Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

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Hatchet for a Honeymoon (1970)

Hoo boy, is this cut a mess. Recently, the one true and original (read: “Austin”) Alamo Drafthouse weekly Terror Tuesday feature screened Creepers, aka the original botched American cut of Dario Argento’s Phenomena, which was trimmed from the full running time of 116 minutes to 86(!). Host Joe Ziemba defended this decision, made by a guest programmer, by noting that this was the cut that he had been raised on. This wasn’t really uncommon at the time, as films were cut both for content and length. I managed to come away with a few treasures from a recent VHS Swap Meet that was held in conjunction with Fantastic Fest, including Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and what appears to be a Rapture preparedness video (I’m saving that one for last), but I also ended up with a heavily butchered (no pun intended) copy of a Mario Bava film that was originally titled Il rosso segno della follia (literally translated as The Red Sign of Madness), released by Charter Entertainment, a home video company that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (although there is an extensive library of their covers online). Their edition utilizes the title Hatchet for a Honeymoon, which isn’t consistent with the translated title, the film’s Wikipedia page (which calls it Hatchet for the Honeymoon), or the film’s listing on IMDb (which calls it A Hatchet for the Honeymoon). It’s also not consistent with the film itself, which features a cleaver and exactly zero hatchets.

John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) is a dressmaker, specializing in wedding dresses and negligees: everything a woman might need for her wedding day—and night. He is also quite mad, as he explains in his opening voiceover; according to the film’s Wikipedia page, he also explains in this monologue that he has an Oedipus Complex and is impotent, but this isn’t in the Charter release outside of subtext throughout the film that would make much more sense with this inclusion. He is married to an “older” woman, Mildred (Laura Betti), with whom he has an openly antagonistic relationship despite the fact that she has funded his fashion house and also flatly refuses to give him the divorce he so desperately desires. Their morning breakfast is interrupted by Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente), who is still trying to learn the fate of three of Harrington’s models suddenly disappeared on their wedding nights; Harrington, of course, reveals in his continuing interior monologue that all three women are currently buried in his hothouse. New model Helen Wood (Dagmar Lassander) appears to take over as a model for the most recent victim, and Harrington is impressed by her moxie and intelligence, but he is distracted when model Alice (Femi Benussi) announces that she will have to leave the business, as she too is marrying. Harrington takes her to his creepy secret vault, in which dozens of mannequins wear various wedding dresses, and tells her to pick the one she wants to wear on her happy day. As soon as she tries one on, however, he hacks into her with his cleaver (again, not a hatchet) and cremates her body in his hothouse furnace and spreads her ashes about as mulch. We also learn that Harrington watched his own mother being murdered as a child, and that he thinks that by killing other women he will be able to acquire all the pieces of this puzzle in order to make sense of his past

Mildred announces that she will visit a sick relative, leaving Harrington alone for a week. He takes advantage of this opportunity to romance Helen, but when he returns home after a night out, Mildred is waiting for him, announcing that she has no intention of ever letting him out of her sight, and that he has failed her test. In a fit of rage, Harrington kills her moments before the inspector arrives with the late Alice’s fiance in tow, demanding to know Alice’s whereabouts and what all the screaming was about. Harrington convinces them that the noises were from the television and they depart, suspicious but empty-handed. Of course, this is when things get really strange: Harrington now finds himself followed by Mildred’s ghost everywhere he goes, but in a twist, it’s not Harrington who sees her specter, but everyone else, other than in the moment when she tells him the rules of this new un-living arrangement, in which he will never be free of her.

Here’s where things actually get interesting, as a heretofore fairly standard, if barely comprehensible, giallo proto-slasher takes on a bizarre supernatural element. Much like our most recent Movie of the Month The Pit mixes together conflicting horror: the psychological horror of having witnessed a murder as a child and not knowing who was responsible; the standard slasher horror of a murderer who fetishizes something and seeks particular victims because of it; and, finally, a strangely gothic ghost story straight out of the 1800s. It’s got everything! Even with all the cuts to the film, this twist happens too late, as it’s the most interesting thing to happen. Harrington even goes so far as to dig up Mildred to make sure she’s dead and then cremating her like his other victims, then trying to get rid of said ashes multiple times. The best scenes follow this, like Harrington tossing the ash-filled valise out, only to have it show back up in his house, or when he takes the bag of ashes with him to a bar and the waiter patiently waits for Mildred’s spirit, which Harrington and the audience cannot see, to place an order. Harrington also tries to throw the ashes out in the middle of a rainstorm, and it’s pure poetry.  The reversal of the normal “only you can see me” ghost story trope is surprisingly fresh, and it’s a shame that it’s stuck in this otherwise mediocre movie.

Of course, even a bad Bava is still Bava, so there are some visuals that are at turns intriguing and gorgeous, despite the lack of depth in character and storytelling. The vault in which Harrington keeps his mannequins, all adorned with wedding dresses, is a sight to behold both for its creepiness and ethereal beauty. When we see flashbacks to the young Harrington sneaking out of bed to figure out what’s wrong with his mother, he pulls his lacy white blanket over his head and it trails behind him like a bridal dress train, which makes for some lovely visual symmetry. There’s even a Psycho-esque scene in which Harrington tries to evict the inspector from his home before he notices the hand hanging over the upstairs banister, slowly dripping blood onto the carpet below. Strangely enough, I had just seen Phantom Thread in the morning before watching this film at night; not only are they thematically similar in that each film revolves around a European dressmaker whose bridal gowns are renowned and play a pivotal role in the story before his wife enforces behavioral changes through drastic means, but there’s even a scene in which the married couple eat breakfast passive aggressively, right down to the scraping of burnt toast.

The average movie viewer won’t find much to love here, but if you’re a Bava fan, there’s enough visual magic to offset the unimpressive screenplay and distracting histrionics of the lead. It’s not a Halloween classic, but for a completist, it’s worthwhile.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Catwalk (1995)

Like in my recent-years’ attempts to dip my toe into the insular worlds of fringe-art communities like drag, pro wrestling, and alternative comics, I feel totally out of my league when discussing fashion, despite my interest in it as an artform. It took decades of maturity & shedding of teenage snobbery for me to personally recognize fashion as the vital, vibrant artform that it is, something essential to so many things that were already important to me: drag, wrestling, punk, cinema. As such, my vocabulary & mental catalog of the giants of the industry are embarrassingly thin, something I could stand to correct with some crash course documentary-binging on the subject. With recent pics like The Times of Bill, The Gospel According to Andre, and McQueen falling just outside my distribution reach, but weighing on me heavily as works I should seek out, I find myself looking to past docs to fill in the gaps in the meantime, which is how I found Catwalk. Produced in the supermodel-dominated 1990s when dozens of catwalking fashionistas were big enough stars to be household names even for someone as uninterested in their artform as I was at the time, Catwalk seemed like an easy enough entry point into the world of high fashion as any. That was naive of me; the film is more a head-first dive into the deep end than anything.

Following an overworked Christy Turlington as she walks 1992 Fashion Week runways in Paris, Milan, and NYC, Catwalk is posed as a day-in-the-life, behind-the-scenes portrait of a fashion model in the year’s busiest season, but actually functions as a “Supermodels! They’re just like us!” act of brand management. The lifestyle porn of watching Turlington try on the world’s most beautiful clothes in rooms full of the world’s most beautiful people in the world’s most romantic cities is a potent fantasy. Outside a few shady quips, everyone profiled is on their very best behavior; even their version of clubbing is extremely mannered & image-controlled. That’s not too much of a problem, however, when you consider the quality of elbows Turlington is rubbing behind the scenes at these shows: models like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni; designers like John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaulitier, and Isaac Mizrahi. Even the film’s tonally fluctuating music affords it an air of legitimacy, as it was provided by punk fashion pioneer Malcom McLaren. The only problem is that if you’re a fashion-scene dummy like myself you have no idea who these people are (at least by sight; their names might ring a bell) and the movie has zero interest in cluing you in, providing no captioned names until the end credits. This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse for people already in the know, one where announcing context would be blatant & gauche.

