Her Smell (2019)

There are few narrative templates as a familiar to American audiences as the rockstar addiction story, in which booze & illicit chemicals tear down celebrity gods from powerful highs to pitiful rock-bottoms. Hell, in the last year alone we’ve already seen this exact story play out in Vox Lux, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt, and yet another A Star is Born remake in a longstanding, haggard tradition. On a plot outline level, Her Smell makes no attempt to jazz up the melody of this narrative template. It’s well aware that this is a story we’ve seen too many times before, both in the tabloids and on the big screen. If anything, everyone in the film seems well past exasperated & fed up with watching the tired rock star addiction cliché play out spectacularly around them; they’re just helpless to stop it. As faithful to & disdainful of that cliché as the film appears to be, though, it still manages to feel like a fresh, unholy terror through the virtues of its execution, which does its best to rattle the audience to the point where we’re numb, drained, and begging for release.

A large part of what distinguishes Her Smell in this crowded field is the specificity of its setting. These tortured artist addiction narratives are typically reserved for machismo-driven cock rockers like Jim Morrison, Led Zeppelin, and whatever Americana archetype Bradley Coopers was aiming for in last year’s Oscar run. By contrast, this film is a pastiche of the rock ’n roll excess stories that seeped out of the femme 90s punk bands of the riot grrrl & grunge era. The most obvious 1:1 comparison for its fictional rock ‘n roller Becky Something would be Courtney Love on her worst behavior, but the film pulls from plenty other bands’ onstage personae & backstage drama for inspiration: The Breeders, Throwing Muses, L7 , Babes in Toyland, etc., etc., etc. We see the fictional band Something She at the height of their 90s heyday only in brief interstitials of backstage videocorder footage between much lengthier, more contemporary scenes of their post-fame bickering. It’s a hyper-specific yet undeniably iconic music scene that we rarely get to see depicted in feature films, which usually do little to challenge rock ‘n roll’s outdated reputation as a boys’ club. If we’re going to watch a familiar story of drugs wrecking a rock star’s life & career play out yet again, we might as well use it as an opportunity to see something that’s a much rarer treat in filmmaking of any era: women behaving badly.

Besides the specificity of the setting, Her Smell is also elevated above its potential genre tedium by the provocateur sensibilities of its director, Alex Ross Perry. Perry brings his usual thirst for pitch-black despair & total sensory overload to this Queen of Earth follow-up, content to violently shake his audience by the shoulders for as long as anyone could possible stand it. The major evolution to his usual mode here is a newfound sense of patience. Her Smell is well over two hours long. It’s structured like a stage play, with act-length scenes stretching on for torturous eternities as its addict antagonist torments everyone unfortunate enough to be lured into her orbit. Perry at least has the decency to release some steam from the pressure cooker for a rare moment of calm halfway through the runtime that effectively serves as an intermission, but for the most part he offers very little relief from the anxiety & hurt addiction wreaks on this once vibrant, now decaying music scene. His camera offers a dizzying, unflinching tour through the backstage labyrinth hellscapes behind the concerts that justify this vile behavior, with muffled far-off crowds screaming for more like the demons of Hell. That thunderous applause mixes with subtly unnerving synth flourishes to continually disorient viewers as we’re forced to endure nightmare drug parties long after the good vibes have soured. It’s exhausting, but impressively effective.

All this preamble is really just burying the lede of what truly makes Her Smell a must-see spectacle: Elizabeth Moss. Recalling the maddening whirlwind performances of legendary actors before her like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence or Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Moss plays the tragic rock ‘n roller Betty Something more as a rabid animal or a natural disaster than a human woman. Usually these madwoman breakdown dramas are sympathetic portraits of someone who’s cracked under the pressures of mental illness & impossible Patriarchal ideals. Here, Moss is simply allowed to be total, unforgivable nightmare – bursting into rooms backstage like a flood that wipes out all her friends, family, and colleagues along with her. She curses professional rivals with mysterious black-magic hexes, plays with her small child like a dog temporarily excited by a new chew toy, and feeds off the adoration of her audience as an enabling signifier that she can do no wrong. We never see Moss ingest drugs onscreen, but you can read each speck of the junk on her dazed, ghoulish face. It’s an intensely physical performance that expresses all the subtlety & nuance necessary to make this somewhat generic story specific to her character, so that all Perry has to do (besides write the damn thing) is stay out of her of way and allow it to play out in its full, rabid spectacle. It’s a mesmerizing feat of a performance from one of our greatest living actors.

The final achievement that makes Her Smell an exceptional specimen of its ilk is in the quiet release of its final moments, something I wouldn’t dare spell out here even if I thought it was possible. After two full hours of being terrorized by Elizabeth Moss’s feral showboating, everyone involved is exhausted on a molecular level, allowing for a rare moment of quiet grace I can’t recall ever seeing before in this Tragic Rock ‘n Roll Addict genre. I was genuinely, emotionally moved by the final lines of Her Smell, which was something I hadn’t expected given the familiarity of this thematic material. It shames me to admit that I had much stronger feelings overall for the superficially similar swing-for-the-fences mess of Vox Lux last year. Still, it’s undeniable that Moss & Perry broke through to something truly resonant & powerful by the time this film reaches it’s closing moments of denouement – whether through the specificity of character & setting, the willingness to dwell in intense discomfort, or the perversely cathartic pleasure of watching Women Behaving Badly.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

Native Son (2019)

Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.

Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.

Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

It’s got to be difficult to make a concise, dramatic film about gentrification; it’s such a slow, gradual process that’s inflicted on modern cities in subtle, disorganized ways. The Last Black Man in San Francisco approaches the surreal experience of being gradually priced out of your city by millionaire yuppies in a way I’d never expect, but now seems almost obvious. Debut filmmaker Joe Talbot (along with his star, cowriter, and longtime friend Jimmie Fails) filters anger & anxiety over housing inequality through the classic stage play Existentialism of touchstones like Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The film’s pair of dazed & displaced buddies (Fails & Jonathan Majors) haunt a city they’re no longer racially or financially welcome in, like ghosts stuck between planes of existence. Whether waiting for a bus, waiting for an eviction, or waiting for a miracle that’ll allow them to wait out San Francisco’s gentrification overhaul unscathed, they seem to be stuck in a classically Existential crisis of lapse in meaning & purpose. The movie leans into that eerily surreal sense of being dislodged from real life by allowing absurdist chaos to occasionally invade what is essentially a plotless hangout otherwise. It also makes its tonal connection to stage-play philosophy as explicit as possible – indulging in plenty “All the world’s a stage” & play-within-a-play narratives to drive the point home. It’s wild, beautiful, harrowing stuff doled out a weirdly calming, subdued pace – a perfect formal approach to an incorporeal topic that’s near-impossible to contain in a single picture.

Jimmie Fails stars as “Jimmie Fails,” a listless skateboarder who struggles to overcome a youth spent in group homes because of his parents’ addictions by reclaiming his San Franciscan childhood house in what is now a millionaire’s neighborhood. This starts with trespassing to repair the home with minor cosmetic upkeeps while it’s occupied by a gentrifying white couple who throw croissants at him and threaten to call the cops. It escalates when even those NPR yuppies are exiled from the skyrocketing-value property and Jimmie decides to squat in his nostalgic dream home with his best friend, a neurodivergent playwright played by Majors. Although they’re technically breaking the law by trespassing on the property, they act as caretakers for its minor upkeeps & repairs – showing more careful attention to its needs than they believe the privileged elite who can legally afford to live there would. Whether traveling to San Francisco from Oakland or palling around in their gorgeous inner-city squat, they spend much of the movie waiting for something to happen, existing in a temporal limbo. Busses, eviction notices, and confrontations with the property’s “rightful” owners all arrive later than they should, resulting in a bizarre overabundance of unstructured time. Jimmie’s playwright bestie fills a lot of that time by interpreting the solemn absurdity of their plight through the lens of a stage drama. The soapbox preacher who shouts indecipherable calls-to-arms by the Bay is the omniscient narrator; the shit-talkers on the sidewalk are the Greek chorus; and we, of course, are the perplexed audience.

Like all abstracted, philosophically-minded theatre, what makes The Last Black Man in San Francisco special can’t be summed up by the merits of its more pedestrian elements like plot or character development. This is a very patient film that casually searches for beauty, terror, and humor in the absurd. Somber jazz scores beautiful slow-motion portraits of local weirdos and their invading yuppie evictors with the gliding motion of skateboard cinematography. Mutated fish & hazmat suited government workers hint at a near-future dystopia of a polluted planet only the ultra-wealthy can afford to survive. Construction sites for land-gobbling condos are filmed with the horrific ambiance of Dracula’s lair, while traditional San Franciscan homes are framed like exquisite cathedrals. The movie is excitingly playful in how it depicts the horrors of gentrification displacing the very people who made the city enticing to outsiders in the first place – hurling GoPros through the air by The Bay and distorting California counterculture royalty like Jello Biafra & Joni Mitchel until they’re no longer recognizable. It laughs while coughing up blood and desperately grasping at a disappearing way of life, refusing to move on until it is gone entirely. It’s a shaggy, sprawling drama that admittedly loses a lot of its initial energy as the walls close in on its priced-out-of-existence besties. Still, it perfectly captures what it feels like to love a place so much you’re willing to hang out long past when the party is over, just to enjoy every possible minute there before it is demolished. It’s a quietly surreal, classically Existential film that can only cope with the helplessness of displacement by having a solemn laugh at the situation’s absurdity.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

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 Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).

Boomer: Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a complex movie. I saw it as part of the same “Women on the Verge” film programming block at the Alamo Drafthouse last summer that also showcased An Unmarried Woman, on back to back weekends, no less. The film is largely based on the real recollections of notable 1950s model Anne St. Marie from recordings made by director Jerry Schatzberg; this was his film directing debut after having largely worked as a fashion photographer, and he made tape recordings of his conversations with St. Marie in her declining years. These tapes form the backbone of the narrative of Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway, in what I think is the finest performance of her career), with Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus) standing in as a fictional version of Schatzberg himself. This structure, even if unknown to the audience, lends the film a sense of verisimilitude, even in the moments in which Lou’s recollections are self-contradictory or self-aggrandizing and lacking in any kind of internal inspection.

In additional to great performances from Primus and Dunaway, Roy Scheider also gives a stunningly brutal edge to Mark, playing against type (like me, you probably grew up with Scheider as tough-but-fair Chief Brody in Jaws or as the paternal lead Captain Bridger on seaQuest DSV) as an abusive, hypocritical asshole. Or is he? Lou’s memories are so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s impossible to know for sure what he really did or didn’t do (although, yeah, he probably was a jerk, because everyone is in this movie, to some extent).

