Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.

Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.

I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.

-Brandon Ledet.

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Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Sheer Madness (1985)

I’ve been conditioned to think of The New German Cinema movement of the 70s & 80s as an especially macho wave of filmmakers brimming with braggadocio, as typified by personalities like Werner Herzog & Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Discovering their contemporary Margarethe von Trotta was a welcome change of pace, then, as her work appears to deviate from that macho boisterousness wholesale. Von Trotta’s 1985 drama Sheer Madness traffics in the exact raw emotion & understated cinematic eye as typical New German Cinema fare, but the film also serves as a direct, uninhibited attack on the oppressive masculinity & overbearing personalities that tend to accompany that over-philosophical style of artistic restraint. This is the story of two women who form an intense, impassioned bond outside the control of the men in their lives and how that instantaneous attraction is treated like a dangerous form of madness. Their families & sexual partners worry & express frustration with this unbridled friendship, unable to influence the behavior of two women who act as if no one else exists in the world. Strong-headed macho brutes are portrayed as villains who corrupt, pervert, and discourage a beautiful thing before it reaches its full potential, when the standard would be for them to be the creative voices behind the camera. That corrupting influence closes around the two women, who find themselves just as hopelessly outnumbered as women directors were on the New German Cinema scene.

Ruth is a troubled painter. Olga is a literary college professor. Both academic women find themselves drawn to each other like magnets after Olga prevents Ruth’s suicide attempt at the outskirts of a drunken party. After a brief separation, Ruth confesses to Olga, “I often think of you. Somehow you must have felt it.” Olga does not verbally confirm, but she does begin to spend increasing amounts of time with the typically reclusive artist, much to the concern of every man in their social periphery. Even Ruth’s husband, who initially encourages the friendship to blossom, finds himself frustrated with the women’s dual, instantaneous obsession. He berates Ruth for having social anxiety around everyone but Olga, threatens her with hospitalization, and demands to know “What does she give you that I can’t?” Typically, this kind of story would fully tip into the realm of forbidden lesbian romance, but Sheer Madness is all the more fascinating for sidestepping that impulse. The two women dance together, stroke each other’s hair, make intense eye contact, and trade polite kisses on the cheek, but their mutual attraction cannot be explained by something as simple as sexual lust or romance. It’s instead allowed to sit uncomfortably as an intense magical spell, only occasional broken by the men in their lives who apply pressure for them to knock it off. The resulting relationship falls somewhere between Heavenly Creatures, Queen of Earth, and Call Me by Your Name – something as volatile & taboo as it is idyllic & enviable.

Margarethe von Trotta seems hyper-aware of her outnumbered status within an artistic medium dominated by macho blowhards, making the philosophy & isolation of feminism an explicit part of her text. Olga lectures her rapt classroom on the personal history of the poet Günderrode (in full, Karoline Friederike Louise Maximiliane von Günderrode), who came to prominence in a time when male artists were used to sidelining women as friends, wives, and mistresses – muses, not collaborators. Günderrode’s writing about two women who are “violently attracted to each other” is an obvious point of inspiration here, but I generally get the sense that the director also identified with her as a femme artist entrenched in a stubbornly macho medium. As thematically blatant as those feminist literature lectures can be, von Trotta mostly expresses herself though a quiet, unimposing subtlety. The boldest stylistic flourishes of the film are stray shots of black & white lyricism that occasionally break apart the stage play atmosphere of the proceedings by showing the world through Ruth’s bleak POV. Mostly, this conflict of a volatile, policed femme friendship is choreographed with such restraint that it’s difficult to tell if even a queer reading of the film is justified by the text itself or just our expectations of where these stories tend to go. In the film’s best scene Olga serenades a Christmas party with a downbeat rendition of the girl group classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” channeling Marlene Dietrich by way of Carole King. The body language she shares with Ruth & the visible discomfort of both women’s families say something very peculiar & almost subliminal that could not be expressed in dialogue. No matter how much von Trotta’s work aesthetically resembles her contemporaries’, the way that scene plays out (along with the central feminist conflict at large) feels entirely unique to her, divorced from the filmmaking braggadocio of her era.