I have a feeling that if I return to this film after I’m more familiar with the fashion world superstars it casually profiles, I’ll get a lot more out of it. Even now, my ears most perked up in moments where people I was already familiar with happened into the frame because of the setting (Campbell, Cindy Crawford, RuPaul, Sandra Bernhard, Sharon Stone). As impenetrable as the film may have been to me as a fashion-industry crash-course, however, it did partially clue me into the general social atmosphere of a scene I’ve only before witnessed in parodies like Zoolander & (less cruelly) Prêt-à-Porter. Although this is a hangout documentary clearly intended for people already in the know, that casual familiarity with the scene does have a way of acclimating outsiders in a lowkey, context-light demeanor. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate this laissez faire fashion scene introduction more the further I get away from it. At the very least, it didn’t at all scare me away from pursuing the subject further.

-Brandon Ledet

Phantom Thread (2017)

Because of his reputation as a formalist & a high-brow intellect, people often overlook a very important aspect of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, even when heaping on praise: he’s damn funny. This may be because the humor in PTA’s movies is usually coated with a thick grime of terrifying, soul-destroying bitterness. For instance, it’s difficult to describe the humor of Daniel Day-Lewis threatening to slit a stranger’s throat in There Will be Blood or Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “pig-Fuck!” in The Master, but those moments are indeed amusingly intense. Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread, is a wonderful feature-length continuation of this tradition. It may take audiences a few minutes to defrost from the expectation of watching an Important, Oscar-Worthy Drama to realize it, but Phantom Thread really is a wickedly funny movie, the perfect encapsulation of PTA’s bitter, hubristic humor. Detailing the power dynamics of a dangerously tense long-term relationship between a 1950s Londoner dressmaker and his waitress-turned-muse, you might be tempted to assume the film is a tragically dour period piece with little patience for silliness. Instead, Daniel Day-Lewis & relative newcomer Vicky Krieps verbally spar in a nonstop comedic assault for the full two-hour runtime. The film still excels as a gorgeous, meticulously crafted period piece with dead serious things to say about power dynamic struggles in artist-muse romantic relationships; it just does so while making you laugh in wholly unexpected ways at every twisted turn in its intimate, absurdly well-mannered narrative. Paul Thomas Anderson has certainly been funny before, but never at this duration or consistency.

Reynolds Woodcock is sure to be remembered as one of the greater, more intense characters ever performed onscreen, a name as iconic as Norman Bates or Rupert Pupkin or, appropriately enough, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the renowned dressmaker with the delicate, careful darkness of Werner Herzog’s speaking voice. Having let the praise for his (admittedly gorgeous) dress designs go to his head, Woodcock has devolved into an insufferable twerp who demands that the army of women who actually put in the labor to make his business functional (including a rotating cast of muses-du-jour) bend to his every whim at a moment’s notice. Phantom Thread flirts with the thematic possibilities of championing the unnoticed work of the women whom Woodcock steamrolls or parsing out exactly what he means when he describes himself as an “incurable confirmed bachelor.” Mostly, though, it just has a quiet laugh at the tension his function as a tyrannical drama queen generates in a house of women who do not have the power to tell him “No.” This dynamic shifts when his latest muse, Alma (Krieps), refuses to be steamrolled along with the rest and defiantly intends to treat Woodcock like the “spoiled little baby” he truly is. From then on, the movie details a three-way power struggle within the Woodcock household (Lesley Manville holds down the third corner as Reynold’s deliciously icy sister, Cyril), with everyone involved seemingly getting perverted pleasure out of the clash, regardless of their overly dramatic complaints. Despite his delicate, mannered exterior, Woodcock drives, eats, and structures his romances like a thrill-seeking maniac. It turns out he enjoys having his hubristic displays of power challenged, though, something no woman in his life had ever dared to do before Alma (besides his cutthroat, no-bullshit sister). Through that challenge they build a curiously violent, deceptively well-balanced life together.