Britnee, what did you think of this approach to storytelling? It’s not exactly Rashomon, since we’re not seeing the same events from multiple characters’ points of view; it’s one truly unwell woman’s conflicting recollections about her life as she tries to make sense out of all the misfortunes that have befallen her, both her fault and her own, and her conscious and unconscious attempts to make her own mistakes fit a framework of existence in which everything bad happened to her and outside of her power, and all the good things in her life were the result of her actions. To me, it’s mesmerizing in its lack of self awareness while still making me very sympathetic toward Lou. How do you feel?

Britnee: At first, I was really confused as to what the film was trying to do. Was Lou lying purposefully? Were any of her recollections real? It wasn’t until I was a good half hour or so into the film that I realized the confusion I was feeling was exactly what Lou was feeling. Dunaway does such a wonderful job of making Lou’s character likable, so that her potentially false memories come off as being innocent rather than malicious. The back and forth between Lou’s flashbacks and reality made me feel like I was a peeping tom in the window of her mind. Often, spending time in Lou’s mind became super uncomfortable (especially in her memories of abuse), but those moments really helped me understand her character and sympathize with her. Her not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is truly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Films about the fashion industry always tear at my heart. Watching women being objectified and tossed out like trash once they’re of a certain age (usually 30 years old) is difficult. On a lighter note, watching films like Puzzle and comparing it to today shows how much the world of fashion and modeling has progressed. Models of all ages and sizes are gracing the covers of major fashion magazines and runway shows now. The industry still promotes some ridiculous standards for women to live up to, but it does seem to be getting better. One of the saddest scenes in Puzzle was when Lou’s was hired for a shoot as her modeling career was coming to a close. She puts on a red Lucille Ball wig and is glowing with excitement to show off her new look when a younger model arrives, completely ignoring her. To make things worse, one of the women working on the shoot makes a rather patronizing statement about her new look at the same time. She was getting kicked while she was down, and you could see it all over her face.

The fashion world was so cruel to Lou, and the saddest part is that she had no true friends or family to fall back on for support. At first, it seems like Aaron is the only one in the world that is concerned about Lou, but in the end, he uses her just like everyone else. She has so much faith and admiration for him, so watching him exploit her mental illness during the interview made me so angry. Brandon, did you feel the same way about Aaron?

Brandon: It’s important to note that Lou interacts with two entirely different versions of Aaron, reflected in two entirely different timelines. I do believe that Aaron exploited Lou and worsened her mental condition through his own greedy actions, but I’m not so sure that his taped interviews with her were the worst of that exploitation. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that any interview was recorded in the first place. Boomer mentioned that the film was based off a real-life set of interviews the director recorded with a fashion model he once collaborated with, but that information is extratextual. Within the reality of the film, confidently saying that anything that materializes onscreen actually “happened” is a bold claim. Lou might be, through no fault of her own, the least reliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. It’s not that she’s actively lying to make herself appear more important or morally superior through historical revision, either; it’s that she’s so mentally fraught that her memories and real-time perception cannot be trusted – least of all by herself. It’s difficult to say whether the older, contemporary Aaron is actually visiting her in the recorded interviews framing device. Not only is Aaron much gentler & kinder in those exchanges than he is in earlier memories, but Lou also interrupts one of her exchanges with him to mentally project herself on the beach outside the window, interacting with an entirely different character in lipsync. We see the world through her shattered-glass eyes, so I don’t know that we can even trust that she’s talking to Aaron in those exchanges at all. She could as easily be just talking to a wall and playing her arrhythmic castanets to no one.

If he does exist as represented onscreen, I suppose Aaron exploiting his former crush and collaborator’s mental breakdown for filmmaking fodder is a little cruel, but his intentions mostly appear to be noble. He’s at least recording her story in her words, offering a creative platform for an artist whose industry has abandoned her as she’s gotten too old and too “difficult” to turn them a profit. It’s the younger Aaron, the one who more likely exists, who really came across as a villain to me. I think of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as one of the Driven Mad By The Patriarchy mental-breakdown dramas (which are generally excellent as one-woman acting showcases, proven true by Dunaway here). As with the protagonists of films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, safe., The Nun, The Love Witch, and countless others, Lou is a broken person who’s lost her sense of reality and sense of self trying to live up to patriarchal standards by becoming The Ideal Woman. Whether or not she was biologically predisposed to having dysfunctional mental health, the cruelty & exploitation that defines her life as a woman in the modern world is what sends her over the edge. Even when she’s still a young schoolgirl, all anyone wants from her is sex & profit, a systemic objectification that continues throughout her adult life. As her only close friend, Aaron was in a unique position to be the one person in her life who could help her, to be the one person concerned for her well-being instead of pushing her to satisfy his own desires. Instead, he pressures her into (ultimately nonconsensual) sex through the guise of artistically collaborating as photographer & model. It’s the most devastating betrayal of a film that’s overflowing with selfish cruelty in nearly every scene.

What I’m having a difficult time reconciling here is how those two versions of Aaron (the framing-device interviewer & the in-memories photographer) overlap, and what Schatzberg is saying about himself in the process. CC, do you read a lot of guilt & remorse in the director’s depictions of his own real-life relationship with Anne St. Marie here or do you think the project was more driven by his pity for her, blind to how he came across onscreen through the avatar of Aaron?

