24 Hour Party People (2003)

Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.

I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.

No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.

-Brandon Ledet

Not Wanted (1949)

For the first production under the company she formed with then-husband Collier Strong—The Filmmakers—Ida Lupino hired dependable B-movie workman Elmer Clifton to direct. A few days into shooting, Clifton suffered a heart attack, and Lupino stepped in to direct the film herself, uncredited for decades. Not Wanted is not the strongest film under Lupino’s guiding hand. Judging by the four titles in Kino Lorber’s recent Ida Lupino boxset (alongside The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist, and Never Fear), it may in fact be the weakest. Lupino felt much more personally engaged with the themes of her first credited directorial work to follow, Never Fear, than she does in Not Wanted, and her skills as a visual stylist & commander of tension only grew from there. Still, Not Wanted is a solidly staged, thoughtfully empathetic melodrama that proves Lupino had immense talent as a director from the very beginning, suggesting that hiring company men to handle direction duties for The Filmmakers pictures was mostly a formality. She was always going to be the one in control.

In Not Wanted, an unwed teenage mother fails at making her own way in the big city after running away from home. We meet her in her darkest hour. In the opening scene, she’s arrested for snatching a stranger’s baby from its pram while aimlessly wandering city streets. Once imprisoned, she practically turns to the audience from her jail cell to announce “You’re probably wondering how I got here . . .” The rest of the film plays out in flashback, detailing the young woman’s confused romantic life caught between a tragically hip jazz pianist who doesn’t care about her as much as he pretends to and a dorky miniature trains enthusiast who’s willing to devote his entire life to her – even accepting that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. As her inevitable imprisonment suggests, this scenario does not end well. An opening title card explains that this is “a story told 100,000 times each year,” a kind of cautionary tale about how cruel life can be for young, unwed mothers. The resulting story follows a moralistic road-to-ruin template, except it sympathizes with the main character instead of trying to shame her, wagging its finger more in the direction of the social failings (mostly exploitative men & morally righteous parents) that leave her vulnerably alone in a cold, uncaring world.

Lupino sometimes reaches for surprisingly surreal moments here – particularly in the sequence where the young mother gives birth, represented in a woozy first-person POV. For the most part, though, the film builds a lot of its payoffs around the tensions & emotions of its central melodrama, allowing breathing room for Sally Forrest to make an actor’s showcase out of the lead role. That’s not especially shocking considering that Lupino started her career as an actor herself, and only formed The Filmmakers because she felt bored & underutilized while on-set watching directors run the show. Lupino eventually made a dozen feature films under the Filmmakers brand, with a major hand in writing, producing, or directing in any capacity she could get away with. Of the few I’ve seen, Not Wanted was the least exceptional in its visual artistry or its boundary-pushing moral stances (at least by today’s standards; the sympathetic portrayal of an “unwed mother” did spark minor controversy in its time). It was still wonderful to feel Lupino get excited about the craft of filmmaking from behind the camera, though, especially for a production that had to change course so soon into its shoot. It feels like she was not just willing to spring into action to save the picture, but rather that it was the only thing she wanted in life.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: 3 Women (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Hanna, and Brandon watch 3 Women (1977).

Britnee: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.

As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.

Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.

Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?

Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.

The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.

I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?

Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.

There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.

What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.

Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?

Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.

I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.

Lagniappe

Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.

Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.

Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!

Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.

And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. (2013)

One of my favorite filmmaking trends over the past decade has been how the visual gimmickry of found-footage horror has kept up with the evolving user interface of social media platforms & personal tech. The way Unfriended documents late nights on Skype, how Sickhouse reimagines The Blair Witch Project as a series of Snapchat posts, or how Cam turns an OnlyFans camgirl session into a surrealist nightmare have all been uniquely fascinating to me, among other examples. The one major social media platform I’ve never seen a horror film tackle through this evolving gimmick is Twitter. This immediately makes sense, as the mostly text-based platform isn’t especially suited to the visual medium of cinema the way, say, CandyCrush or Instagram or a Facebook timeline are. Still, you’d think some gimmicky schlock horror would have tried to make a spooky Twitter feed movie by now (even if I’d be the only opening weekend audience they could pull).