-Brandon Ledet

Butter on the Latch (2013)

Josephine Decker’s critical notoriety skyrocketed in 2018 thanks to her two most recent features: the form-breaking documentary Flames and, more notably, the anxiety-fueled nightmare drama Madeline’s Madeleine. However, the director has been steadily working for at least a decade as an actor, an editor, a performance artist, a documentarian, and a below the radar auteur – frequently reduced to her role as a collaborator of mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg in critical discussion. It would be tempting, then, to assume that her notoriety breakthrough last year was a result of some great escalation in ambition or craft in her filmmaking technique, as is often the case with embattled mumblecore veterans who later make the leap to critical darlings. One viewing of Decker’s 2013 narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch will dispel that assumption in just 70 brief, nerve-racking minutes of full-on auteurist onslaught. All the basic building blocks of Madeline’s Madeline were already present in Decker’s debut five years ago; they were just contained to a more restrictive, boxed-in narrative so that their full value is not as readily apparent. I was even surprised to find that restriction often leads to more effective results, especially in terms of eeriness & character definition, even if Decker’s 2018 releases are technically more impressive in terms of pure narrative ambition. Her audacity & editing room mastery have always been in plain sight on the screen; it just took us half a decade to notice.

The tones & methods of Madleine’s Madeline are immediately apparent in Butter on the Latch, as the film opens with a young woman tearing through NYC in a frantic state – the audience immersed in her POV through visual & auditory-overloaded details. Decker’s vulnerably earnest depictions of performance art (a medium often parodically targeted in sketch comedy mockery) that commands so much of the runtime in Madeline’s Madeline is also the first introduction we have as an audience in Butter on the Latch—confronted with an uncomfortable, surreal image of NYC theatre. Most of Butter on the Latch is anchored to an entirely different kind of artistic performance, however: Balkan folk music. Harshly jumping from the concrete modernity of NYC to the woodland location of the East European Folk Life Center in CA, Butter on the Latch is most distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in its immersion in Nature. The Balkan folk music camp where most of the narrative is spent provides a pervasive deluge of percussive chants & instrumentation similar to what’s offered in the more recent film; the story is also framed through the fraught mental state of a frantically unraveling protagonist similar to Madeline’s Madeline’s. It’s mostly the thick-wooded greenery of the surroundings that alters the texture & atmosphere in a substantial way. The idyllic Nature getaway setting of Butter on the Latch recalls a more reality-fractured Blair Witch Project (but less straightforward-horror) or a more energetically surreal Woodshock (but less fashionable). I can only name one or two titles that fall within a stone’s throw of Butter on the Latch’s peculiar Natural menace esthetic, Felt & Queen of Earth, and they’re both remarkable works that were released years after Decker’s debut.

Besides its Natural setting, Butter on the Latch is distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in the restrictions of its narrative scope. Instead of going for broke in its detours from reality & immersions in an individual character’s perception, Butter on the Latch disorients its audience in much more concentrated, careful jabs. The film functions almost like a 2010s update to Persona, with two friendly-on-the-surface women becoming increasingly volatile in their unraveling friendship & entangling identities. Two friends reunite outside their NYC arts scene stomping grounds, using the Balkan folk music camp as a kind of restorative spiritual retreat. A fractured editing style purposefully confuses the crises that distinguish them from each other: a recent romantic breakup, black-out alcoholism episodes, an apparent drugging & sexual assault, an unraveling internal state, etc. We follow the story though just one character’s POV, but the divisions between them become so blurred, despite being the central source of conflict, that they might as well be one self-hating mess. Along with this blending of personae, the stakes of the central relationship exponentially escalate from jocular discussion of romance & sex to violent hallucinations of emotional outbursts & physical brutality. This mode of conflict isn’t all that different from the three-way maternal war of emotional outbursts & weaponized art in Madeline’s Madeline. The main difference it that the narrative is slightly more contained & restricted, so that the characters locked in subliminal battle are better defined as distinct personalities (paradoxically so, given the gradual melding of their personae).

The main thing I’ve learned from the few Josephine Decker pictures I’ve seen is that her credit as an editor is just as important as her seat in the director’s chair. Describing the tones & aesthetics of Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline can only convey so much of the experience of seeing them projected; the defining quality of these pictures are the minute to minute rhythms of Decker’s volatile editing style. Butter on the Latch speeds up, slows down, turns itself inside out, and explodes in poetic, unpredictable jolts in more interesting ways that any plot or imagery summation could ever capture. Her debut goes in & out of consciousness in strange, terrifying locales along with its protagonist, making a day (or 70min) in her head feel like a nauseating nightmare. It’s a skill in pacing & sensory immersion I was shocked to see already so well developed in her debut feature.

Just the fact that I spent so much of this review comparing Butter on the Latch to her most recent work lets me know that Decker’s merits as a cinematic voice are so singular that discussing individual releases from her feels like blurting out an incomplete thought. I probably shouldn’t have even reviewed this film until I had also watched its follow-up, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely­­, but I did find dialing the clock back to her start illuminating all the same. Butter on the Latch is so confident & slyly sinister that it made me appreciate Decker’s 2018 releases even more in comparative retrospect. Her work’s potency & clarity in vision only becomes more apparent the deeper you sink into her catalog; 2018 just happened the year most of us took notice.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

One of the most surprisingly rewarding experiences I had at the cinema all last year was watching Bette Davis devour the scenery opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Davis is absolutely feral in that picture despite her regal drag, spending the entire runtime gobbling snacks & hurling vicious insults in intricately designed costumes. It’s fabulous. Returning months later to The Prytania Theatre to see Margot Robbie inhabit the same role in Mary Queen of Scots could only be a letdown, then, as she isn’t given free rein to behave monstrously the way Davis was. Robbie is fully capable of going big & going over-the-top; she also has no hesitancy to de-beautify herself in a role that’s basically Baby Jane Hudson clowning in a royal setting. As the title suggests, however, Mary Queen of Scots has a much smaller appetite for Queen Elizabeth vamping & camp than I, mostly sidelining Robbie’s raving monarch to focus on Saoirse Ronan’s fiery challenger to the throne instead. Elizabeth’s mental & emotional anguish are a background hum in the film rather than a ferocious roar, when her rivalry with Mary should have been evenly weighted on a titular level to save the film from costume drama tedium. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.

Part of the challenge in depicting the rivalry between Mary (Queen of Scotland) & Elizabeth (Queen of England) is that the two monarchs never met in person, exchanging most of their strategic blows through couriers & letters. The way this movie gets around that challenge is by just making shit up. In an outlandish climactic showdown, both queens meet privately in a rural laundry house to butt heads one final time – in a scene that’s one dove short of being a full-blown John Woo homage. They excuse this anachronism by saying “No one must ever know of this,” swearing themselves to secrecy. It’s a breach in historical accuracy that raises questions of why the film didn’t take even more liberties. Mary Queen of Scots wishes to modernize its tale of two quietly warring queendoms, but is also self-defeating in its timid anachronisms. It’s refreshingly inclusive in its onscreen representation politics, but it also relegates PoC characters to minor servile roles & treats queer sexuality as a death sentence. It openly depicts female sexual desire & cunnilingus in a way most buttoned-up costume dramas would normally shy away from, but the men who oblige those impulses are consistently such dastardly brutes that the entire affair is de-eroticized (and often outright sexually traumatic). Elizabeth is allowed to voice some Girl Power messaging in her choice to live a childless life “as a man” to maintain her throne, but is often depicted mourning her fading chances at motherhood as if it were the only role that could truly fulfill her. Mary Queen of Scots is stuck between period drama tradition & more flippantly modern, history-ignoring impulses; it likely would have been a better film had it pushed itself in either direction instead of hovering in tonal Limbo.

Mary Queen of Scots is a little too silly & preposterous to fully take seriously and yet not silly enough to excel as full-blown camp—a self-conflicted stasis that holds it back as a modern entertainment. Considered in isolation, Ronan’s narrative as the young, titular queen is a perfectly pleasing rise-to-power story of minor eroticism & political intrigue. It’s the exact kind of historical drama that feels custom-built to scoop up Best Costume Design Oscars (if you can see their gorgeous details through the overwhelming Prestige Picture artifice of the dialogue & score). The only problem is that it’s a narrative track that holds a much more interesting movie hostage. Every minute spent alone with Mary is a distraction from Elizabeth’s spectacular unraveling. Stray glimpses of Margot Robbie feverishly crafting in anger, swelling up with small pox, and dunking on the boneheaded men of her court are all welcome, microscopic tastes of the much more fun, rewarding movie that could have been if she were fully set loose. When Mary Queen of Scots allows its two queens to butt heads in a climactic John Woo showdown, it’s not failing its duties to historical accuracy; it’s finally openly being a fully realized version of itself, far too late in the runtime to make much difference. As is, this is a perfectly fine, pleasant-looking addition to the perfectly fine, visually pleasant costume drama tradition. It’s just difficult to not compare it to the over-the-top camp of The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex or the gleefully anachronistic, viscous rivalry of The Favourite and not leave the film wanting more. Margot Robbie was all dressed up for a no-holds-barred Baby Jane brawl, but was unfortunately chained to something much safer instead.

-Brandon Ledet

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

It’s almost impossible to say anything about Orson Welles’s posthumous bomb-thrower The Other Side of the Wind, positive or negative, that the film doesn’t already say about itself. A notoriously troubled production that only came to completion though Peter Bogdanovich’s stubborn devotion to boosting Welles’s legacy, the film features Bogdanovich as a sycophantic right-hand man to an elderly auteur. A frustrated return to Hollywood filmmaking for Welles after years of European exile, the film features Old Hollywood director John Huston as an elderly auteur struggling to gain backing for his first American production in years, titled The Other Side of the Wind. A collaboration with porn & B-movie cinematographer Gary Graver, it’s a lusciously sleazy affair that cheekily blurs the line between European art film & cheap porno. A messily meta commentary on youthful rebellion & a changing film landscape overrun by New Hollywood upstarts, the film both approximates the same Industry-condemning self-indulgence of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and features Dennis Hopper as himself talking out of his ass about filmmaking philosophy. Caricatures of critic Pauline Kael & New Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who Welles saw as roadblocks to getting this doomed project off the ground, create conflict as the film-within-the-film version of The Other Side of the Wind attempts its first screening to drum up financial support—only for the filmmaker to die at the party before that’s accomplished. For a sprawling, incoherent mess that’s been cooking for four decades solid before finally arriving on Netflix, The Other Side of the Wind is almost impossibly self-aware; it also weaponizes that awareness so that anyone who has ever made (or even seen) a movie is a target.

Another way The Other Side of the Wind feels incredibly self-aware is in the ways it brings Orson Welles’s career full-circle. The director’s legendary debut, Citizen Kane, not only suffered the same troubled path to respect & admiration as what would prove to be his last, but also functions like a documentary profile of a fictional man explained to be larger than life. “A film likeness of the man himself as he looked,” The Other Side of the Wind’s central concern is the psyche of John Huston’s bitter old pervert auteur, frustrated that he has to grovel for funding in a post-Studio System where the New Hollywood rug-rats have taken over. Instead of the birth-to-death portrait of Citizen Kane, however, this film mostly captures the events of a single night, with the details of its subject’s past filled in by partygoers’ gossip & hearsay. In staged found-footage captured on a wide range of cameras, The Other Side of the Wind is supposedly assembled from documentation of the party where the film-within-the-film is meant to be screened, like an arthouse version of the first-season party episode of American Vandal. This fractured structure allows cinematographer Gary Graver to play around with a variety of tones & textures, as if he were filming an especially smutty Guy Maddin picture. It also allows Welles to poke fun at every cinematic archetype – from the Studio System elite to New Hollywood brats to European art snobs – as they swirl around a disaster of a party waiting for The Other Side of the Wind to finally screen. It’s no wonder this film took 40 years to complete; it must have been an editing room nightmare. Still, it opens the floor for Welles to lash out (from beyond the grave) at as many Hollywood phonies as he can strike within a two-hour span, including whichever version of himself is represented in John Huston’s avatar.

The frantic, fractured editing style on display here makes it difficult to latch onto any solid character or narrative definitions, so that the slow, stony baloney movie-within-the movie that interrupts that chaotic party feels like a huge relief. The fake movie in question becomes one of the more intense focal points of the picture, then, which is hilarious because Welles packs it with pornographic smut: naked breasts, cuckolding, bathroom orgies, strap-on dildos, etc. Even in The Other Side of the Wind’s quieter, more thoughtful moments, Welles attacks the audience with the menacing sleaze of a Russ Meyer picture. Of course, he’s aware of his own indulgences in smut here, and the screenings of the movie-within-the-movie often cross-cut to John Huston’s peeping-Tom auteur intensely licking his lips, gazing at the prurient glory of his own work. This meta commentary on Welles’s own pervy interests in those sequences is only compounded by his casting of his real-life young lover Oja Kodar as the star of the psychedelic art-house porno, billed simply as The Actress. Part of me wishes that the entirety of the movie were dedicated to feature-length parody of pornographic art-house pretension in this style, as the filmmaking craft of the fake Other Side of the Wind is much more pleasurable to watch than the frantic satire of the real one (although even the party scenes recall Russ Meyer’s rapid-fire editing style in films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). For me, the relentless sketch comedy-like humor of the party scenes wears a little thin in the second hour, but the smutty art house psychedelia parody of the movie screening at their party remains potent throughout. I suspect Welles’s own interests were also more . . . aroused by the sensory pleasures of those sequences as well.

I’m not sure the second hour of The Other Side of the Wind fully lives up to the promise of its first, as it’s difficult to care too deeply about a story meant to disorient & frustrate its audience at that length. Even that complaint is addressed in the film’s script, however, both in screening room scenes where the continuity of the movie-within-the-movie is explained to be not quite the mess it appears to be, and in the question posed to the fictional auteur, “If the audience can’t get it, why even go to the movie?” That question plays as a jab both at the creator and at the public, as The Other Side of the Wind can find no shortage of enemies in Welles’s expressed frustrations with an industry that had essentially abandoned him. John Huston’s character is detailed to be far from a saint – exploiting women (and sometimes men) he’s attracted to for both professional & personal pleasure, treating little people as novelty objects, and just generally acting like a drunken asshole who believes the world of himself and little of anything else. There’s certainly some self-laceration detectable in that portrait of a despicable auteur the world has left behind, but it’s a critique that extends to all selfish, self-aggrandizing men who have shared his profession – from Russ Meyer to Antonioni. The Other Side of the Wind is both critic & participant, both weapon & target. It’s both incredibly flawed & incredibly aware of those shortcomings, easily making for one of the most fascinating & storied releases of the year—just not the most wholly satisfying one. Even if you somehow walk away from The Other Side of the Wind as frustrated with its stops & starts as Welles did, you still have to admire the picture for all its go-for-broke smutty audacity and its drunken willingness to throw a punch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

Jules of Light and Dark (2018)

Robert Longstreet isn’t an especially flashy actor, neither in celebrity nor in performance. He has the appearance & demeanor of a kindhearted, broken-down Russell Crowe, playing most of his roles as a lovable but emotionally volatile galoot. As quietly sad & reflective as his screen presence can be, I find myself getting excited whenever I see his name among a project’s credits. Between Mohawk, Septien, Take Shelter, The Haunting of Hill House, Sorry to Bother You, and I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Longstreet has demonstrated that his choice in projects is at the very least consistently interesting; he may not always steal the show, but the show itself will never be a bore. I’m used to seeing him as a minor (even if often eccentric) character in these works, so it was a wonderful surprise to watch him co-lead an indie drama in Jules of Light and Dark. A dual trauma & recovery narrative, Jules of Light and Dark splits its POV between two unlikely protagonists: a listless partygoing college student (Snowy Bing Bongs’s Tallie Medel) & a hopeless-drunk oil field worker played by Longstreet. It’s a small-scale drama that could easily sink into indie film fest tedium, but Longstreet’s presence effectively vouches for the young cast around him, as well as for first-time director Daniel Laabs.

The college student drama of Jules of Light and Dark follows a young lesbian at the center of a romantic triangle, as her longtime girlfriend Jules pushes her to reluctantly experiment with bringing a third, masculine partner (a sweet, but clueless DJ) into the bedroom. The local rave scene they’re involved in—staged in empty, isolated Texan fields—clouds their ability to negotiate this sexual discomfort soberly (in multiple meanings of the word), and the movie is densely packed with college-age sexual mishaps. The oil worker drama half is also clouded by substance abuse and sexual discomfort, as Longstreet’s co-protagonist struggles to out himself as queer and instead hides his true colors beneath untold gallons of alcohol. These dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when a car accident after “the last rave of the year” leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.

Laabs strikes an interesting balance here, both searching for small moments of intimate drama between his well-defined characters and chasing the aesthetic pleasures of rural rave culture – especially in the way glitter & nightclub lighting clash with the campfire-warmed barnyard setting of a horse ranch. Medel holds her own as a wide-eyed, wholesome queer punk in the middle of a college-age identity crisis she was reluctantly pushed into by a restless girlfriend. Her character’s attempts to hold onto failed or fading relationships at any cost are wonderfully paralleled by the oil worker’s own desperation to re-forge meaningful connections he already drank into oblivion long before the movie started. It was Longstreet’s performance as that drunken, broken down galoot that really won me over. For all the film’s glitter & molly excess and frustrated moments of sexual exploration, the best sequence throughout simply follows Longstreet as he decides whether to adopt a kitten or a puppy from the local animal shelter in his desperate, misguided attempts to establish emotional connections with another living being. Watching that sappy drunk play with a kitten from the opposite end of a kennel makes him pitiful enough to fall in love with, which only makes him more dangerous. Longstreet nails that quietly, lovably pathetic tone perfectly, as he already has many times before, largely unnoticed.

-Brandon Ledet

Cane River (1982)

There are plenty of examples of long-out-of-print cinematic artifacts getting the 4k digital restoration treatment in recent years, but few restorations can match Cane River’s storied path to 2010s rehabilitation & reassessment. “Unseen for 36 years,” Cane River premiered to a New Orleans audience in 1982 before being considered lost in distribution limbo ever since, largely due to the untimely death of its wirer-director-producer Horace B. Jenkins. While in town filming The Toy, Richard Pryor happened to attend the film’s 80s premiere and offered to help the director land proper national distribution, but Jenkins died before anything came of it. A recovered print of the film surfaced in 2013 and (thanks to financial support from Chaz Ebert & a couple lengthy write-ups from The New York Times promoting its legacy) has been meticulously restored over the last few years as funding has allowed. Even the restored version of the film that marked its second official screening in 36 years was announced to be a work-in-progress, with several glaring sound-mixing issues needing to be addressed before the film is ready for physical media distribution. Still, Cane River’s recent screening at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival felt like a righted wrong, a momentous correction to a historic cinematic tragedy.

A large part of Cane River’s historical significance is that it was filmed with a black cast & crew and funded independently by black arts-patrons at a time when that feat would have been incredibly rare (as if it wouldn’t also be rare today). The film also carries hefty cultural cachet in the specificity of its setting: the real-life Cane River region near Natchitoches, Louisiana – one of the country’s first “free communities of color.” Where the film excels is in seeking accessible entertainment value to soften those more academic, cultural accomplishments. Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance. Cane River takes the Mary Poppins edict “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” to heart, burying the audience under so much sugar that it easy gets away with clearly stating its political messaging in the dialogue without detracting from the romance that sweetens it.

A local football hero returns from big-city college life with the intent to live out the rest of his days in his Cane River community as a farmer & a poet, leaving a professional athlete career he found to be distastefully exploitative behind. He immediately falls for a young woman the small community of busybodies believes to be below his class (and below the cultural prestige of his lighter skin-tone). This class politics divide, socially policed on the basis of centuries-old resentments, simmers loudly in the background but the two young lovers’ conflict is mostly defined by their respective desires to remain in or flee Cane River. One intends to live a quaint, poetic life of rural calm after being disenchanted by the world outside. The other can’t wait to leave the community’s various confines and make something of herself on her own terms as a New Orleans college student, refusing to settle for a life as a local farmer-poet’s housewife. The Romeo & Juliet influence on this dynamic dictates that these conflicts build to a tragic end, but Cane River smartly allows its stakes to remain intimate & contained. The class, feminist, and racial politics that arise in its community-defying romance are just as delicately handled as the consequences of the controversy the two lovers stir. Their story is frustrating & politically complex, but also endearingly sweet and a really smart anchor for the film’s more emotionally detached, academic concerns.

Nothing about Cane River is subtle – neither in its romance nor in its politics. The history of Cane River’s significance as an early free community of color is so clearly stated in the dialogue that the characters recommend specific reading material to the audience on the topic: a book titled The Forgotten People. Its romantic melodrama is relentlessly scored by a soundtrack of original songs by local soul singer Phillip Manuel, whose singing is so pervasive & repetitive that his in-the-flesh appearance behind a microphone at a mid-film house party feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Our lead is established as a poet by riding around horseback and tenderly writing into his trusty notebook while making eyes at his steed, like a precursor to Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” video. When a character over-indulges in drinks after work, an accompanying novelty song jokes “Chug-a-lug, have a slug, drink your blues away” before the implications of that alcoholism spoils the mood.

Cane River is, at heart, regional cinema – like a John Waters film, a Matt Farley joint, or a romantic melodrama parallel to The Pit. As a result, the mood is generally light, the talent of the cast varies wildly, and a large part of its inherent fascination is in documenting a very specific community that isn’t often represented onscreen (along with more frequently-seen French Quarter tourism by natural extension). The further we get away from its initial release the more useful & interesting that documentation inevitably becomes to people outside that community. The brilliance of Horace B. Jenkins’s work on the film is that he reinforced it with enough wide-appeal entertainment value & substantive political messaging that its fascination as a regional cinema curio and an act of ethnographic documentation aren’t the limit of its cultural cachet. Like other underseen black cinema artifacts recently given new life in restoration – Daughters of the Dust, Born in Flames, The Watermelon WomanCane River is too politically significant & creatively appealing to have been allowed to slip into obscurity for so many decades. Its politics may be a little less radical and more sugar-coated than those other examples, but the level of obscurity it’s been allowed to slip into without official distribution is unmatched in that subset.

Every year I see amazing, potent titles at New Orleans Film Fest that never land proper theatrical distribution, so I doubt Cane River is the only “lost” film of its kind that deserves the restoration treatment; but I’m joyed to see that the one that got through is so endearingly romantic & thoughtfully political.

-Brandon Ledet