CC: I honestly feel uncomfortable trying to parse out the director’s intent here. This is a film that directly grapples with how people present their own image, clearly establishing that we cannot be trusted to present ourselves truthfully. If nothing else, that alone makes any attempt to guess Schaztberg’s intent a maddening puzzle with no possible satisfying answer. We can all at least agree that Aaron does bad things and it’s not flattering; supposing anything more than that would be pure speculation.

No matter what he intended with his minor self-portrait or his more elaborate depiction of a woman in crisis, Schatzberg is at least in good company. I find it fascinating that so many male directors of the 1970s were fixated on this topic. Much like Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Altman in 3 Women, Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Polansky in Repulsion, Schatzberg toes a thin line between empathy and exploitation in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. These are all sympathetic portraits with a shared critical eye for how women are ritually broken down by their place in society. As Ebert described when he called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” they put you in the mind of a type of woman who rarely gets to center her own story. They’re also excellent actors’ showcases for women who are unlikely to find such substantial roles elsewhere, most significantly Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. That’s why it’s disappointing that they’re so often filtered through the directorial male ego. It also may be part of the reason I consistently find this genre deeply upsetting and unenjoyable, even if the films are well made.

To his credit, Schatzberg did collaborate with a female writing partner, Carol Eastman, who earned sole credit for the movie’s completed screenplay. It was Eastman who chose to base the final product off interviews Schatzberg conducted with friend & model Anne St. Marie, who he claims he never had a sexual affair with in real life. As such, the depictions of Lou, Aaron, and every other character onscreen is just as much a creation of her voice as anyone else’s. Boomer, how do you think this collaboration with Eastman distinguishes Puzzle of a Downfall Child from other examples of its genre where the male director wrote the screenplay on their own? Is it important at all that a woman co-write this film? What might have been lost if it were written entirely by a man?

Boomer: That’s a great question. I mentioned before that this film and An Unmarried Woman were part of the same Alamo Drafthouse specialty series, which took its name, “Women Under the Influence: Life, Love, and Madness in the ’70s,” from the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, the first film in the showcase. The fourth and final film was the seldom-seen Play it as it Lays, based on Joan Didion’s novel and directed by her husband; they, too, shared writing credit. Jazmyne Moreno, whom I mentioned before as the host of Austin Film Society Cinema’s screening of On the Silver Globe and who is the current host and programmer of AFS’s Lates Series, was the (co-)programmer for these, and I respect her judgment a lot; she’s an amazing person and I’ve never been let down by any of her programs (her introduction for Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place and a screening of Friday Foster way back in March 2017 are particular highlights of my Austin filmgoing experiences). We’re coming to these films with nearly 50 years of cultural criticism in the interim, and all of the touchstones of women-driven empathy machines of the era that you noted are well chosen, because you’re right: there is an issue of cultural distance via time that separates us from what were groundbreaking films at the time but which are not entirely without an element of exploitation with regards to the women at the core of the film. But just because Hans Robert Jauss is dead doesn’t mean he was wrong: every text has a different face for each reader, and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I share your discomfort with trying to parse Schatzberg’s authorial intent, but I have to admit that I’m equally vexed by trying to suss out what Eastman’s intention was, not least of all because I would be projecting my male reading onto her female authorship, which this discussion has made me acutely aware of. I can’t make claims about her intentions with any authority, so I hope it will suffice it to say that my personal head canon is that she either (a) liked Schatzberg and wanted to lovingly take the piss a little by making his author avatar a bit of a dirtbag, or (b) she was subversively using the medium of the screenplay to take potshots at him behind his back. I hope it’s the former, but the latter is also of interest. Either way, even though Schatzberg was close to the film’s original inspirational personality, I still find it doubtful that the film would have been as sensitive to Lou had Eastman and her pen not been there to ensure that there was a woman’s voice in the creative room. Brandon mentioned the way that Lou was the victim of systemic objectification from a young age; it’s easy to imagine a film without Eastman’s influence playing Lou’s pubescent “seduction” only as it was first shown, a kind of mutual attraction, affection, and teasing, and not as it really was upon later revisitation, a clear-cut case of a man taking advantage of a much younger woman. We can never be sure, but I’m glad we don’t have to know.

We’ve talked a lot about issues related to the fashion industry and systemic sexism and all of its accompanying moral evils. What I remembered most about this movie after spending a year apart from it before this rewatch was Dunaway’s performance, which may be the highlight of her career. Contemporary reviews were mixed; the New York Times cited ” a character of such lovely, tentative lucidity that to be with her is, as it should be, worth a whole movie,” while Variety stated she “first garners wholesome pity, but the plot development soon banishes her to bathos and finally boredom.” Britnee, what did you think? Were there any other performances in the film that stood out to you?

Britnee: Dunaway’s performance in Puzzle was definitely one of her best. Her best performance to me will always be her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which is a film I quote at least once a week. Puzzle is a close second though. Dunaway really has a way of having characters take over her completely, just like when a ghost uses a human body as a vessel. Interestingly enough, her role in both films is based on an actual person, as is her star-making role in Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe biopics are her jam?

I really enjoyed the scenes of the film that were set at Lou’s beach cottage. I would have loved to hangout with her there, sipping coffee or tea while listening to her stories that intertwine fantasy and reality. Her character reminds me of some of my favorite family members and friends whom I visit to get a good story, be it a delusion of grandeur or a memory from many years ago. I just love to listen, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Lou’s character so much.

The only other performance that stood out to me (other than Aaron, which I mentioned earlier) is Mark. As Boomer mentioned, his character in Puzzle is so different from Jaws’s Chief Brody. Years ago, I watched All That Jazz, where Schneider portrays a character loosely based on Bob Fosse, who is a womanizing douchebag. I remember being slightly heartbroken seeing Chief Brody play a “bad” guy, and that feeling resurfaced while watching Mark in Puzzle. If I had not been so familiar with his Jaws character, I don’t think his performance would have been as stand out as it was. Either way, he still wasn’t nearly as interesting as Lou.

I had no idea who Anne St. Marie was prior to watching Puzzle, but I have found myself searching for her modeling photographs and articles about her career since watching the film. Brandon, did Puzzle spark an interest in Anne St. Marie’s career for you?

Brandon: Not really. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive of Anne St. Marie as a historical figure & an artist, but there’s nothing especially unique to her story (as presented in the film) that doesn’t apply to all fashion models everywhere. A straight-forward birth-to-death biopic or even a feature length documentary on her life would most likely struggle to fill the time with something to say, besides just packing the screen with her more notable photographs. Puzzle of a Downfall Child doesn’t have many major events in Anne St. Marie’s life to build a traditional narrative around, which is partly what affords it so much room to explore the more intangible aspects of her life’s story: the ways her mental illness distort her understanding of the world and the ways the fashion industry compounds the mental & emotional toll of The Patriarchy. How much of those themes & tones are specifically true to Anne St. Marie and how much was an artistic fabrication of Schatzberg & Eastman’s is up for debate, but I feel like I’ve already learned more about the type of person Anne St. Marie was through this movie than I could ever gather by reading a factual biography on her life & career.

If I were going to investigate Anne St. Marie’s career any further, I’d most want to see a slideshow or a lookbook of her best outfits & photographs. Fashion is an artform I know embarrassingly little about, but I do find its visual pleasures to be magnificent. Like the opera or the ballet, it’s an artform that I always love to see interpreted through cinema for the inherent visual splendor of its setting, especially when paired with a genre conceit or avant-garde filmmaking techniques: Blood and Black Lace, Phantom Thread, The Neon Demon, etc. Puzzle of a Downfall Child does a great job of utilizing a fashion industry aesthetic for cinematic visual indulgences and thematic explorations of systemic misogyny & mental health crises. Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film. I’d love to see some of Anne St. Marie’s work just to appreciate the visual pleasures of her artform, but I feel like abandoning the birth-to-death biopic template that sticks to factual bullet points about the subject made for a better story & a better film.

CC, can you think of any notable fashion industry artists—whether model, designer, or photographer—where that would not be true? Is there anyone who has worked in fashion who you’d rather see a factual biopic about their life than a poetic cinematic interpretation like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or would that loose interpretation always be the preferable approach?

CC: I also tend to prefer this interpretive, expressive style of filmmaking over the traditional biopic. If I wanted to dig into a straightforward biography on a historical figure’s life, I’d just read their Wikipedia page. Even the most factually accurate biopics never really get to the core essence of their subjects the way these more artistic interpretations do. You can never truly capture a person’s inner life on film, but movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child at least edgecloser to that ideal than a straightforward biopic ever could. Besides, just providing the facts of their life isn’t really all that interesting, so this way is much more entertaining.

There are a few fashion figures I’d like to see receive this treatment. The first that comes to mind is the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only does Schiaparelli have an interesting biographical background as someone who fled her childhood as the daughter of nobility and academics (and the tedious suitors therein) to marry a fortune teller in London and start her own career as an designer (and eventually a single mother); she also just had an approach to fashion that might make for a great movie artistically. Interpreting fashion as a graphic artform and not just a utilitarian necessity of life, Schiaparelli worked closely with Surrealists like Salvador Dali & Man Ray. I’m no filmmaker so I can’t speculate exactly how one would interpret her life & work for the screen, but I imagine the clash of couture fashion & Surrealism alone would give you a lot to work with.

I could also imagine an interesting movie based on Schiaparelli’s mentor Paul Poiret. In fact, most of the names that immediately come to mind for movie treatments are designers, not models. That’s likely because designers are already afforded their own voice creatively in a way models aren’t, so I already somewhat know what they have to offer. One of Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s more striking choices is in offering a voice to a type of fashion industry figure who’s usually denied that outlet, apparently repressing it to the point of inflicting insanity.

Lagniappe

CC: For a film about fashion I found most of the clothing to be pretty lackluster in this. The make-up was on-point, though.

Britnee: One very minor scene in Puzzle that stuck with me was when Lou and Aaron were eating hot dogs in Central Park. Watching Faye Dunaway eating sloppy street hot dog made me laugh for a good bit.

Boomer: It wasn’t until Brandon pointed it out that I realized that yes, this is very much like a giallo film. No wonder I loved it so much.