I did happen to find a movie that adapts the feel of scrolling through a Twitter feed into its in-the-moment narrative; it just happened to be in an entirely different genre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama about a listless teenage girl’s uneventful senior year of high school. Its narrative and dialogue were directly adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylony. It’s an experimental work in some ways, allowing the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom to top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims, but it somehow never spirals out into total mayhem. For the most part, the film plays like any other high school indie drama about teen-girl boredom & ennui. It just frequently interrupts that familiar tone & setting with the out-of-left field topics of its Twitter account source material, establishing a kind of minimalist absurdism that feels very reminiscent of early-era Twitter, when the site was mostly a platform for users to publish passing thoughts, no matter how inane (as opposed to now, where it’s more of a tool for self-promotion & political mobilization).

The referenced tweets from the @marylony account appear onscreen as if they were Silent Era title cards, punctuated by the clacking sounds of a desktop keyboard. Many of these dispatches from a teen girl’s mind are motivational platitudes like “Stand your ground”, “Practice leads to improvement”, and “Everything takes time” – lofty sentiments that help the titular Mary get through the boredom of a typical school day, but don’t mean much to the audience that trails behind her. Others have a more literal, immediate effect on the plot. When Mary muses out of boredom “I want a jellyfish” in a tweet, a FedEx package instantly arrives on her doorstep. When she writes “So lucky” she stumbles upon a duffle bag full of cash. When she mysteriously tweets “Today in France” she’s suddenly moping about Paris instead of her Thai boarding school, no questions asked. The film mostly sticks to a low-key, low-energy mode of absurdism, though, not taking the bait when tweets like “I’m living in multiple realms” or “Is my heart large enough for the world?” invite a Michel Gondry-scale twee fantasy tangent that the film’s budget and high school drama boundaries can’t afford.

I love that writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit experimented with how to adapt the look & feel of a Twitter feed into cinematic language, even if he did so outside my beloved Evil Tech horror subgenre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. has no real overriding conflicts or excitement to it outside that central experiment. We mostly watch a sweet, average high school senior navigate low-stakes romantic crushes, yearbook committee deadlines, and authoritarian school administrators in an effort to fill her days. It’s the exact kind of nothing-going-on adolescent boredom that would inspire someone to spend all day on Twitter, broadcasting every errant thought out into the void in hopes that a resulting notification would spark some much-needed dopamine. The only fault with the film, really, is that it’s over two hours long, which is pushing how much listless teenage melancholy anyone can pay full attention to in one sitting. I enjoyed the movie a great deal as a lighthearted narrative experiment, but if it were closer to the 70-80min range I might be totally swooning over it as an Online Cinema masterpiece.

-Brandon Ledet

Air Conditioner (2020)

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t need much story or overtly stated themes to fall in love with a movie. Cinema is such an immersive sensory experience that just the juxtaposition of powerful images & sounds should alone be enough to fully grab my attention, with narrative & thematic purpose falling to the side as secondary concerns. That personal resolve is routinely tested to its limits at film festivals, though, where I’m used to seeing exciting experiments with image & sound in movies that just . . . meander, never really arriving anywhere in particular. This challenge to my presumed comfort with a high-style/low-story imbalance apparently extends to the at-home, online film fests that have cropped up this summer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the We Are One festival’s recent presentation of the film Air Conditioner.

Thematically, Air Conditioner is very up-front about what its central conflict is meant to represent. It even opens with dictionary definitions of “air”, “conditioning”, and “air conditioner” to sketch out allegorical battle lines between natural living conditions and an artificially controlled society. The simple household appliance of the air conditioner is positioned to represent some kind of unnatural, man-made distortion of how we’re supposed to naturally live as a community. Story-wise, there’s even a clear central protagonist deployed to give this vague metaphor practical in-the-moment meaning, especially in relation to societally constructed & enforced class divisions in Angola, Africa. We watch a quiet, calm handyman travel between small jobs & customers in the middle of an air-conditioner related phenomenon in his city, while endless grids of window-unit ACs hanging above him out of every apartment window. He mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, so you have to infer his reaction to the sights & sounds of the bizarre air conditioner crisis yourself. Mostly it just seems like he’s trying to minimize being hassled while the world around him is falling apart, which is at least a universally relatable impulse.

The hassle of the day in this instance is a big one. All air conditioners in the city are malfunctioning and falling from their windowsill perches to the ground, threatening the lives of pedestrians below and drastically raising the temperature of the rooms they’re meant to cool. The closer you live to the Equator the more that premise will sound like a horror film to you, as even just in New Orleans I can tell you that a summer without an air conditioner is miserable (if not borderline life-threatening). While this premise could have easily been molded around a sentient killer-objects horror genre the way of Rubber, The Lift, or Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, however, Air Conditioner takes a much more esoteric route. Our handyman takes a customer’s fallen air conditioner to a repair shop, where a mad scientist converts it into bizarre machinery that projects working-class people’s memories onto video screens and conjures their visions of the future. Elsewhere, working-class men converse through telepathy in the alleys between the buildings the ACs are falling from. A sparse, jazzy score punctuates the handyman’s travels between these mysterious figures and his far less interesting bosses above. It’s all very loose, observational, and aesthetically pretty.

The opening credits of Air Conditioner include a montage of still photographs, including one where a subject is wearing a dress that declares “Art is resistance.” Maybe the point of the movie was not to say anything particular about class disparity in Angola, nor to stage a narratively satisfying story around that theme, but to simply point out that it exists. Maybe illustrating class disparity through something as ubiquitous as air conditioners was the intended resistance. If that’s the case, the film might have fared better as a short than a feature, as the themes & narrative were so loosely defined that all I could really focus on was how eerie the score could be in its better moments and how well the film functions as fine-art portraiture of Angolan locals. I’d usually like to think that kind of pure sensory immersion is enough to fully leave me satisfied, but it ended up testing my patience by the time it fully settled into its groove. There’s something alluring about the idea of common household appliances rebelling against their duty and inciting a class system rift through abandonment of their post, so much so that I wish that this particular movie had taken a more straight-forward path in exploring that idea. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I wish it were a little more grounded & basic.

-Brandon Ledet

Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2020)

The recent Finnish drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants shamefully stumbles into some major Kink Movie clichés that I would love to see abolished entirely. This is a movie about an icy dominatrix who—surprise—allows her heart to melt for the first client who shows her romantic tenderness. That client is a father who—shocker—cannot fulfill his familial responsibilities because of his all-encompassing obsession with kinky sex. Other well-worn clichés about pre-scene negotiation and non-simulated violence also apply. And yet, I still very much adore this film, if not only because it follows what might be my all-time favorite plot template: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep returning to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

A widower processes the grief of not being able to save his wife from drowning by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. As a respected brain surgeon, he logically knows just how dangerously irresponsible it is to have your air supply cut off by choking, even if through consenting to erotic asphyxiation. However, once he accidentally stumbles into a dominatrix’s play dungeon and experiences his first euphoric blackout by choking on her whip, he can’t help himself. The man spirals out from low-key depressed widower to depraved stalker who won’t let women be until they literally choke the life out of him so he can re-experience his near-death euphoria. The problem is that the dominatrix (besides not wanting to participate in his death wish) grows an unexpected soft spot for the doomed soul and can’t safely give him what he wants in a controlled environment. Breath play is already a dangerous enough risk under the best circumstances; his obsession with the most extreme end of that risk is absolutely terrifying to anyone unfortunate enough to be pulled into his self-destructive orbit.

