In fact, the general emptiness of the institute and her presence in it was telling. Maybe “vacancy” is a better word than “emptiness,” since it’s not just the largeness of the space that’s so effective, it’s the extent to which it’s obvious to the audience that this space was designed for many more people than just Barry, his captive, and his single employee—break rooms, cafeterias, etc. The other staff is long gone, hopefully having moved on to other opportunities and not turned into mutants, but either way, Margo sticking it out for the long haul after all of her colleagues departed or were destroyed is troubling. Even the discovery of Barry’s incomprehensible journals (the only part of which that stays on screen long enough to have an impact is the word “spermy,” which is nauseating), although it freaks her out for a moment, has no lasting power, as she’s back to doing her nefarious master’s bizarre bidding almost immediately.

It’s in that following scene that Margo becomes so much more menacing than Barry, albeit more subtly. She turns on the charm with Elena, becoming warm and almost maternal. In an uncanny approximation of playfulness, she asks Elena to show her what she has in her hands. Elena hides the supposed photo of her mother, refusing to give it up. I’ve seen this scene many times, in which a warm authority figure tries to draw out a withdrawn child; notably, the TV show Fringe (which can be reductively but not-inaccurately described as “the post-9/11 X-Files by way of Altered States) uses this a few times, when victim-of-childhood-experimentation-turned-FBI-agent Olivia Dunham interacts with pretty much any kid on the show. In this scene, however, you’re almost tricked into thinking Margo might be sincere, before she rips the photo from Elena’s hands and destroys it, leading to her own undoing. She’s the evil stepmother of this particular neon-drenched 80s fairy tale, and her immediate comeuppance is a mirror of her destructiveness. It’s really effective, and I think it’s actually the best acting we see in the film. Elena’s anguish is palpable; Barry’s fury is understated. Margo’s convictions and desires are still completely opaque, and this small moment of misdirection and cruelty is far more intriguing than the, as noted above, kind of obvious “killer chases the final girl through the woods” conclusion. Maybe it’s that this scene, like the Sentionauts scene, is an island of something different happening amidst the (intentional) monotony; after scene upon scene in which the only audio is a persistent and constant drone, the Sentionaut appears, accompanied by a gothy synth organ that calls to mind Claudio Simonetti or Ennio Morricone, Likewise, the scene with Margo is a rare event of explicitly human emotion happening amidst all of the inhuman ones.

CC, what did you think of Margo, who is arguably the most dynamic character in the film? Did her scenes speak to you the way they did to me, or am I latching onto something that’s not really there? What do you think her motivation was to keep working at this facility long after she had any reason to? Was it fear? Inertia? Something else?

CC: As a character, Margo did appear to be the only being within the film capable of acting and lying (or at least lying convincingly) and generally showed a wider range of emotions than Elena (blank and despondent), Barry (cold and furious), and Rosemary (sleepy and confused). To be honest, I never really thought about Margo after her (deserved) demise. Perhaps I dismissed her as a Nurse Ratched-type, a sadistic nurse who gets off on torturing their patients? When I look back at her scenes I find her so disgusted and pissed at Elena (and to be fair, Elena does give Margo a nosebleed with her telekinesis) that perhaps her later sadism towards Elena is not because she is evil or a sadist, but just because she’s an exhausted, put-upon woman who works for a psychopath and is the caretaker of a child that would love to blow her head off. Perhaps any of us would resort to crumpling a child’s only photo of her mom, if said child gave us nosebleeds every time we walked them back to their cell or if we were in charge of keeping a child in a cell so that a monster could conduct “experiments” that judging from his “notes” were mostly about reproductive organs, snippets of text like, “after she was drugged, she slept for 2 days”, and drawings of the third eye. But why stick with a job that turns you into a monster in the first place? You never get the sense that Margo wants to be there or that she’s contributing to the “vision” of the Arboria Institute. Barry, with his “appliances” and sexual obsession with Elena, is an obvious villain, but maybe the real evil in Panos Cosmatos’s film is the banal sadism of a person who doesn’t even know why they are participating in what is an obviously terrible situation.

Britnee, speaking of obsessive relationships, let’s talk about Panos Cosmatos’s obsession with films-within-films. He’s only made two movies so far, but both have featured fully realized short films (an infomercial for the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow and a mind-melting commercial for boxed pasta in Mandy). Do you ever get too into the fake films? In Hamlet 2 and Hunky Dory, both films about putting on a theatrical production, I always really want to watch the play instead of snippets of rehearsals between scenes of the actual film. Do you ever wish there were full-length versions of all these little things Cosmatos has obviously put so much work into?

Britnee: Speaking of the Arboria Institute infomercial, it reminded me of the “Behold the Coagula” infomercial in Get Out. Both give a quick background of each horrific institution and are significant pieces in their respective films. As for the question at hand, I could see the Arboria Institute infomercial as a sci-fi short film, but I think it would be kind of boring. Dr. Aboria’s voice sounds like a lame high school teacher, so having to listen to that for more than the three minutes in isolation would be a nightmare.

The Cheddar Goblin commercial in Mandy is a totally different story. With less than a minute of screen time, the Cheddar Goblin is the breakout star of the year. That cheesy little monster managed to sneak his way into our hearts, and he is practically an American icon at this point. I would love to see a feature length film about the Cheddar Goblin, presumably as would anyone else who has seen Mandy. Where did he come from and why does he want to eat macaroni & cheese only to immediately puke it up? We deserve to have these questions answered.

Lagniappe

Brandon: This years-delayed reassessment of Cosmatos’s debut felt more or less mandatory in light of his recent follow-up, so I was both immensely pleased by how well it holds up and relieved that everyone on the crew reacted positively to its sparse, beguiling charms. Just like Mandy, this is a beautiful, amusingly absurd bummer that I couldn’t fault anyone for dismissing as self-indulgent fluff even though I love it dearly. After the refresher, I’m not even sure I could pick a favorite between Cosmatos’s two features; I mostly just feel spoiled that we get to have them both.

Britnee: I seriously thought that Christian Bale was Barry Nyle until I looked up the movie on IMDb three days or so after initially watching it. I even had a conversation with my coworker that went something along the lines of “Hey, I watched this weird Christian Bale movie the other night called Beyond the Black Rainbow. You should check it out!” Perhaps I need some of the Aboria Institute’s services.

Boomer: I know I mentioned a lot of different pieces of media with regards to what this reminded me of, but I’ve finally got my roommate watching Fringe, and I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re pressed for time, you can use Den of Geek’s roadmap for the series so you don’t have to watch every episode, as long as you go back and watch all the way through someday.

CC: Mark, I have a potential glowing pyramid visual reference, but this one is pretty niche. Do any of y’all remember the 1987-1991 NBC sci-fi sitcom Out of this World? No? I certainly do! The conceit is that our protagonist Evie Ethel Garland suddenly gains magical powers on her 13th birthday (Teen Witch much?) that cause all kinds of wacky mischief. She finds out that powers are inherited from her space alien father, voiced by Burt Reynolds, who was called back to his home planet when she was a baby. They really like to stress he is NOT a deadbeat dad; he reluctantly returned to fight in an intergalactic war. To communicate with his daughter while she learns about her powers, he gives her a glowing prism that is essentially a walkie-talkie. I should note that it does look more like a stack of clear cubes in a vaguely octahedron shape, BUT there are a bunch of glowing alien pyramids in the insane theme sequence:

Also, weird/fun MoTM tie-in, Evie’s best friend on Out of this World is played by actress Christina Nigra, who co-stars in next month’s MotM Cloak & Dagger!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Film, Representation, and the Historical Record

Why we care

For the second consecutive year, the writers here at Swampflix have been attempting to complete the #52FilmsByWomen challenge posed to us by the organization Women in Film. The pledge is simple enough: to try over the course of one year to watch the equivalent of one film per week by a female director or female writer. As a staff member of a library, I started to wonder what films from within our own collection qualify and how do I find that out? A team of several colleagues, including my co-author Rachel Tillay and supervisor lisa Hooper formed to answer this question about our own collection, with the aim to create a tool that would allow other institutions to similarly analyze their own holdings.

The Representation Problem

Recently, students of film and film arts have begun to ask whether the creators of film accurately reflect the human record. Studies such as “Inequality in 800 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT, and Disability from 2007-2015” have explored the relationship between creators and whether they accurately represent the human condition. Interest in the unequal rates in which women fill various positions has been particularly acute. Women in Film found that “women comprised 11% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2017.” Women are slightly more likely to be involved in other parts of the creative process. For example, “overall, women accounted for 16% of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 100 films. Women fared best as producers (24%), followed by executive producers (15%), editors (14%), writers (10%), directors (8%), and cinematographers (2%).” These studies all point to the importance of further examination of the factors that lead to inequality in hiring and funding practices in movie business.

The Data Cycle and Libraries

While the factors that lead to inequality in the creation of film are being examined, the role discrimination plays in other portions of the data cycle have not been examined. The data life cycle is the process which occurs between the creation of a film and the inclusion of that film as part of the inspiration for a new film. This is the work of libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. For example, libraries collect or acquisition film into their collections, describe the films (also known as creating metadata or cataloging), and store the content for the long term. Specifically, two of the most common, long-standing characteristics of libraries are that they are a “collection [of] what is deemed to be important information” and that they “preserve the information for future users.” [Evans, G. Edwards and Margaret Zarnosky Saponaro. Collection Management Basics, sixth edition pg. 2]

Nevertheless, libraries are not living up to their own ideals regarding properly recording the wealth of diversity present in modern culture. In fact, one of the topics being discussed passionately in recent conferences (such as ALA 2018 held this past June in New Orleans), is how can these organizations work to increase inclusion in their own organizations and the wider community, preserve the record of oppressed peoples, and correct past practices which suppressed the knowledge and values of minorities. In this context, the question about diversity in film becomes, “is the work of a diverse population being acquired, described, and preserved by historical institutions?” When libraries acquire film and make it available for loan we are supporting the status quo if we collect more films by men, describe them more accurately, loan them out more often, and save more of them for future watchers. Additionally, the libraries that exist on the margins often struggle to protect the collections they’re preserving. As an example of the scale of the loss, the sample collection of data we are examining begins with DVDs bought in 2005. All other DVDs owned by Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, and a number of other items, were all lost when ten feet of water filled the bottom floors of the library during Hurricane Katrina.

If, however, we can begin to correct this bias by collecting, describing, loaning, and preserving more films by women or other under-represented groups, we are participating in creating a more accurate version of the historical record and succeeding in our mission, as well as providing a more equitable set of data from which new films will draw for their inspiration.

A New Tool

For this reason, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has begun to explore our own collections and is developing a free tool that will allow other preservers of the historical record to examine their own collections to answer these questions. Our initial project has been to examine what percentage of our DVD collection was directed by women and what percentage of the directors whose work we have collected are women.

This project was more difficult than desired because only recently have library metadata (or catalog) records for DVDs been allowed to incorporate demographic data about the creators, and the majority of records created by libraries around the world rarely include this data. Unfortunately, in the complex calculus of balancing comprehensive records for all information and detailed records, many new fields like those for demographic data are often ignored. Additionally, the terminology that should be used in demographic fields is still in development. Catalogers and metadata librarians are exploring how to describe gender in sensitive and accurate ways. The terminology must encompass cis and trans, male, female, and gender non-conforming identities. It must be useful for grouping and analyzing large sets of data, be relatively stable, and be extensible as terminology change over time.

Fortunately for our purposes, cataloging records do almost always very carefully note who the agents associated with the creation and dissemination of each object are. The names are recorded according to a very detailed set of predictable rules, many creators of multiple works are assigned their own name format to distinguish from people who have the same name, and they are included in the same place in every record. Many records also use terminology or codes that describe the role each person played. We were also able to harvest into our dataset lists of female directors from Wikipedia’s female directors list, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, and Collider.com’s The Most Exciting Female Directors Working Today. We created Python scripts and regular expressions that interpret the most common data structures in libraries (inverted names, often followed by dates or other identifying information) into direct order (First Name Last Name). We documented the process we used for creating and applying these so that others can recreate or extend our work. Finally, we compared the imperfect lists that resulted. We were disappointed to realize that only a bit more than 4% of our DVDs have female directors. We are hopeful that as we add missing names to our data, that the percentage will increase. However, we are also going to put more effort into acquiring films with female directors in an attempt to create a more representative collection.

We invite you to participate in this work! Ways you can participate include:

  1. Contributing to lists of creators on Wikipedia who belong to under-represented groups.
  2. Examine your collections, or collections you have data for. (Spoiler alert: it would take some effort, but nearly all libraries have provided some information about their holdings publicly online). Because our code is available for free online, you can reuse it as well!
  3. Check our work! Is there something obvious we’re missing? If you find something we should take into account, you can even submit suggestions through Github and we would love to add them in!

-Rachel Tillay & CC Chapman