Brandon: It’s appalling how little effort has gone into properly distributing this film on physical media. You can catch restored 35mm screenings at film festivals or scattered repertory venues, but it’s never seen official VHS or DVD distribution in the US (oddly, it has been afforded that respect in France). Luckily, that lack of proper stewardship does leave the movie open to more . . . questionable modes of distribution, which is why you can watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child in shockingly high quality on YouTube right now. A proper Criterion Blu-ray release for the film feels both necessary and inevitable, but for now take what you can get:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 43: Ikiru (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Ikiru (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 160 of the first edition hardback, Ebert remarks that “Home video is both the best and the worst thing that has happened on the movie beat since I’ve been a critic.” He appreciates home video’s increased access to older films and its economic incentive for film restoration & preservation, but he also believes it to be inferior to a proper theatrical experience, especially for film students. He explains, “Viewing via video has destroyed the campus film societies, which were like little shrines to cinema. If the film society were showing Kurosawa’s Ikiru for a dollar and there was nothing else playing except the new releases at first-run prices, you went to Ikiru and then it was forever inside of you, a great film. Today, students rent videos, stream them online, or watch them on TV, and even if they watch a great movie, they do it alone or with a few friends. There is no sense of audience, and yet an important factor in learning to be literate about movies is to be part of an audience that is sophisticated about them.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five times or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is most respected for the scale of his ambition. In the sprawling, large-cast samurai epics that typify his work, Kurosawa commands a calm, sure-headed confidence that makes full use of the scope & budget afforded him. What’s really impressive about the director to me so far, as someone who’s just getting acquainted with his work, is seeing how that confidence & control translated to more contained works. The twisty, 90-minute samurai thriller Rashomon is limited in cast & budget in a way Kurosawa’s more sprawling epics aren’t, but he explores a cyclical, experimentally subjective story structure through that small number of players to create an ambitious work so iconic it’s been parodied in every long-running TV sitcom you can name (not to mention the innovations cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is allowed to play with in the film). Even more staggeringly, the philosophical drama Ikiru is on its surface a minor drama about an anonymous government bureaucrat’s struggles with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but Kurosawa uses that minor platform to attempt to answer, in all sincerity, what it truly means to be alive. Ikiru’s title even translates to “To Live” (or, in tandem with Ebert’s own writing, “Life Itself”), declaring upfront its intention to identify & define the very essence of existence. Its personal story of one man’s search for a sense of purpose & self-fulfillment in his final months as a government drone may not immediately seem to operate on the scale of a samurai epic that spans decades of narrative over a cast of hundreds, but Ikiru’s larger purpose of defining the nature & meaning of existence might just be the most ambitious goal of his entire career, which was defined by ambition. If nothing else, it’s a subject that covers the entire scope of Philosophy as a practice.

In order to define what it means to live, Kurosawa (and writing partner Hideo Oguni) start with what existence isn’t. Here’s where the film becomes personally insulting to me and how I’ve been wasting my own life. An alarming portion of Ikiru is dedicated to satirizing the boring, ineffective, passionless lives of government bureaucrats as they waste away behind desks affecting no measurable change in the world. As a professional bureaucrat who is currently wasting away behind a desk stacked with paperwork as I write this, my instinct is to balk at the accusation, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Any truthful movie about my life would be too boring to sit though and this film indeed initially finds its bureaucrat protagonist too tedious to directly bother with. After declaring “He might as well be a corpse,” and explaining that his job keeps him “terribly busy but, in reality, doing nothing at all except protecting his position,” the film drifts away from its declared protagonist to detail the Kafkaesque innerworkings of his office. While “his only distinguishing feature is that he has none,” the larger government agency he serves is sketched out to be an exceedingly silly organism with a personality of its own, albeit an absurdly ineffective one. Predating bureaucratic satires like Office Space, Shin Godzilla, and Sorry to Bother You, Ikiru amuses itself following the circular path of a simple citizens’ request as it’s presented to a city government desk and subsequently spirals into a needlessly complex farce that accomplishes nothing. It isn’t until our central bureaucrat learns that he has approximately six months to live before he will die of stomach cancer (a diagnosis we’re introduced to in medical x-rays before we even see his face) that the film bothers being interested in his own personal story. Who could blame it? I can barely stand looking in the mirror for more than a moment without getting bored, so I can’t imagine watching a dutiful bureaucrat go about his business for the full 143min runtime of this satirical drama.

Curiously enough, Ikiru doesn’t define what it means to truly live as being the opposite of those bureaucratic doldrums either. Our cancer-doomed protagonist initially makes the mistake of assuming that in order to imbue his life with meaning he must flee to its exact polar opposite. He struggles to reveal his existential crisis to his greedy, unloving son, but he does find youthful companionship in strangers who help him remember the vitality & hedonism of the world outside his stuffy office. A drunken rake he meets at a bar (who shares a certain swagger with Richard E. Grant’s sidekick character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) “helps” him spend his now useless retirement money on night clubs, strip joints, and other fleeting frivolities. A young coworker whose boundless amusement he envies also briefly takes him under her wing to help recontextualize a life he’s stubbornly come to see as pointless & drab, when it is actually full of possibilities to anyone who keeps an open mind. Our protagonist’s immediate instinct to find meaning in frivolous hedonism when confronted with the question “What would you do if you only had six months left to live?” is eventually shown to be just as foolish as his lifelong dedication to dutiful deskwork. His newfound rebellious spirit is only meaningful when he applies it to the life he was already living as his true bureaucratic self. When he returns to his city government desk to get creative with the tools offered him and to think outside the box on how to organize & facilitate active government projects, he affects a real-world change in his immediate surroundings – creating meaning in his own life instead of sleepwalking through it or running away from it. Essentially, I’m a boring coward for writing this movie blog on my work breaks while otherwise drifting through the paperwork that defines my schedule. Hopefully, a terminal illness diagnosis will shock me into action to do some good around this office before it’s too late and I die having lived a life without meaning. Grim!