As kink-misinformed as Dogs Don’t Wear Pants can be in terms of its fictional clichés, it at least takes genuine erotic delight in its femdom dungeon sessions. Giallo-esque red gel lights reflect off the dominatrix’s patent leather catsuits with an eye-searing intensity as she issues commands to her latest, most troubled client as if he were a lowly dog (thus the title). The actual kink sessions are long, lingering, and genuinely erotic. While the breath play itself is essentially assisted suicide, the way the widower masturbates to his wife’s left-behind perfume & wardrobe within and outside the sessions registers as genuine fetishism. The movie even has a positive outlook on kink as a therapeutic tool once he experiences a personal breakthrough that shakes him out of his rut (even if he takes a long, dark road to get there). Personally, I would have loved to see that breakthrough occur in the second or third act so we could experience the peculiar romance that develops once the film pushes past its genre’s most often repeated clichés. But, hey, maybe I’ll get my wish and this indie Euro fetish drama will somehow land a sequel. It ends at its most interesting point, and I would love to see that trajectory pushed even further.

I assume that if you leave a movie wanting more, it must qualify as some sort of a success. I may be frustrated by the way Dogs Don’t Wear Pants repeats the worst sins of the kinky erotic thriller genre, but it’s more than peculiar & stylish enough to be forgiven for the transgression. Or maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for neon lights & form-fitting leather to get hung up on its faults.

-Brandon Ledet

Ticket of No Return (1979)

When we recently discussed Jacques Tati’s PlayTime as a Movie of the Month selection, we fixated on the film’s iconic restaurant sequence, in which its sterile, icy façade is gradually broken down into a sweaty mess of drunken revelry. It was a pleasure, then, to discover a sloppy-drunk lesbian remix of PlayTime in Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return that seemingly adapts that one restaurant sequence into a feature-length narrative. Self-described as a “portrait of a drunkard”, Ticket of No Return follows an unnamed, mostly silent, seemingly wealthy woman as she deliberately drinks herself into oblivion in Berlin. She’s not as befuddled or as passive as Tati’s signature Monsieur Hulot character. Rather, she’s a self-destructive lush who stumbles through Berlin as a silently obnoxious tourist, determined to guzzle down cognac & cocktails by the gallon on every barstool in the city. The film also chooses an entirely different political target than Tati’s screed against the nearing homogenized monoculture of a tech-obsessed future, focusing instead on the ways in which publicly misbehaving women are socially treated as repulsive beasts, while men are afforded much more leeway in their own libertinism. Still, Ottinger extrapolates a lot of her narrative’s sweatiest, most debaucherous impulses from the drunken restaurant breakdown sequence in PlayTime, converting the best scene from a well-loved movie into its own self-contained world of degeneracy & despair.

One of the more curious dynamics of Ticket of No Return is the film’s balance between subtlety & on-the-nose political commentary. Ottinger directly inserts her own voice into the picture as a narrator in the opening scene, a lengthy introduction to the unnamed protagonist’s sole function as a self-destructive alcoholic. Without that preface, it might have taken a while for her behavior to seem out of the ordinary, as excessive alcohol consumption is so socially encouraged that it doesn’t initially register as being especially unhealthy. Ottinger even deploys a literal Greek chorus to state as much in-dialogue, casting three characters as Social Question, Common Sense, and Accurate Statistics – morally uptight women who only speak in plain facts relating to their absurdist namesakes. However, even with all this blatant commentary on our gendered societal relationship with alcoholism, the film somehow comes across as a cryptic, esoteric art piece that cannot be fully understood, at least not on a first watch. As our “sightseeing” boozer protagonist becomes increasingly plastered in her dizzied tour of Berlin, the film exponentially obscures its messaging & intent in an absurdist fashion. It’s simultaneously an on-the-surface political statement that discusses its gender theory & alcoholism themes in plain academic terms and an enigmatic gaze into a drunken abyss that’s just as mysterious as it is playfully meaningless. It’s a fascinating internal conflict that will likely confound & alienate some audiences just as much as it delights the cheeky art school lushes who find themselves on its wavelength.

There’s a listless repetition to Ticket of No Return that will test a lot of audiences’ patience. After the narrator announces that our unnamed protagonist has purchased a one-way ticket to Berlin with Leaving Las Vegas-style intent, there’s not much that changes from scene to scene. She simply stumbles from bar to bar, drinking gallons of booze and swatting away sexual advances from both men & women while reaching for bottles. Often, the biggest excitement in the film is what outrageous outfit she will wear next, as her high-couture wardrobe harshly clashes against the degenerate behavior of her drinking escapades. The movie can be very unaccommodating if you’re not onboard with the most exciting action onscreen being how an asymmetrical primary-color dress is accessorized with dramatic sunglasses, in which case this movie is very much not for you. After it settles into its boozy groove, all that’s left onscreen is a woman engaging in self-destructive behavior while modeling obnoxious, over-the-top fashion pieces. If you’re looking for more grandly staged commotion, Tati’s PlayTime is better suited to dazzle you in its extravagance. Personally, I was much more attracted to this drunken, feminist, low-stakes/high-fashion tale of a bumbling tourist in a strange, overwhelming city. I even found it to be the funnier film of the pair, in its own nihilistic way.

-Brandon Ledet

Electric Swan (2020)

One of the more uniquely impressive strengths of cinema as an artform is its ability to mimic the loopy, transcendent quality of dreams like no other medium. My favorite films tend to be the most highly-stylized, shamelessly artificial indulgences in cinematic fantasy, the ones that disregard the limitations of real-world logic to instead achieve something distinctly subliminal & surreal. The 40-minute mini-feature Electric Swan taps into that subliminal dream space with an impressive sense of ease. It’s a quiet, low-key drift through a retro-futurist dystopia that’s just as mesmerizing & frustratingly unresolved as any nightmare you’ve had during a mid-afternoon nap. It doesn’t have anything especially novel or pointed to say about the class disparity conflicts that give shape to its story, but the hypnotic, dissociative filter it processes those themes through help them to upset & resonate in a way only a movie or a nightmare could allow.

Almost the entirety of Electric Swan is confined to a retro-futurist apartment building in Buenos Aires. Like in a lot of dystopian sci-fi, the wealthiest residents live on the top floor of the building, with levels of class descending with the floor levels all the way to the basement – where the building’s Indigenous, impoverished security guard lives alone. We mostly watch the guard make his daily rounds, acting as a doorman, handyman, therapist, and babysitter at the beck and call of the building’s residents. Both the wealthy and the working class children he serves describe their dreams to him while he struggles to keep up with his daily duties without assistance. Meanwhile, the building itself takes on a menacing presence, as if it were literally haunted by the class divisions it upholds. The wealthy on the top floors become mysteriously nauseous with motion sickness as the building sways; the security guard’s humble basement dwelling floods from an unknown water source; and everyone in-between acts as if the world’s about to end at any minute. Then, same as if in a dream, their shared reality abruptly shifts entirely in a way that cannot be explained by logic or by narrative tradition.

Electric Swan might only get away with its subliminal loopiness because it’s so firmly tethered to familiar genre tropes. The whole thing plays as if someone explained the plot of High-Rise to you as a bedtime fairy tale and then you scrambled all the details in a half-remembered dream. The ease in which it distorts its matter-of-fact portrait of class disparity through a surrealist dream lens is only really paralleled in recent post-Buñuel oddities from South America like Zama, Icaros: A Vision, and Good Manners. Its style vs. substance balance is more befitting of a music video than a feature film, which is likely to agitate anyone who looks to movies for “a good story” rather than a transcendent sensory experience. If you’re typically drawn to movies that play like dreams or to the eerie space where dystopian sci-fi meets fairy tale fantasy, this is one of the most vivid class allegories you’re likely to find this year. And even if you don’t fall under its spell, it’s too short to truly waste your time.

-Brandon Ledet

Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet