The Reflecting Skin (1990)

There are only a few films I could cite that touch on the exact discomforting horrors of childhood explored in the 1990 curio The Reflecting SkinGummo, Tideland, Heavenly Creatures, Welcome to the Dollhouse, maybe certain aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth. None come anywhere near predating this forgotten indie cinema relic, yet they’ve each garnered more notoriety for their willingness to Go There when it comes to discomforting childhood fears, violence, and psychosexuality. I presume that’s mostly because no one really knew what to do with The Reflecting Skin in 1990, a sentiment I can confidently echo nearly thirty years later. The film was met with exuberant applause & demands for additional screenings when it debuted at Cannes, but it’s since faded into cultural obscurity due to a shamefully spotty history of physical media distribution. Thanks to a new digital restoration of the film for its first-ever Blu-Ray release, I was lucky to catch it completely blind at the local arthouse venue Zeitgeist, wholly unprepared for the haunted curio cabinet I’d be stumbling through for 90 intensely uncomfortable minutes. It felt like plucking a cursed book from a dusty library shelf and unknowingly releasing something wicked that was deliberately forgotten for the sake of humanity’s safety.

There’s a kind of protective innocence to the premise of The Reflecting Skin that doesn’t fully convey its antagonistically perverse tone. In the film, a young boy who lives at his family’s rural 1950s gas station creates an intricate series of fantasies to help soften the horrors of the insular world he occupies. Confused why his father is a local pariah, why his brother (Viggo Mortensen in his debut film role) is prematurely fading into illness, and why his snot-nosed peers are showing up dead around town, the child creates a fantasy scenario where his young, widowed neighbor is a vampire that’s draining the community of its vitality by literally draining its blood. The audience is never fooled by this illusion, as the widow in question (although stylistically a precursor to Tilda Swinton’s turn in Only Lovers Left Alive) is clearly just a young woman racked with grief. Still, our twisted little POV character’s interpretation of the world around him is even more of a shock without the possibility of a supernatural threat supporting it. We know exactly why the children around him are dying, why his family is being ostracized from the local community, and what’s haunting his “war hero” brother. Seeing those harsh realities clash with equally harsh fantasies never gets easier as the film goes on, especially since the fantasies only encourage our devious little protagonist to behave more monstrously as they spiral out of control.

The POV character of The Reflecting Skin is a chipper little devil in an off-putting bowl cut. He’s endlessly cruel in the way a lot of bored, unsupervised children can be – gleefully tormenting all helpless animals in his striking distance as a form of escapist entrainment, whether they be a grieving widow or a pathetic bull fog. His instinct when he encounters something precious or beautiful in his grimly dour environment is to immediately destroy it beyond recognition, an instinct the film generally frames as the commanding ethos of humanity & Nature. This destructive impulse and the hopeless cruelty of Life are discussed in flat, stage play-style dialogue, a tone accentuated by the nonprofessional child actors who are tasked to deliver it. Phrases like, “Innocence can be hell,” and “The nightmare of childhood . . . and then it only gets worse,” hang in the air like a black-magic curse over the sparse setting. Characters’ fixation on animalistic details like scent, skin, and thirst take on a literary importance that contextualizes its vampiric lore in a distinctly Southern Gothic tradition. The children of The Reflecting Skin are creepily obsessed with the mortality, sexuality, violent perversions, and biological limitations of adulthood in a way that confuses them, weaponizes them, and makes them vulnerable for exploitation. And when they grow up, it only gets worse. It’s an absolutely brutal worldview that no amount of escapist fantasy could ever fully cover up.

The oil painting-reminiscent wheat fields of this film’s farmland setting have since become such common cinematic language that it’s now considered a memeable cliché (usually at the expense of Terrence Malick). Its stage play dialogue and flat child-acting limitations could also be a major barrier for modern audience to fight past. I personally found both to be appropriately harsh, sparse backdrops for the film’s brutal worldview, in which life is a punishing force of destruction that deliberately targets the most beautiful & fragile things among us. Children, women, queer people, and sensitive men are squashed like bugs for the crime of existing, and the only thing protecting them from total annihilation is a romantic fantasy that can crumble at any moment. The worst part is that they can be just as guilty of passing that cruelty along as much as anyone else. The Reflecting Skin might be too cruel, too cynical, too stilted, and too stylized to strike a chord with everyone who stumbles into its nightmarish childhood fantasy unprepared (our screening did have at least one ceremonial walk-out midway through), but if you can fully sink into the hellish wavelength it establishes the experience is unforgettably unnerving. I watched it with my jaw agape for most of its runtime, as if it were a forbidden displeasure the world had meant to protect me from by burying it in several decades of obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Wild Rose (2019)

I’m not an especially avid fan of country music, so I’m not sure that Wild Rose ever had a chance to speak directly to my soul. I did, however, recognize the universal appeal of the genre when the aspiring country music singer in the film is asked why she loves country so much and she responds, “Because it’s three chords and the truth.” That’s basically the same explanation you’ll hear about the appeal of punk and all other stripped-down mutations of rock n’ roll, and it’s one this movie conveys surprisingly well despite country’s not-for-everyone cultural barriers (to the point where “three chords and the truth” is tattooed across its protagonist’s forearm). It needs to sell that universal appeal to the audience too, since its premise relies on it being believable that a young Scottish woman who’s never been to America is singularly obsessed with making it as a country musician in Nashville. Most of Wild Rose’s tension is in how those dreams of graduating from a local sensation at a Western-themed dive bar called Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry to the real-deal half a world away conflict with her means and obligations at home. It’s easy to get swept up in that kind of underdog story no matter how much personal investment you have in country music scene in particular.

The reason I sought out this minor indie drama despite my general disinterest in its milieu is that its star, Jessie Buckley, was incredible in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast. She’s just as endlessly watchable here as an unlikely country singer-songwriter pursuing a career in Americana all the way from Scotland, even though that thematic territory isn’t nearly as appealing to me personally as the Wuthering Heights-flavored crime novel mystery of Beast. Wild Rose is a sort of delayed-coming-of-age picture for Buckley, as she plays an immature twentysomething petty criminal who’d much rather get sloppy dunk & sing country tunes with strangers than spend a quiet afternoon engaging with her own children, whom she treats as a burden. She relies on her increasingly frustrated mother (Julie Walters) to tend to her obligations as she storms off like an unruly teen to play pretend rockstar in a cheesy country bar. A lot of the growing up she does in the film is in realizing that she can take an active role in pursuing a career as a country singer and be a decent person to her own kids. All she really needs is encouragement (and financial support) from her local community to push her in the right direction, as she starts her journey to self-realization as an ex-convict with every little to work with and an isolating sense of selfishness.

Wild Rose does occasionally dip into a maudlin kind of Sundance-friendly inspo-drama that I don’t always have the patience for, but it at least tempers its sentimentality with a relatable layer of crude vulgarity. Buckley cusses her way through the picture in a thick Scottish accent that cuts through what could easily feel like an artificial cliché if it were a PG drama staged in Nashville instead of the drunken end of Glasgow. Buckley’s not quite as mesmerizing here as she is in Beast, but that earlier film didn’t leave room for her to exhibit what made her a star to watch in Britain in the first place: her beautiful singing voice. Even as a country music agnostic, I was thoroughly won over by all her vocal contributions to the soundtrack. It was just all the other country tunes that left me cold, give or take a brief cameo from Kasey Musgraves. I cried in the exact moments when Buckley wanted me to (usually in her character’s interactions with her mother and kids) and my heart soared in her few moments of triumph (most notably in the performance of a song inexplicably co-written by Marky heckin’ Steenburgen of all people). That’s not too bad for a film with two layers of genre skepticism for me to fight past as a perennial big-city grump – country music and saccharine melodrama. Buckley is just that good, and I’ll apparently watch her in just about anything.

-Brandon Ledet

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

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