Ikiru is not adorned with the samurai swordfights, expansive landscapes, or intense Toshiro Milfune performances that typify Kurosawa’s work, but the director does his best to blow this personal story of one man’s existential crisis up to the same epic scale he’s used to working on. The camera work is complex in its depth, framing, and movements despite the interior spaces it tends to occupy. The themes surrounding this personal crisis are similarly ambitious despite the cramped borders of their scope, using one man’s wasted life to define the meaning & purpose of all human life everywhere. Structurally, the movie also experiments with the boundaries of its medium – not only declaring disinterest in its own protagonist in the opening sequence, but also refusing to conclude once he is deceased. A Westernized version of this story would almost certainly conclude with the protagonist’s death, with maybe only a brief coda allowing his surviving friends & family to remark upon his last-minute turnaround. There’s a distinctly Eastern philosophy to how this film refuses to register death as the logical end of the story – stretching out his memorial to what feels like a full hour of acquaintances detailing his life’s continued impact. This is a masterful, impressively ambitious work from a legendary filmmaker known for delivering masterful, impressively ambitious works. I can’t even fault the flick for calling me out as a life-wasting bureaucrat and “a walking corpse.” It was a direct burn, but an accurate one.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

Finding Belizaire in the Modern Cajun

The biggest shift in onscreen Cajun representation achieved by Belizaire the Cajun, our current Movie of the Month, is that it was a film written & directed by a member of the Cajun community. Previously, most Cajun representation on the big screen came in two forms: documentaries about Cajun culture filtered through the eye of an outsider and as dangerous backwoods yokels that spooked the protagonists of thrillers who wandered too far outside the safety of the big city. Belizaire marked a shift from there only being movies about Cajuns to there also being movies by Cajuns. Writer-director Glen Pitre had already been making self-funded “gumbo Westerns” for local markets before Belizaire, but that film was a breakthrough in budget & distribution thanks to financial & creative support from The Sundance Institute. Still, Belizarie the Cajun was somewhat of an educational drama about the history of Cajun culture; it did not do much in the way of representing what contemporary Cajun culture looked like in modern times. That update didn’t arrive in any significant way for another decade, represented in a film by fellow local director Pat Mire.

Dirty Rice didn’t reach quite as far or wide as Belizaire the Cajun, but it did see its own international distribution thanks to its inclusion in the 1997 London Film Festival. The film was also an extremely localized hit – breaking records for the longest running movie to play in Lafayette theaters, thanks to what ended up being a five-month engagement. It’s been largely forgotten in the decades since. Currently, the only official means of distribution for the film is for libraries to order DVDs from Pat Mire directly, for $100 a copy. The copy I borrowed from my own library was a VHS transfer with no closed captions tracks or special features – just a barebones home video release with zero fanfare. Considering the movie’s lowkey romantic & crisis-of-faith conflicts, this lack of prestigious distribution does make some sense, since there isn’t much of interest on the screen for anyone who’s not especially fixated on cinematic representations of Cajun culture. However, since there are so few narrative feature films in the Cajun canon (not to be consumed with Bobby Hebert, The Cajun Cannon), Dirty Rice is a significant work worthy of study & discussion – one that’s even more lost to time than Belizaire.

In the film, Benjamin Mouton plays a big-city architect who abandons his corporate life in the middle of a major development deal to save his family’s struggling rice farm on the Bayou. The divisions between his rural Cajun hometown and his corporate New Orleans world are about as broad & cliché as you would expect. The architect leaves behind his blueprints & business-woman girlfriend for shrimp boots and an old-fashioned Cajun girl; it’s a kind of reverse crisis-of-faith narrative as he rediscovers his Cajun roots and leaves behind the atheistic temptations of big-city hedonism. His new Cajun girlfriend challenges his prejudices against the community where he was raised, balking at his distrust of old-world holistic medicines with the retort “It’s not superstition if it works.” His big-city ex become increasingly villainous as he comfortably backslides into his old Cajun ways, eventually exiting the film to a chorus of “boos” when she calls him a “coon-ass” in a local dive bar. Meanwhile, he struggles to transform the farm into a profitable business despite its poor rice yield by distilling homemade rice wine & selling crawfish from his fields in city markets. Both the romance & bank repossession crises work out exactly the way you’d expect, but narrative surprise was never Dirty Rice’s focal point anyway. This is a film that’s merits are defined entirely by local flavor.

The depictions of Cajun culture you’ll see in Dirty Rice aren’t all that different from what’s onscreen in Belizaire the Cajun despite the century’s difference in their respective settings. It’s difficult to decipher exactly how much of that overlap is true to historical accuracy and how much is due to the national popularization of Cajun culture around the time of the two films’ releases. Zydeco music & Cajun chefs like Paul Prudhomme saw an unusual uptick in pop culture attention in the decade between these those films, which is likely what helped them get greenlit in the first place. As such, both films pay particular attention to the local musicians featured in their soundtracks (in the case of Dirty Rice, Wayne Toups & Zydeco Cajun), and the local specialties of their cuisine. This is the first narrative film I can remember ever seeing stage a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, complete with newspaper-lined tables and a Tony Chachere’s salt bath for the little buggers when they’re fresh out of the pot. Fried catfish, gumbo, and conversational Cajun-French flavor the air around the film’s barebones romantic & financial conflicts, so that it gradually amounts to more than the sum of its parts. There’s even a sequence that thinks to document the costumes & rituals of Courir de Mardi Gras, which is a major aspect of Cajun culture that isn’t touched in Belizaire.

Belizaire the Cajun is a better movie than Dirty Rice, especially when considered only on its dramatic merits outside the context of Cajun culture documentation. Both films are important works for bringing the basic tenants of Cajun culture to the world at large, though. They’re rare examples of Cajun creators representing their own culture onscreen on their own terms. That localized culture preservation leads to some great people-watching among the extras in both films too, which might be the one area where Dirty Rice has Belizaire the Cajun beat in terms of quality. It’s one thing to see local extras restaging age-old Cajun rituals in period garb in Belizaire, but it’s almost even more substantial to see those customs & mannerisms continue into the blue jeans & sunglasses era represented in the modern setting of Dirty Rice. Both films are substantial in their allowance for Cajuns to control their own cinematic representation in legitimate movie productions, but only Dirty Rice can claim to show how that community’s traditions ­still looked & thrived in modern times.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not a Witch (2018)

The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.

While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.

I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.

-Brandon Ledet

High Flying Bird (2019)

Ever since we covered his low-fi cerebral freak-out Schizopolis as a Movie of the Month, I’ve become a dutiful fan of Stephen Soderbergh. His latest post-“retirement” phase of low-key crowdpleasers that pack a vicious anti-capitalist political punch just below the surface are of particular interest to me, making recent titles like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky, and Unsane can’t-miss appointment viewing. It says a lot about how far outside my usual thematic wheelhouse High Flying Bird is then, that it took me several weeks to catch Soderbergh’s latest even though it was readily available on Netflix. A backroom business drama about a power-struggle between pro basketball players & the NBA (or at least its fictionalized equivalent), High Flying Bird is ostensibly the exact kind of “inside-baseball” sports movie I’d generally have zero interest in if someone’s name like Soderbergh’s weren’t attached. Of course, Soderbergh only uses the pretense of the pro sports drama as an excuse to explore leftist financial politics in what the movie would describe as “the game played behind the game,” as well as staging meta-narrative about his own career in filmmaking. I just didn’t personally connect with the film as much as I might have if it were instead about, say, rowdy strippers or a crazed stalker.

From a Soderberghian experiment standpoint, perhaps the most impressive feat High Flying Bird pulls off is in reflecting the director’s own career within the movie industry without at all sacrificing the voice or politics of its screenwriter Tarel Alvin McCraney (best known of penning the stage play source material for Moonlight). The dense, rapid-fire dialogue that pummels the audience throughout the film doesn’t feel too deviant from the slick-talking hucksters from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, but the themes discussed in those exchanges are, to be blunt, more conspicuously black than anything the director has ever handled before. As André Holland (also from Moonlight) travels from boardroom to sauna to gymnasium instigating an Ocean’s-type heist behind the backs of the mostly white (and mostly off-screen) businessmen of the NBA, he almost exclusively interacts with fellow black power-players: Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg, etc. The same thematic territory of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams is elevated from college recruitment to the pro sports level, as the film tiptoes around equating its racially-caged labor dispute between NBA players & team owners to a continued form of American slavery. High Flying Bird deftly talks about race & labor without officially talking about either in explicit terms, a sly trick played by McCraney that I’m honestly a little too dimwitted to fully appreciate or even comprehend.

For any other white filmmaker I could imagine, this business of using an explicitly black story of labor relations with wealthy, white higher-ups to discuss the director’s own career in the movie industry would be disastrous. Soderbergh somehow pulls it off, though, mostly by staying out of the way of McCraney’s words and taking the backroom political drama at the film’s core deadly seriously on its own face-value terms. The most you notice Soderbergh’s presence throughout the film is in the showy digi-cinematography of his iPhone camera equipment. Shifting away from the ugly smartphone photography of Unsane to achieve a colder, HD security camera aesthetic of wide angles & oscillating pans, High Flying Bird again finds Soderbergh playing with his toys – finding new joy in the basic, evolving (devolving?) tools of filmmaking the way he has his entire career. No one shoots corporate, office-lit spaces quite like him, a sickly aesthetic that mutates slightly here though the omnipresence of HD TVs running sports news coverage 24/7 in the background of every interior setting. It isn’t until Holland’s protagonist starts negotiating deals with streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook to circumvent the NBA’s usual broadcast distribution profits in the third act that the parallels between the labor struggle in the film and the director’s own fights to finance his art within a cruelly changing studio system become unignorably apparent. Still, Soderbergh is smart enough to keep those parallels extratextual and to allow the racial politics of McCraney’s screenplay to work on their own terms. Any more emphasis on the connection between those conflicts would’ve at best been an embarrassment, but it’s interesting enough in isolation as is without overpowering the story being told.

Ultimately, High Flying Bird is a smart, well-made movie that I enjoyed watching, but I feel like it was made for an entirely different audience than me. Any film nerds out there with a political or philosphical interest in the world of pro sports are likely to get much more out of the film than I ever could. As a Soderbergh fan, it was fun to see the director continue his pet interests of labor politics, smartphone cinematography, and offhand references to Baton Rouge culture while adapting the peculiar rhythms of another distinct creative voice. McCraney more than held his own in that collaboration and provides the film with an authenticity & cerebral stage play provocation it would be limp without. If I were just a little closer to the sports drama wavelength these two creative subversives collaborated on, this would likely be one of my favorite films of the year.

-Brandon Ledet

Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet