David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s recently revisited his early work to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art. I didn’t have time to catch Crimes of the Future opening weekend because I spent those four days submerged in the lower-budget, lower-profile offerings of The Overlook Film Festival at Canal Place. From the vantage point of that Overlook microcosm, the premise & circumstances of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet appeared eerily in sync with what I’d been reading about the new Cronenberg. Strickland obviously doesn’t have as deep nor as prestigious of a catalog as Cronenberg’s (yet!), but there’s still a clear, circular career arc to his latest bedchamber dispatch. Flux Gourmet feels like Strickland revising the giallo-tinged Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing, one-of-a-kind absurdism he’s achieved in the decade since. The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between, just as Crimes of the Future reportedly lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and his late-career philosophic cold showers.
Strickland’s preposterous performance art fantasy world is enclosed in an artists’ colony that patronizes “culinary collectives” & “sonic caterers.” Its current artists in residence are an avant-garde noise band that mic & distort routine, mundane cooking processes for a rapturous audience of pretentious art snobs. Their work recontextualizes the sounds of food prep as both a difficult-listening version of music and as a low-key form of witchcraft, recalling the fuzzy borders between foley work, madness, and divine transcendence in Berberian Sound Studio. Despite their inscrutability as artists, they suffer every dipshit rockstar cliché you’d expect from broader, more accessible comedies like Airheads, This is Spinal Tap, and That Thing You Do. The film essentially gives the witchy performance art collective of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria the VH1 Behind the Music treatment, with petty squabbles over what to name the band, how much creative input the frontwoman allows the rest of the “collective,” and what they’re going to eat on tour overpowering the more supernatural goings on at the art institute.
If Strickland’s kinky, insular phantasmagoria has anything to say about the real world outside its walls, it’s in the way it satirizes the creative process of all commercial art, no matter how fringe or intellectual. Every character at the culinary art colony has a direct equivalent in the production of music, movies, and fine art. Gwendoline Christie funds the collective’s work, limiting their creative freedom with producer meddling & studio boardroom notes just to flex her authority. Longtime Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed plays the hothead bandleader, enraged by every one of her collaborators’ minor creative suggestions, especially Christie’s. The list goes on from there: Asa Butterfield as a go-with-the-flow bandmate who tiptoes around his hot-tempered bosses; In Fabric’s Richard Bremmer as an insufferable academic who intellectualizes everything the band accomplishes without contributing anything to the project; a faceless audience who shows their appreciation for the band’s performances in writhing backstage orgies; etc. My personal favorite is, of course, Makis Papadimitriou as a quietly suffering journalist who attempts to remain objective & separate from the work but gets sucked into the absurd drama of the band’s creative process anyway. Not only is Strickland more appreciative of the journalist’s significance in the artistic ecosystem than most art-world satires normally are, but he also uses the writer as a constant fart-joke delivery system in a way that tempers the film’s potential for pretension.
I don’t know that Flux Gourmet’s art-world parody has as much to say about the creative process as The Duke of Burgundy has to say about romantic power dynamics or In Fabric has to say about fetishistic obsession. I’m also at the point with Strickland that I don’t need him to prove his greatness with profound statements or unique observations about the world outside his head. The nail-salon talons & over-the-top Euro fashions of his visual aesthetic remain a constant delight, as does his naughty schoolboy sense of humor. I wouldn’t recommend Flux Gourmet as Baby’s First Strickland, just as I imagine Crimes of the Future wouldn’t be as valuable of a Cronenberg gateway as bona fide classics like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, and eXistenZ. I guess if there’s any way Strickland has the one-up in that comparison, it’s that there’s a lot less homework you’d have to catch up with to understand his whole deal, so Flux Gourmet is an easily digestible delicacy for the those with only a slightly advanced palate.
Welcome to Episode #161 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of genre spoofs, starting with Carl Reiner’s erotic thriller send-up Fatal Instinct (1993).
One of the stranger stories out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the selection of its opener. Opening Cannes isn’t necessarily a marker of prestige, since the honor has been bestowed upon such disposable titles as The Da Vinci Code, Cafe Society, The Dead Don’t Die, and Grace of Monaco in the past. Still, I was amused to hear that this year’s opener was a robustly budgeted French remake of the low-fi Japanese crowd-pleaser One Cut of the Dead. Final Cut was directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who’s been coasting for a full decade on the notoriety of winning a Best Director Oscar for The Artist. Otherwise, it appears to be the exact kind of anonymous mainstream comedy that never gets exported outside France, so that Americans assume most of the country’s cinematic output is its small crop of high-brown art films. Attempting to recapture the magic of One Cut of the Dead is a fool’s mission in any context, but there’s something especially absurd about an establishment filmmaker remaking it with real studio money and then getting the red-carpet treatment at the world’s most distinguished film festival.
One of the reasons it’s foolish for Hazanavicius to attempt replicating One Cut of the Dead‘s niche, low-budget magic is that One Cut‘s director Shinichiro Ueda has already championed his chosen successor. Ueda has proudly boosted the profile of the low-budget sci-fi one-shotter Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes as One Cut of the Dead‘s adorable kid sister, lifting it out of the festival circuit into international distribution. If it weren’t for that profile boost, the comparison wouldn’t do Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes many favors. While One Cut of the Dead transcends its low-budget zombie comedy medium to become a film about the joys of all low-budget filmmaking, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has a lot less to say about the world outside its single-location microcosm. It’s an impressive feat in circular-logic thought exercises and microbudget filmmaking, though, and it’s easy to see why Ueda was won over by its surface-level charms as One Cut‘s spiritual successor. Selling the rights for the Final Cut remake was smart, but it’s nice to see Ueda’s still siding with D.I.Y. art projects on the other side of that paycheck.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes splits its 70min runtime between two rooms in the same cramped building: a ground-level cafe that’s closing for the evening and one of its baristas’ upstairs apartment. In a self-creating paradox, the barista discovers that his computer monitor can see two minutes into the future through a lagging stream of the cafe’s security camera. His future-self informs present-him of this two-minute loop, an anomaly that’s quickly discovered by a growing list of intervening friends who push past his fear & bafflement to test the limits of what the loop can do. It turns out that two-minute future vision is essentially useless, and the more our bumbling time criminals stretch the boundaries of that frustratingly brief timeframe the more they trap themselves in a self-perpetuating loop of small-scale fate. There’s some handwringing about the implications of contradicting the (very near) future they’ve already seen play out on the monitors, but for the most part the fun in the film is in watching them fail to expand the implications of this strange, isolated event into something bigger & more significant.
Of course, the only reason Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has earned any comparisons to One Cut of the Dead is that both films are structured as one-long-takes, testing the limitations of that gimmick the same way Beyond‘s knuckleheads test the limitations of the two-minute time loop. In One Cut, the one-shot gimmick is a wonderfully concise summation of all the various restrictions of low-budget film production. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a lot less concerned about the authenticity of the gimmick, sloppily “hiding” its cuts in closeups on doors, clothes, and shadows. It’s a smart way to draw attention as a D.I.Y. production filmed on smartphones, but I got the sense that maintaining the real-time progression of the time-loop experiments was more important than maintaining the illusion of a one-shot production. In most one-shotters, the intended effect is to prompt the audience to ask, “How did they do that?” in stunned wonder. By contrast, these two films make it blatantly clear how they accomplished the feat. One Cut proudly highlights its production mistakes as part of its inherent charm, and Beyond doesn’t waste much energy at all on hiding the creases between its shots. Its time-loop conundrums are its main focus, so that its greatest strengths are in its writing instead of its framing.
In summation, One Cut of the Dead is a modern cult favorite, Beyond the Infinite Minutes is its adorable faint echo, and Final Cut is its flimsy plastic substitute. It’s hilarious to see which one got the red-carpet rollout at Cannes, even if there is plenty precedent for that exact kind of cornball programming at the fest.
Do you remember the great Bacon Craze of the early 2010s, when it was considered hilarious to burden your friends with bacon-scented candles and bacon-flavored chewing gum as novelty gifts? Do you remember further back, in the mid-aughts, when you could buy “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts at practically any gas station? How about “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking keychains? “Git-R-Done” trucker hats? Big Mouth Billy Bass?
Imagine someone handing you one of these ancient totems and expecting a full-bellied laugh in return, as if it were the darndest thing you’ve never seen. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a decade-old Nicolas Cage meme with nothing novel to say about his unique talents or celebrity. It’s a faint but direct echo of the “Not the bees!” YouTube clip that kickstarted the massively talented actor’s meme era in the first place. It offers nothing that Andy Samberg didn’t already accomplish with his “Get in the Cage” segments on SNLan entire decade ago, including bringing in Nicolas Cage as himself to emphasize that he’s in on the bit. It might as well be an I Can Has Cheezburger? coffee table book or Chuck Norris Facts: The Movie; it is that outdated, that useless.
Nicolas Cage stars as two versions of himself: a has-been who can’t land a decent role & an imaginary-friend version of his younger, more successful self that occasionally swoops in for pep talks. Admittedly, it’s fun to watch these two Nic Cages make out in one of the only instant-classic Cagian stunts anyone will remember from this film after the next few months (thanks to its potential for “Not the bees!” style memeage). The problem is that only one of those versions of Nic Cage ever existed in the real world: the imaginary one. He was a genuine Hollywood movie star in his youth; that is undeniable. It’s the positioning of the “real”, modern Nic Cage as a total loser who hasn’t been doing anything worthy of his talents since the action-blockbuster heyday of movies like Face/Off, The Rock, and Con Air that rings embarrassingly false. While a lot of dismissive cynics consider Cage more meme than actor at this point, anyone who’s regularly engaging with his output knows he’s in his full-on auteur period, putting in consistently great, idiosyncratic work for smaller, more niche audiences that are always happy to see him.
Pedro Pascal plays a true believer, a proud member of that niche audience who challenges Cage’s total-loser narrative. His claim that “Mandy is a masterpiece” is the only acknowledgement that the Nicolas Cage brand is still going strong. Most of the other references to his acting work are stuck in his 80s & 90s heyday, citing Guarding Tess & Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as Nic Cage deep cuts. Pascal’s enthusiasm for Cage’s talents makes the film mildly affable, especially as Cage gradually bonds with his #1 fan as a genuine, cherished friend. There’s a plot in which the real-life Nic Cage gets recruited by the CIA for a covert spy mission on Pascal’s remote island compound (again, covering territory already run into the ground by Samberg on Weekend Update), but the movie’s at its sweetest & most recommendable when it focuses on the two dudes just being good buds, talking about movies & enjoying each other’s company. It’s too bad the premise is so outdated and the jokes are such a constant eyeroll. When it’s not commenting on Cage’s memeability or lost celebrity, it’s halfway cute.
I will credit The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with this: it got me thinking about Nic Cage’s Hollywood celebrity heyday in a way I haven’t engaged with much in recent years. There was once a time when he could play Normal Guys in films like The Family Man & It Could Happen to You without raising an eyebrow. That era has decisively come to an end and is likely worth revisiting, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been doing anything worthwhile in recent years. Nicolas Cage is not a loser. He is not a stale, stagnant meme. He is our best working actor, and he gets more fascinating every year. I likely should have looked to Keith Phipps’s new book Age of Cage for a more nuanced summation of where Cage is currently at (and where he’s already been) instead of expecting that kind of up-to-date critical analysis from a best-bros comedy about the CIA. Still, it’s hard to laugh at a joke you’ve already heard a thousand times before, especially when the setup to the punchlines is no longer anchored to the modern world.
I enjoyed the Daniels’ debut feature Swiss Army Man, which I categorized on my Top Films of 2016 list as “an unconventional love story, a road trip buddy comedy, and an indie pop musical about a farting corpse with a magical boner.” Even as a fan of that understandably divisive gross-out, I still agree with the consensus that their follow-up film is a huge step up for the music video director-duo. Everything EverywhereAll at Once triples down on the Cold Stone Creamery approach to filmmaking that the Daniels toyed with in Swiss Army Man, mashing every cinematic indulgence the directors could manage—from alternate-dimension sci-fi to vaudevillian slapstick to sincere Wong Kar-Wai homage—into a massive, delectable headache. And yet it securely anchors that chaos to a solid emotional rock in a way that Swiss Army Man could not, which left it feeling adrift. I don’t even know that I would encourage fans of Everything Everywhere double back to check out the Daniels’ debut. You probably already knew in 2016 whether a farting-corpse boner comedy was going to appeal to you, and that likely has not changed. In contrast, Everything Everywhere crams in a little taste of something for absolutely everyone, so much so that you’ll find yourself recommending it to family & coworkers despite it featuring its own gross-out gags involving butt-plugs & hotdog fellatio.
The elevator pitch for this unlikely crowd-pleaser is that it offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where The Matrix was directed by Michel Gondry. It’s nice there. Everything Everywhere is structured around a standard-issue comic book plot in which a maniacal supervillain attempts to gain ultimate power over the infinite alternate timelines of “the Multiverse,” with only a specially equipped Chosen One hero standing in their way. It distorts that superhero blockbuster template through the hand-crafted dream logic & heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of our twee yesteryear, bringing an earnestness & personality to the genre that’s sorely missing from its megacorporate equivalents. The superpower that allows ordinary characters to leap between these infinite timelines is the cosmic surprise of an unexpected, improbable act, “the less it makes sense the better.” The Daniels openly dare you to roll your eyes at the “LOL! So random!” humor of that premise, packing the screen with randomly generated totems like googly eyes, talking racoons, pro wrestling finishers, lethal fanny packs, and an all-powerful, apocalyptic Everything Bagel. However, every silly, randomsauce image is lovingly crafted and thoughtfully anchored to the film’s emotional rock, earning its place on the screen beyond a for-its-own-sake indulgence. They somehow even make their Chosen One heroine’s Deadpool-style observations about the absurdity of her predicament (especially her stubborn mispronunciations of the villain’s name) feel well-earned & natural to her character. It’s an incredible feat.
The aforementioned emotional rock is the lead performance from the always-solid Michelle Yeoh. The infinite alternate timelines premise demands that Yeoh play infinite alternate versions of herself, and she excels at every turn. Yeoh is funny. Yeoh is frustrating. Yeoh breaks your heart into a thousand shards, then lovingly glues them together again. The Daniels obviously have immense respect for her range as a performer. They allow her to show off both the stern dramatic severity & classic Hong Kong action superheroics she’s already famous for, then demonstrate the thousands of possibilities in-between those extremes we’ve been robbed of seeing onscreen. Ke Huy Quan & Stephanie Hsu are also wonderful as her husband & daughter, respectfully, exploding the boundaries of what audiences have been trained to expect from their Nice Guy side character & flamboyant Gay Villain archetypes. It’s Yeoh who leaves you in total stunned awe, though, especially as the rare Strong Female Character who’s allowed to be a genuinely complicated person. We’re introduced to our hero as the absolute worst version of herself across the vast multiverse. She’s terrible at the enormous entirety of everything, most crucially in the way she relates to her family as they frantically scurry through their shared daily routine. Watching her learn to be a better person by breaking out of her rigid-thinking patterns & emotional cowardice is inspirational, something I can’t say about most Chosen One superheroes.
It’s easy to be reductive about what makes Everything Everywhere great, since the Daniels are willing to pummel you with an infinite supply of absurdly disparate, deeply silly imagery. Pushing past that impulse, it’s impressive that a loud, chaotic superhero movie can prompt you to evaluate how you live your daily life and how you can work towards becoming the best possible version of yourself. Considering that I only walked away from their last picture with fond memories of laughing at farts & boners, I’m okay conceding this follow-up was a major improvement. My own rigid, stubborn, contrarian impulses would usually have me defending their earlier, messier work against their popular break-out, but in this instance the consensus take is the correct one.
Until a couple weeks ago, there were exactly two things I “knew” about Jayne Mansfield: she was a cheap imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and she died in a horrific car accident. It turns out both of those bullet points were hazier & more complicated than I understood them to be. Yes, Mansfield died tragically young on a late-night drive to New Orleans but, no, she was not decapitated as the sensationalist urban-legend reports of her death would have you believe. Yes, Mansfield was often cast and marketed as a Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe alternative, but she managed to push her screen persona beyond that rigid typecasting to become her own distinct, wonderful thing. I always thought of Jayne Mansfield as someone who starred in a couple minor roles before her life & career were abruptly cut short, but she’s got a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb—ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies—most of which have nothing to do with her designated place in Marilyn’s shadow. I have a daunting curriculum ahead of me in parsing out exactly who Jayne Mansfield was as an onscreen persona, a too-long-delayed education I hope will override my initial, ignorant assumptions about her.
Since I’m not going to watch all three dozen of her acting credits in a single go, the best crash-course education in Jayne Mansfield studies I could figure was checking out her two most iconic roles: her collaborations with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin. Their first film together, the 1956 rock-and-roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, was my most obvious entry point, since it’s something I’ve seen lovingly referenced in several John Waters pictures. Not only do the rock-and-roll teens’ reaction shots in Hairspray pull direct influence from The Girl Can’t Help It‘s various concert performances, but Waters also lovingly parodied Mansfield’s title-song strut for one of the very best gags in Pink Flamingos. In the Frank Tashlin version, Mansfield struts down a city block in a form-fitting dress, while every man she passes on the street instantly overheats at the sight of her – milk boiling out of bottles & popcorn popping out bags in their hands like premature ejaculate. In the John Waters version, Divine recreates the exact same strut while bewildered Baltimoreans gawk at her in confusion & disgust, stunned in total awe of her filthy divinity. In case the connection isn’t clear, both versions are set to the Little Richard tune “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which made the Tashlin movie a must-see movie on my watchlist for years.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that The Girl Can’t Help It is the ideal Mansfield talent showcase. It’s fantastic as a rock-and-roll concert film, featuring a wealth of standalone performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, and the like. It’s also the ultimate example of a movie studio pigeonholing Mansfield as a Marilyn stand-in instead of allowing her to be her own thing. Monroe made her secretly-smart-ditz schtick look so easy that you can only tell how tricky it is when someone else bungles it. Mansfield is adorable as the drag club caricature of that archetype, at least, and it’s amusing that her … questionable talents are essential to the plot of her starring-role debut. She plays the reluctant girlfriend of a gangster who’s forcing her into a nightclub-singer career she does not want (or even have the talent) to pursue. She looks fantastic in her snatched-waist wardrobe—an effect wonderfully compounded by the endless supply of horndog men who make cartoon wolf-eyes at her—and her breathy obliviousness is a delightfully absurd exaggeration of retro femininity. It just sucks that the comparisons to Marilyn’s similar not-so-ditzy ditzes are so unavoidable, since her character and her performance are not allowed to have the same depth & nuance as Monroe’s most iconic roles.
It wasn’t until her next Tashlin collab, the 1957 ad industry satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, that Mansfield really came into her own as a screen persona. Her drag-club Marilyn caricature is adorable enough in The Girl Can’t Help It, but she pushes the act to such a transcendent extreme in the next film that the comparison is obliterated entirely. Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal. Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom. It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, mood-killing gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a cartoonish extreme. Even the teen girls of Rock Hunter have a crush on Mansfield, not just the men passing by, and you feel that lasting Ultimate Bimbo impact influence future women who’ve played that same archetype (notably including Elvira, whose pet poodle in Mistress of the Dark was likely an homage to Mansfield’s here). Tashlin matches Mansfield’s nuclear zaniness in his direction of Rock Hunter too, firing off rapid-fire sex jokes and TV commercial parodies as if he were consciously bridging the temporal gap between The Marx Brothers and ZAZ. In retrospect, The Girl Can’t Help It feels like a trial run for the film where they really set out to let loose, which tracks with the knowledge that Rock Hunter started as a Broadway stage play (also starring Mansfield) before The Girl Can’t Help It was developed.
I understand, logically, why The Girl Can’t Help It is the Tashlin-Mansfield collaboration that’s getting a spiffy new Criterion restoration. There’s a distinct pop-art iconography to it that is undeniably potent, as indicated by the homage of its titular strut in Pink Flamingos (which is also getting a Criterion polish this year). The movie is very proud of its technical beauty, bragging about its indulgences in “the grandeur of Cinemascope” and “the gorgeous, lifelike color of DeLuxe” in its William Castle-style intro. It’s clear to me, though, that Tashlin & Mansfield were at their absolute best in their latter collaboration, which exaggerates everything that’s great about The Girl Can’t Help It (except the music) to a beautifully ludicrous extreme. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? taught me how to appreciate Jayne Mansfield as her own unique persona, breaking her out of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator box I used to store her in (despite her Rock Hunter character being written as a spoof of Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch). Now all I have to do is catch up with the thirty other Mansfield movies I haven’t seen so I can fully understand her surprisingly extensive career as an actress. So far, I’ve only read the syllabus and skimmed the highlights; it’s time to do the coursework.
There’s something charmingly retro about the hair salon ensemble comedy Deadly Cuts, both in its plotting and in the specific niche of the festival-circuit indie comedies it recalls. This is a slobs-vs-snobs story about eccentric workers of an Irish hair salon getting one over on the gangsters, politicians, and big-city competition that bully them for being fabulous. Not only do the hairstylists of the titular Deadly Cuts (derided for being a lowly “pun salon”) claim victory over their bullies by winning a televised competition, but they also use the prize money to save their small suburb of Piglinstown from financial ruin. It’s the standard “save the community center” plot from every classic underdog comedy, but with a Christopher Guest-style talent show climax. Deadly Cuts recalls the funniest bits in Sordid Lives, Strictly Ballroom, and Best in Show, wringing some huge, often crass laughs out of a TV sitcom budget. It feels like the kind of movie that would have gathered a large but quiet cult following over the years had it come out in the time of video store rentals & limited movie options on cable (like all three of those comparison points). I don’t know how much room there is for that kind of sleeper hit to gain traction in the modern pop culture landscape, but the movie itself is fun & charming enough that you wish it could time travel back to a more favorable era.
Maybe it’s that late-to-the-table, familiar appeal that convinced writer-director Rachel Carey she needed to zhuzh up her debut feature with a killer hook. The oddball characters that work the film’s warring hair salons are distinct & funny enough on their own that the movie doesn’t really need an extra gimmick to make it worthwhile, but it does need to get eyeballs on the screen somehow. Carey chose murder. While the Deadly Cuts stylists are already super busy preparing for the avant-garde hairstyle competition Ahh Hair (broadcast nationally on Fad TV), where they’re outgunned by the skilled but passionless snobs of competing big-city salons, they also have to fight off local gangsters who extort them for “protection” money and local politicians who’re eager to knock their business down for an easy gentrification cash-in. It would have been more than enough for our foul-mouthed heroines to smite their enemies with outrageous haircuts, but Carey goes the extra mile by having them literally smite their enemies with a series of slapstick murders. The main conflict of the film is still in watching them beat the odds as the underdog favorites in the Ahh Hair competition, but there’s an added layer of tension in hoping they’ve disposed of their enemies’ bodies efficiently enough to collect their trophy before arrest. The most wholesome thing about the movie is watching the Piglinstown community cheer them on from home (or, more accurately, from pub) despite it being an open secret that their scissors have been cutting more than hair.
I would love to live in a world where Deadly Cuts became a sleeper sleepover hit, inspiring a generation of young sassy weirdos to quote catchphrases like “Let’s do hair” and “As I live and weave” amongst each other as a long-running “inside” joke. I just don’t see a lot of potential for the next Drop Dead Gorgeous or the next Romy & Michele to emerge from this current, disorganized zeitgeist, which is partly why this particular low-budget comedy feels at least twenty years out of place on the timeline. It’s a major success in the two ways that count most, though: it’s funny & cute from start to end. The challenge is in convincing your friends to watch it so you have someone to bounce your favorite quotes off of while everyone else in earshot has no idea what you’re babbling about.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1990’s Tatie Danielle, is a dark comedy about a cruel old biddy whose sole purpose in life is making everyone else as miserable as she is. It plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks. The main difference (besides their anti-heroes’ disparate ages) is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless repeats of “Bad to the Bone”, while Tatie Danielle is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication. Both are great.
It’s rare that elderly characters are allowed to be complicated, difficult people onscreen. They’re usually dazed wallflowers who are only good for an occasional comedic one-liner or a pang of audience sympathy. The titular Auntie Danielle might be an ornery bully, but she’s at least interesting & complicated enough to carry an entire character study all by her lonesome – something you can’t say about many elderly characters on the big screen. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more films about wonderfully terrible old people whose geriatric misanthropy makes them oddly adorable.
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
If you want to see a version of Tatie Danielle with all the dramatic sophistication surgically removed to make room for broad Problem Child-style comedy, Grumpy Old Men is basically its dumbed-down American remake. The core emotional drama of Tatie Danielle is in watching its miserable old biddy find an unlikely kindred spirit in her younger, even meaner nurse – a complicated relationship that evolves from borderline elder abuse to Thelma & Louise feminist heroics. Grumpy Old Men takes a much simpler, lazier route by pairing Jack Lemon & Walter Matthau up as two miserable old men who find good company in each other’s equal-footing sourness. They’re essentially playing two photocopies of the same ornery-old-man archetype—next-door neighbors & lifelong rivals—so there’s nothing nuanced or surprising about their I-love-to-hate-you dynamic. Still, I got choked up by a scene where Matthau drags Lemon to the ER post-heart-attack and struggles to answer a nurse who asks whether he’s “friend or family.” The thing about simplified Hollywood schmaltz is that it works, often to an embarrassing degree.
What’s brilliant about Grumpy Old Men‘s archetypal frenemy dynamic is that it allows the film to immediately launch into Matthau & Lemon’s hate-love dynamic. It plays like a “The Movie” version of a decades-running sitcom in that way, or maybe a legacy sequel to the comedians’ previous team-up in The Odd Couple. That frees up a lot of space for geriatric Problem Child pranks, which are of course much broader & cuter here than in Tatie Danielle. These geezers might spitefully refer to each other by pet names like “moron” and “dickhead,” but they’re not really as misanthropic or cruel as Auntie Danielle, and a lot of the film’s fun is in watching them unwittingly bond as friends as they ruin each other’s daily lives with slapstick pranks. Go to the French film for nuance; go to the American one for a Benny Hill set piece involving a runaway fishing hut.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)
I suppose referring to Grumpy Old Men as the “dumbed-down American version” of Tatie Danielle doesn’t leave much room for discussion of Bad Grandpa – a geriatric prank movie from the professional dummies at Jackass, the most dumbed-down game in town. In this spinoff from the official Jackass canon, Johnny Knoxville appears in old-age makeup as a horny old grump who briefly celebrates the freedom of his wife’s death, only to be saddled with custody of his grandson for the length of a disastrous road trip. It perversely mixes candid-camera pranks with a Little Miss Sunshine-style feel-good comedy plot, even concluding with a real-life recreation of Little Miss Sunshine‘s climactic dance number (this time a drag/strip routine set to Warrant’s hair metal classic “Cherry Pie”). Knoxville is obnoxious, cruel, selfish, uncomfortably horny, and often casually racist throughout the road trip, and the film scores a lot of easy laughs in observing people’s horrified reactions to a frail old man’s misanthropic misbehavior – the same transgressive thrill as Tatie Danielle.
There’s been a lot of serious academic reconsideration of Jackass‘s artistic value as a documentary series lately, and I honestly believe there’s an argument to be made that Bad Grandpa is one of the more innovative, nuanced examples of mean-geezer cinema. The love for last year’s Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip seemed to suggest that the narrative-hybrid approach is the future of the candid prank film, so it’s a little odd this one is poorly remembered. It’s not quite as funny as a legitimate Jackass film, but it is funny, and it’s an interesting evolution of the form. If nothing else, every prank feels narratively purposeful in a way neither Bad Trip nor the Borat movies bother to attempt. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup, which might very well be one of the first legitimizing accolades a Jackass film got as an achievement in cinematic craft. You have to wonder whether if the series were filmed in France instead of the US, it might’ve been legitimized as “documentary art” & “a joyous vision of resilience in the face of trauma” a lot sooner.
Rabid Grannies (1988)
Given that the comedic legacy of Grumpy Old Men & Bad Grandpa has an immediate successor in the Robert DeNiro comedy Dirty Grandpa, it’s tempting to offer that much maligned (but surprisingly funny) gross-out comedy as the third compliment to Tatie Danielle. I don’t want to lean too hard into the dirty-old-man side of the geriatric gender divide, though, since part of the novelty of Auntie Danielle’s misbehavior is the novelty of seeing an old woman shine as a sour misanthrope. I can think of plenty examples of elderly men causing an age-inappropriate ruckus in slapstick comedies, but misbehaving biddies are a lot more difficult to come by. In fact, I had to deviate to splatstick horror comedies to find the perfect pairing with Tatie Danielle‘s evil-old-woman humor, landing on the 1988 Belgian gore fest Rabid Grannies. It might seem like the furthest outlier recommendation listed here, but it’s both the only one of these pairings that, like Tatie Danielle, centers on misanthropic old women and features a French-speaking cast.
Well, they normally speak French anyway. One-time director Emmanuel Kervyn instructed his cast to speak phonetic English so the film would be internationally marketable. For his effort, he sold the film to Troma, who has since bungled its release for over thirty years in both the quality of its prints and the censorship of its gore gags – a shitty trade-off for having to listen to characters talk-shout in a language they barely understand. As a farce, Rabid Grannies is painfully unfunny, if not outright shrill. As a special effects showcase, however, it’s a hoot, approximating what it would be like if the creepy biddies from Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches actually tore into some flesh instead of just threatening to. What it lacks in belly laughs it more than makes up for in its flashes of Dead Alive-level splatstick gore.
At the start of the film, the titular killer “grannies” (referred to as “The Aunts” by their ungrateful relatives) are stereotypically sweet old ladies. They freely give money to homeless people but are tight-pursed when it comes to their relatives, who are nastily competing for the women’s soon-to-be-distributed inheritance. No matter how sweet they appear, The Aunts are sinisterly Conservative in their old age, pressuring their children to hide lesbian relationships & second marriages out of distaste for the impropriety. It’s a moral fascism that’s amplified when The Aunts are cursed by the black sheep of the family, who infects them with a witchcraft spell that transforms them into flesh-eating demons. In their first act of violence, the evil old women bite off a family member’s head. In their climactic showstopper, they eat another family member’s ass – literally. It’s all very gloopy & over-the-top, but it’s rooted in the same generational warfare that runs throughout all these misanthropic comedies.
If you squint at it the right way, Tatie Danielle is a kind of horror film about an evil grandmother the same way that The Stepfather is a horror film about an evil stepfather, or The Dentist is a horror film about an evil dentist. Rabid Grannies follows through on the novelty of that premise in the most extreme, tasteless way, transforming its bitter-old-lady villains into grotesque monsters. The funny thing is that even in that creature-feature context, they take delight in their family-destroying mayhem as if they were just playing juvenile pranks on their victims (or, more accurately, just playing with their food). It’s an approach that makes the broad caricatures of Tatie Danielle look restrained & sophisticated by comparison, which I suppose you could also say about Grumpy Old Men, Bad Grandpa, and the like.
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 Britneemade Hanna,Brandon, and Boomerwatch Tatie Danielle (1990).
Britnee: I’ve always had a fondness for mean old ladies. When women age into their 70s and 80s, there’s a social expectation for them to be sweet and nurturing. A frail, wrinkled woman with a loose grey bun carrying a tray of fresh baked cookies for visitors is the “sweet old lady” image that we’re all too familiar with, and I truly hope I never fall into that mold. My great grandmother was one of my favorite people because she was known for being a rude, gaslighting troublemaker. As she aged into her 80s, she would complain about her self-diagnosed diabetes while sneaking cake at any chance she got, and she would tell everyone how her children didn’t want to take care of her while they were waiting on her hand and foot. And she would say it all in French! I’m so glad that there is a film that captures her essence (in a more exaggerated way): the 1990 French black comedy, Tatie Danielle.
Auntie Danielle (Tsilla Chelton) is the ultimate mean old lady. She’s an elderly widow who loves to torment just about everyone who crosses her path, especially her elderly housekeeper, Odile (Neige Dolsky). Auntie Danielle calls Odile “a whore” while making purposeful messes for her to clean up, steps on flowers she plants in her flowerbed, and guilts her into getting onto a ladder to dust a chandelier, which is the last thing she ever cleans as she falls off of it and dies. With no one to help with her day-to-day routine, Auntie Danielle divides her estate between her great-niece and great-nephew, then moves to Paris to live with her great-nephew and his family. She brings her shenanigans with her, and they eventually begin to realize what a terror she is. When they have guests over, she implies that she is neglected. She refuses to eat her great-nephew’s wife’s cooking, but she sneaks pastries at any chance she gets. When taking her great-nephew’s youngest son to the park, she abandons him to find sweets and makes her way back home without him. These are just a few of the increasingly horrible stunts that she pulls.
Her family desperately looks for someone to stay with Auntie Danielle while they go on a family vacation in Greece, and at the last minute, Sandrine (Isabelle Nanty) shows up to save the day. Auntie Danielle soon realizes she’s met her match as Sandrine doesn’t put up with her shit. At all. The two gradually bond through a very bizarre love-hate relationship that is unexpectedly heartwarming and a blast to watch.
Brandon, what are your thoughts on Auntie Danielle’s bad behavior? Was it hard to watch or did you enjoy her cruel antics just as much as I did?
Brandon: There are a lot of things that are hard to watch in this movie, but most of them have to do with larger cultural circumstances of elderly abuse & abandonment. Since visitations from her family are rare enough to be a major event and she spends most of her alone time commiserating with a portrait of her dead husband Edouard, you get the sense that Auntie Danielle got to be this awful purely through her isolation from the world outside. As she’s shuffled off to apathetic nursing homes or the care of a physically abusive grannysitter (who does eventually become her friend after a couple harsh slaps to the face), it’s clear that the elderly have plenty of good reasons to be sour & misanthropic. Because she’s an intensely spiteful little shit, she often weaponizes everyone’s sympathy for her frailty & isolation in old age as a way to punish her supposedly ungrateful family, posing herself in a wrecked, shit-smeared apartment where the only available sustenance is cans of dog food so that they look like total monsters (a set piece that’s so visually over-the-top in comparison to the rest of the film that it could’ve doubled as an art installation). Her spitefulness being a result of culture-wide cruelty & disinterest in the elderly does make the film a tough watch in patches, especially once you realize how much better she can be as a person by simply making one friend, Sandrine.
All that said, yes, I was delighted by Auntie Danielle’s cruel antics. With the exception of a few casually racist, homophobic, and misogynistic insults she tosses around just to inflict maximum harm, it’s fun to cheer on her miserable misbehavior. Tatie Danielle often plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks. The main difference is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless replays of “Bad to the Bone”, while this is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication. Both are great, though, and both rely on the humor of their antiheroes transgressing against ageist expectations of proper social etiquette. If the POV character was Auntie Danielle’s nephew or wife, this might’ve been a nightmare comedy of manners about how careful most adults are to not hurt the feelings of their sour, Conservative elders despite receiving none of that consideration in return. Instead, we see the world through Auntie Danielle’s beady little eyes, and so it’s fun to watch her expertly fuck up the daily lives of her boring, phony family. I was particularly delighted in how much disdain she shows in her great-grandnephew despite him being an adorable cherub of a child – abandoning him at a public park so she can enjoy some ice cream in solitude. Delicious.
If there’s anything that justifies Tatie Danielle‘s pretentions as a sophisticated European drama, as opposed to a wide-appeal goofball comedy, it’s in Auntie Danielle’s uneasy friendship with Sandrine. They have a very complicated relationship as bitter kindred spirits that transcends the generational warfare of every other character dynamic, and it’s the one part of the film that does not play into its Problem Child for Miserable Old Biddies novelty factor. Hanna, what did you think of how that relationship develops and where it goes? What would the movie be like without it?
Hanna: I loved Auntie Danielle’s relationship with Sandrine! I thought it redirected the tone of the film in a really interesting, refreshing way. The first 45 minutes or so are chock full of her passive-aggressive and outwardly aggressive barbs, and I assumed the film would follow a straightforward escalation of interpersonal violence between Auntie Danielle and her ill-prepared friends and family. I was as shocked as she was when she met her match, and there’s a special kind of joy that springs up from their commiseration as cruel, selfish women (I could not stop laughing when they abandoned that poor dog on the street). I also love how their relationship shows a real element of tragedy in Auntie Danielle’s character. Although she’s delightful to watch, she’s not all that sympathetic, and I couldn’t really relate to her beyond an exercise in wish fulfillment of my most petty urges and grievances. Once she finally does find a kindred spirit (beyond her deceased husband) in Sandrine, she isn’t really sure how to extend herself beyond giving money to Sandrine and monopolizing her time, which ultimately drives Sandrine off. Auntie Danielle seems like the kind of person who needs exactly one friend, then sabotages any relationship she forms as soon as the other person shows any interest in anything besides her. As strange as it may sound, it was kind of touching to watch a real desire for connection wrapped in jealousy creep into her petulant nastiness.
I also thought that Sandrine’s character gave a little glimpse into who Auntie Danielle may have been (or wanted to be) as a younger woman. Like Britnee mentioned, it was inspiring to see a model of feminine expression that was totally divorced from the feminine ideal of compassion and selflessness, and I appreciated the fact that we got a representation of that kind of freedom across two generations. Of course, bad manners can also isolate you from the world until you find your rotten soulmate. Boomer, do you think Auntie Danielle is a subversive model of womanhood that we should strive for? Does this film damn Auntie Danielle and Sandrine’s bad behavior, or offer it up as an appealing alternative?
Boomer: I think that, overall, I had a very different reading of the film than everyone else. I should note right out of the gate that, even as a child, I couldn’t stand Problem Child, Clifford (the 1994 one with Martin Short, no big red dogs in sight), Dennis the Menace, or any other movies that were about monstrous children, with the sole exception of Drop Dead Fred. When I was a kid, because we lived in a trailer that was pretty far out in the country and therefore outside of any real restrictions on fireworks, my parents hosted a church gathering for New Year’s Eve when I was 5 or 6. We were pretty poor at that time, and there were probably about 5 families, all with at least one kid, and I remember with great clarity the way that the kids from church—all of whom lived in real houses and had real closets full of name brand non-Big Lots toys, and who didn’t have to share half of that space with a Rainbow D4C—absolutely destroyed my tiny bedroom and the very few things that I owned and cherished and which weren’t hand-me-downs from my older cousins. There was bed jumping and book tearing, one of them shot an arrow into my wall with a toy bow, and a precious balsa wood model that was a gift from my grandmother that Christmas and which she and I had built together was smashed into a dozen pieces which were then ground into the cheap, ugly carpet. It was an utter nightmare. To me, there’s nothing funny about seeing children engaging in wanton (and costly) acts of destruction, and I know that without context that makes me sound like an insufferably stodgy old coot, but I think the fact that I actually enjoyed Drop Dead Fred both as a kid and in my most recent viewing just a couple of years ago illustrates something about me: the destruction that Marsha Mason’s mother character in Drop Dead Fred has to deal with is deserved. She’s a horrible mother: restrictive, cruel, and criminally unfit, up to and including killing a child’s imagination because she tracked mud into the house, and then later dragging her now-adult daughter to a child psychologist when she exhibits unusual behavior. All John Ritter wanted was a family, and all Charles Grodin wanted was to marry Mary Steenbergen, which is totally reasonable.
What’s strange to me, then, is that I find Auntie Danielle to be, well, not sympathetic, but at least fun to watch. We actually know very little about what her life was like before the film starts, other than that at some point in the past she was married, she has not only the wealth that her stately home manifests but also her stipend from her husband’s military service, and that she employs a maid, whom she regularly abuses. Anything else that we suppose about her life prior to that point is purely assumed and projected, and at this moment we’re all bringing to the table our own lived experience of COVID purgatory, which I think is coloring those perceptions and presumptions in a way that’s altering our feelings about Danielle and her situation. Of course, my reading of Danielle is also purely speculative, but I don’t think that there’s any real indication that she was ever a nice person, or that her temperament is the result of being isolated. To me, her disdain for her family reads as innate and not retaliatory; she mentions in passing that they rarely come to visit, but she doesn’t bother reading the mail that they send her, and despite being perfectly fine until almost the moment that they walk through the door, she retreats to bed and pretends to be ill in order to hasten their departure. Her neighbors seem to be on friendly enough terms with her servant Odile and ask after Danielle, so she could have a social life if she wanted, but she’d rather ruin pretend to be nice and then mock her neighbors behind their backs with snide faces. She destroys Odile’s hard work with the flowers and also torments her by interrupting the older, dottier woman in the middle of a thought until she completely disrupts anything Odile may be thinking about. Danielle pesters the poor woman about cooking something for the family but also makes the process of doing so as difficult as possible by acting like a petulant child every step of the way by delaying the grocery trip for as long as possible, hiding the grocery money in her pocket (and accusing Odile of stealing it), refusing to get out of the car at the bank, and then encouraging her dog to bite the elderly maid. Their conversation about Danielle’s continual pestering about the chandelier indicates that she’s been giving Odile a hard time about the fixture for some time, indicating to me that she’s been trying to make this “accident” happen for a long time. She’s cruel to the point of monstrosity, needling her niece about the fact that her younger boyfriend is a commitment-phobe, lying about her food tastes so that she can find fault in everything that Catherine cooks and causing her to fret about the possible deleterious health issues that could be causing Danielle to lose her appetite (while secretly gorging on pastries), and even spying on their marital relations. I don’t see any indication that she was ever a nice person or that there’s even a reason that she is the way that she is.
She’s just evil and she loves it. And I loved watching it.
I would fundamentally disagree with the statement that Danielle’s family is phony, however. As noted above, I’m normally only able to stomach this kind of thing if the person whose life is being ruined had somehow earned karmic retribution, but that’s not the case here. I find her treatment of them despicable in the abstract despite being comical in action; beyond all of the people Danielle mocks or passive-aggressively torments in passing, we spend a lot of time with this family, and while I won’t argue with the point that her nephew’s family is dull, they seem completely genuine and well-meaning to me. They certainly are boring, in an Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike” way, and there’s a different version of this movie where they’re dissatisfied with the banality of their urban lives and their cantankerous aunt comes and shakes them out of their doldrums, but Tatie Danielle is not that movie. The parents have an active, fidelitous sex life, and they take no issue with their older son’s exploration of traditionally feminine art forms or try to police or interfere with the closeted activity that is going on under their noses. The younger son never acts like a spoiled brat or expresses frustration about having to give up his room for Danielle and only wants to spend time with her. I even interpret their loving treatment of their elderly family dog as an explicit metaphor for both their willingness and suitability to take care of an aging loved one to the very end (especially in comparison to Danielle’s willingness to send her well-trained dog to live with someone else, without a backward glance or even another thought). It’s not their fault that Jean-Pierre has the misfortune of being the one of the last two living relatives of a woman who gets off on making other people miserable.
I’d also fundamentally disagree with the concept that anything that happens to Danielle in this film is abusive or uncalled for; although I had a moment of abject horror in the moment when Sandrine slaps her across her face, as it’s a shocking act of violence, Danielle’s behavior to that point—not merely thoughtless but actively unkind, dishonest, and child-endangering—earned that small measure of recompense, and more. I do find it odd that Sandrine, the biggest foil to our villain protagonist, appears so late in the film, arriving right at the 65-minute mark, at which point we’ve spent nearly 40 minutes in the Billard family home (Odile’s tragic fall happens at minute 25 precisely). When she did, I started to think that this film would simply be a kind of picaresque of this delightfully awful woman ruining the lives of all who have the bad luck to touch her, but instead Sandrine gives her a taste of her own medicine. When she seems to fret over the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, but it also seems like a proverbial light bulb is going off over her head, because she immediately starts to manipulate the emotions of everyone around her by reciting those horrors as if they are happening to her when she is the abuser: she lies to her family about how Odile treats her, including supposed physical beatings, and then sets the woman up to injure herself; she expresses worry about being abandoned in her later years, then abandons both a preschooler and an elderly dog in the park, with only one of them making it home; she destroys the Billard apartment with feces and fire and eats dog food solely so that she can turn public sentiment against her unlucky family on a societal scale. And the moment she finds herself in a home, it’s not the staff there who are cruel to the little old ladies (although they probably could stand to do a little less daytime grab-assery), it’s Danielle who menaces the other septuagenarians.
Danielle is an artist and her medium is hate, and I don’t think that the film damns or praises Danielle or Sandrine, and I’m not sure it would work if it really did either. Danielle’s hard to live with, but that makes those of us in the audience instinctively want to stay on her good side, so when we’re alone with her in a scene as she makes faces at a closed door or behaves like a child, we feel like we’re in on the joke and on the inside of that mean girl bubble. It would be impossible to take a person of such intense hypocrisy and callous malice and make that person aspirational in a completely unironic way, but by keeping us on the inside of that bullying for so long, it makes it harder to condemn her either, especially when she has a genuine emotional connection for what’s likely the first time since Edouard died, if not the first time in her life. It’s more documentarian than that, and it makes no moral judgments. I’ve certainly said a lot about how detestable her behavior is, but I also couldn’t look away or stop laughing.
Britnee: When Catherine answers the telephone, she takes off her massive clip-on earrings. This happens a lot, and she always makes it look so elegant. Cracks me up every time!
Hanna: As much as I liked the twists this story took, I was all in for the passive-aggressive biddy relationship between Auntie Danielle and Odile in the beginning. I would have loved to see a version of this movie that starts when they move in together and escalates into old lady mayhem.
Boomer: I actually don’t think that Danielle ever loved Edouard. This is probably my biggest presumption about what we’re supposed to think about Tatie Danielle’s life before the film starts, but I think that they married when she was very young and he was perhaps … not. The vignette photograph that Danielle has of him looks positively Edwardian; I did some research to see if I could determine if he was wearing a uniform from WWI or WWII, since Danielle doesn’t specify, but I can’t be certain. This painting is of a French officer’s uniform and is dated 1940. Assuming that Danielle, like her actress Tsilla Chelton, was born in 1919, and given that she has no more recent pictures of him than 50 years prior, it seems like Danielle married a man in his 30s or 40s when she was twenty or so, and he died shortly thereafter. My personal headcanon is that Danielle has simply had half a century to forget that, when he was alive, she hated him and got her jollies making him unhappy, too.
Brandon: For the first half-hour of this, I was starting to worry that the social isolation & systemic cruelty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was making me as miserable & misanthropic as Auntie Danielle. I could hear my own constant, cynical complaints about how stupid & ugly the world has become echoed in her hatred for every human being in her eyesight. Then she joked that her family member was “silly” for “dying of the flu” in response to news of a lethal viral outbreak, and I was reassured that I’m actually not this terrible . . . yet. Once I get callous about COVID deaths, I’ll know I’m in trouble.
Starting last year, we have entered a new, revolutionary era for the movie-making division of Motern Media, with shockwaves that will rattle the bones of independent cinema for at least the next decade to come. Motern megalomaniac Matt Farley has announced plans to complete & distribute two feature films a year for the foreseeable future, collaborating with longtime filmmaking partner Charles Roxburgh to match the overwhelming pace of Farley’s music production in their backyard movie output. That personally imposed two-films-a-year metric would sound too ambitious to be sustainable for an amateur auteur if it weren’t for Farley’s deep public record of superheroic stubbornness. Between his 22,000+ song catalog, six-hour marathon concerts, conceptual triple albums, and outright spiteful takeover of the Sufjan Stevens “50 States” project, Farley unleashes an unrelenting flood of self-published #content at a pace unmatched by any Online Era artist I can name. The only time he’s announced an ambitious creative project without fulfilling his initial goal is when he & Roxburgh planned to produce a septology of Druid-themed movies shot on a digi-camcorder in the woods, but wisely cut the project short when it was “only” a quadrilogy (still an impressive feat). And, who knows, maybe this new two-film-a-year production metric will force Motern’s hand in delivering the final three parts of The Druid Cycle after all, picking up where they left off with Druids Druids Everywherein 2014. They’ve got to run out of fresh ideas at some point, right? Right?!?
The first pair of films from this new, revolutionary era in Motern Cinema offers both a wild deviation from the norm and a nostalgic return to basics. It’s obviously much easier to get excited about the outlier, so I’ll start there. Releasing it direct-to-Vimeo in 2021, Farley & Roxburgh present Heard She Got Married as their version of a “straight forward psychological thriller,” a wild tonal departure from their classic tongue-in-cheek creature features. Instead of playing his usual stock character of an outsider artist who never “made it”, Farley leads as a has-been rock star who moves back to his hometown “in The Tri-Town Area” to adjust to a post-fame life. The film is as bizarre as ever in its hyper-specific character details (including a local weirdo who is fixated on convincing strangers to taste his homemade hotdogs), but it’s an all-growed-up, oddly sinister maturation of the Motern template. The Motern family of recurring players are getting old, and there’s a darkness to their nostalgia for the sunnier days of their rambunctious youth, summarized by the line “We all had a good time when we were kids, but it’s over.” When Farley’s has-been rock star investigates the suspicious behavior of his psychotic mailman, it’s played as a sad, petty distraction from his real work of growing up & moving on – as opposed to previous heroic investigations of small-town threats like the Riverbeast, the Gospercaps, and the creep with the killer foot. It’s disarming to see Farley & Roxburgh mine such a dark tone out of the exact character dynamics they usually play for laughs, especially since the movie ends on a sincere psych-thriller twist instead of an absurdist punchline.
Premiered at a couple isolated screenings in 2021 and now widely available on Blu-Ray through Gold Ninja Video, Metal Detector Maniac is more of a business-as-usual effort from Motern than its sister film. It delivers all the novelty songs, adorable locals, 1-on-1 basketball, and preposterous horror villainy you’d expect from a Farley/Roxburgh horror comedy. Metal Detector Maniac was initially intended to be a sincere throwback to video store-era horror schlock, but in the writing process it devolved into a goofball satire dunking on the absurdity of academia. Farley co-stars with longtime Moes Haven bandmate Tom Scalzo as college professors who get distracted from their academic research by a self-assigned “citizen sleuth” investigation of a suspicious metal detector hobbyist who lurks around the public park. Unlike with the similar maniac mailman investigation of Heard She Got Married, the metal detectorist’s devious behavior is a non-sequitur that only occasionally distracts from what’s really on Matt Farley’s mind: petty grievances over the cushiness of tenured university jobs. Metal Detector Maniac is mostly an excuse for Farley to complain about the ridiculous racket of paid sabbaticals, university presses, and inspirational “pre-writing” sessions that he’s locked out of as a self-published artist. A no-budget horror about a maniac with a killer metal detector is a hilariously incongruous platform for these bitter, detailed complaints about professorship, which is the exact kind of the-monster-doesn’t-matter approach Farley’s applied to his creature features in the past. It strikes a much more routine, expected tone than Heard She Got Married as a result, but another scoop of ice cream is still a scoop of ice cream: a familiar delight.
As a pair, these two new Motern releases are most essential in the way the document both extremes of Matt Farley’s prolific, bifurcated music career. The bumbling “citizen sleuth” professors of Metal Detector Maniac specifically study the practice of spontaneous, improvisational songwriting, intellectualizing a “Don’t think, just make art” ethos to the adoration of their students and the skepticism of their colleagues. By contrast, the tonal change-up of Heard She Got Married is echoed in the earnestness of its soundtrack, consisting of Farley’s sincere rock n’ roll anthems instead of the improv novelty songs that score his horror comedies (and pay his bills). In-the-know Motern fans will distinguish Heard She Got Married as a MO75 film and Metal Detector Maniac as a Moes Haven film, but I’m not sure that level of Matt Farley obsessiveness is necessary (or even healthy). At most, the only pre-requisite homework required to fully appreciate these delirious sister films is spending an hour watching Farley’s classic self-portrait Local Legends, which is one of the greatest films of the 2010s anyway. Of this pair, Metal Detector Maniac is more likely the title that holds up on its own without prior Motern Media familiarity, but I’m also too deep into the cult indoctrination process to make that call anymore. All I can say for sure is that both films are included on the Gold Ninja Video release of Metal Detector Maniac, and they both signal that the Motern filmmaking method is still going strong as we enter the 2020s – whether Farley & Roxburgh are trying out new things or sticking to what’s already proven to work. Which is good news, since they’re planning to double their catalog of movie titles over the next few years regardless of audience appetite.