You may be able to find a better version of this kind of tragically classy romance in an Alfred Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk picture. The Love Witch may be a flashier attempt at a playfully fashionable period pastiche with strong feminist themes. mother! may offer a more convincingly absurdist critique of artist-muse relationship dynamics. The Duke of Burgundy may be a more immersively gorgeous, cheekily fun examination of power struggles in a kinkily-mannered long-term romance. What Phantom Thread offers that resists comparison to other works is a very particular sense of humor distinct to Anderson’s collaborative energy with Day-Lewis. It’s difficult to describe why Woodcock peering menacingly over his glasses or the way PTA substitutes food for sex in this picture are so wickedly amusing; I actually suspect a lot of people won’t see it that way at all, given the subjective nature of humor. If you enter Phantom Thread looking for a modernist critique of the tyrannical Troubled Artist type set against a visually interesting backdrop & a sweeping, classy score (from fellow frequent PTA collaborator & Radiohead vet Jonny Greenwood), the movie is more than happy to oblige you. If you’re not laughing through the tension of the weaponized “polite” exchanges between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, though, I’m not sure you’re fully appreciating what the movie is offering. This really is one of the finest comedies I’ve seen in a while. It has a wickedly peculiar, distinct sense of humor to it that you won’t find in many other features, a comedic tone Reynolds himself would likely describe as “a little naughty.” Just pray you don’t find yourself in a dead silent audience of intellectuals hellbent on taking every detail of that naughtiness seriously.

-Branodn Ledet

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet

Kiki (2017)

By billing itself as a “spiritual sequel” to the landmark documentary Paris is Burning, the Swiss-American co-production Kiki smartly brought a lot of attention to itself & its political cause in an overcrowded media market where most low budget documentaries slip by without notice. It also set the expectation of what it can deliver to an impossibly high standard. Kiki is not as significant of a work as Paris is Burning. It’s not even close. Not only has the initial wow factor of what Paris is Burning managed to unearth faded with time, but the switch from celluloid film to digital media has significantly hindered the quality of imagery in this distant echo of an unofficial sequel. Still, as a modern check-in on the state of the NYC ballroom and voguing scene decades after that landmark work and a document of the heights of visual art being achieved within that subculture today, it’s a worthwhile addition to the classic doc’s legacy.

Paris is Burning documented the well-established “houses” & long term history of ballroom culture in NYC, a pocket of queer society fiercely dedicated both to artistic expression (mostly through fashion & dance) and self-preserving loyalty. Kiki focuses on a much more specific subset within that larger scene. Its title not only refers to the communal act of partying or hanging out, but also defines a subset of ball culture participants who are remarkably young and, unlike the older houses profiled in the previous film, unestablished. A large population of the Kiki world are underage PoC, abused or abandoned by their parents for being homosexual or trans. The “house mothers” who take them under their wing and help them prepare for ballroom & voguing competition are barely older than them, mostly in their early 20s, and that age range is largely what separates the “Kiki” scene from traditional ballroom culture.

What’s most exciting about Kiki as a film is in knowing that the ballroom scene does have this young blood flowing through its veins, keeping it alive. In a world where there aren’t many true countercultures left untouched by homogenized pop culture at large, it’s reassuring to know that the NYC ballroom scene is still as vibrantly punk as ever. You can see reflections of what Paris is Burning first documented in mainstream outlets like Ru Paul’s Drag Race today, but for the most part the culture had been left untouched & far from normalized. The aggressively defiant fashion, death drops, and openly expressed sexuality documented in Kiki is still punk as fuck and still a wonder to behold. The best moments of the film are when it merely documents & broadcasts the fine art achievement of the in-their-infancy houses like House P.U.C.C.I., House Juicy Culture, House Unbound Cartier, etc.

Although a respectable ambition, it’s the film’s overt attempts at political statement that drag down its overall value as an art piece. Kiki rightfully has a lot to say about queer and trans identity in modern America. Since it follows a younger set of subjects, it even has terms like “triggered” and “gender fluidity” in its arsenal to discuss these issues effectively. When it dares to flash back to images pulled directly directly from Paris is Burning, however, you get the sense that these politics might have been better served if they were allowed to crop up naturally while focusing on what makes this community’s highly specific POV special in the first place: ballroom culture. The issues discussed in the film are damn important, but by splitting its time between the less visually compelling political maneuvers that take place between the ballroom competitions and actually documenting the competitions​ themselves, the film ultimately feels a little weak and diluted, especially when compared to its spiritual predecessor.

Kiki makes some admirable maneuvers to improve on the Paris is Burning formula. It updates the soundtrack to a modern pop aggression provided by Qween Beat, deliberately puts its LGBTQ politics in the foreground of its subject, and goes as far as to include one of its interviewees in the production of the doc, correcting what many perceive as an exploitative element of Paris is Burning. Even with these positive alterations and additions, however, Kiki can never shake the feeling of being little more than an addendum or an epilogue to that superior work. It shines when it focus on the priceless visual art being produced in the ballroom subculture (sometimes even playing like a voguing-themed version of Girl Walk // All Day), allowing its politics to be passionately expressed in that display. When it strays from that task, however, it starts to feel a lot more like countless works we’ve already seen before. It’s horrifically upsetting that statements like “I am a person” should feel overtly political in a 2010s context, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are more interesting ways to say it than the way it’s handled in Kiki. Take, for instance, the way it’s expressed in the film it openly pays homage to at every turn.

-Brandon Ledet

Swagger (2017)

Music video director Olivier Babinet borrows a deliberate style over substance ethos from his preferred medium and brings it to its most unlikely onscreen home: the documentary feature. With Swagger, Babinet profiles the lives & personalities of eleven school age immigrants living in French housing projects, some first generation and some second. He offers their musings on topics as wide ranging as love, death, pop culture, poverty, and the surveillance state as mostly raw information, free of context, only stepping in to add music video style visuals as onscreen flavor. Swagger is like a Rodney Ascher film in this way, broadcasting instead of editorializing, except that it focuses on humanizing disadvantaged communities living under the radar in France instead of exploring more trivial topics like The Shining and sleep paralysis. It’s an approach that’s sure to be as divisive here as it is in Ascher’s features, The Nightmare & Room 237, but if you’re onboard with the formula it feels like a new, exciting kind of postmodern filmmaking.

One of the more alienating aspects of Swagger is its lack of a narrative structure. The eleven children interviewed speak in meandering, conversational tangents with no real story to tell other than who they are and how they see the world. Some of these tangents include insightful information about their daily lives in the insular housing projects communities: how lookouts inform drug dealers of encroaching police scrutiny, how outlandish fashion affords them a sense of self identity, how they’ve never seen a “person of French stock” in their entire lives – living entirely among “blacks & Arabs.” Some tangents are much less informational, including musings on the Obamas, the Fast & Furious franchise, and a lengthy recital of seasons’ worth of American soap opera plotlines. When considered as a whole, the interviews offer a detailed portrait of what a school age immigrant looks & sounds like in modern France. That may not immediately seem like the kind of political documentary filmmaking that challenges cultural hegemony, but the way it humanizes and gives voice to a section of the population that’s usually ignored or vilified without a second’s thought is nothing short of radical.

Speaking of things that are rad, the most striking aspect of Swagger is the way it frames these kids’ musings in a music video context. They strut their fashion in slow motion as if the doc were an update of the historical piece Fresh Dressed. Drone shots of the housing projects and the nearby suburbs look too good to be real, with one especially smooth transition from the exterior to the interior of one of the kids’ bedrooms looking like MCU-level CGI. Nature footage of owls and bunnies contrast with an industrial dance sequence involving welding masks & The Robot choreography. In an opening Facebook post of a fashion-conscious selfie, one of the kids describes themselves as “too stylish for your eyes.” Babinet’s visual style lives up to that promise, framing Swagger more like a narrative feature than a digital age documentary (because of its subject matter it feels like Girlhood in particular). He often allows this imagery to overpower the interviews that populate the audio. In one particular sequence, he even turns the film into a glimpse of a sci-fi dystopian future, solely because the kids’musings took him there. Some audiences are going to be turned off by those choices early & often, but as someone who values a style over substance ethos in almost all cases, I find it to be a bold, satisfying vision.

The lack of a narrative structure at the center of Swagger is only amplified by the way Babinet refuses to rigidly segment his interviews, allowing the reaction shots of one kid to seep in to inform the dialogue of another. I think he finds an interesting common ground between his subjects in this way and Swagger ultimately does offer a modern immigration portrait, even if flashy & loosely told. Its main goal is not necessarily to inform. It’s likely no surprise to most people that these kids help their parents translate & navigate their official correspondence or that their large housing buildings are eyesores that lead to massive white flight (along with other factors like, I dunno, racism & xenophobia). If Swagger were more interested in that kind of informational diatribe it would likely have included talking heads interviews with adult activists, urban planners, historians, and so on. Instead, it chooses to allow the kids to speak for themselves without offering an editorial analysis on what they report. I don’t have a term to describe this documentary style yet outside Ascher-esque, since it is so new & so foreign to the way these stories are typically told, but its highly stylized, Anthropology-style reliance on oral history documentation has me excited for the future of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

The Battle of the 2001 Fashion Industry Parodies was a Race into the Darkness of the Human Soul

April’s​ Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters comedy Head Over Heels, is many disparate films tied up in a single package. At times a formulaic romcom, a Farrelly brothers-style gross-out comedy, a diamond heist action thriller, and a winking Hitchcock homage, this Freddie Prinze Jr./Monica Potter madcap romance is largely a fun watch due to its violent, unexpected shifts in genre & tone. At its core, however, Head Over Heels can be readily understood as a light-headed satire of the fashion industry. Constantly poking fun at Monica Potter’s befuddled lead’s supermodel roomates, borrowing some of their second-hand glamor for its central romance fantasy, and staging its climactic showdown on a Fashion Week runway, Head Over Heels is a silly, parodic stab at couture culture. It was not alone in its year of release, either. The similarly silly, but much more popular Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander also arrived in 2001, with its own jokes about fashion models’ supposed stupidity and its own climactic runway-set showdown. Head Over Heels & Zoolander share more than just their deliriously silly fashion world parody too. They also undercut the frivolity that drives their central fashion world gags with some truly depressive, cruel lines of pitch black humor, diving much deeper into the darkness of the human soul than you might expect from a Freddie Prinze Jr. romcom and a ZAZ-style comedy that proudly features a Fabio cameo.

Fashion models seem to lead surreal, absurd, almost inhuman lives. Zoolander & Head Over Heels build their humor around that perception. They introduce a “normal” person (movie-normal anyway; one’s an art-restorer and one’s a photo-journalist for TIME Magazine) into the otherworldly realm of superhuman fashion models, or in Zoolander‘s parlance “people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking,” to play off that eccentricity. Part of the humor they find there is in jealousy: lavish parties, beautiful clothes, a total lack of sexual inhibition, etc. are overwhelming to the two films’ non-model normies and both movies have a lot of fun indoctrinating them into this culture, which appears to be a live action cartoon from the outside looking in. To take the models down a peg, then, they also poke fun at the two things typically associated with people who are really, really, ridiculously good-looking: low intelligence & eating disorders. Zoolander is a lot harsher on both of those topics than Head Over Heels. The Mark Waters film is a lot more humanizing in its portrayal of its star’s supermodel roomates, who are eventually proven to be a lot more cunning & self-aware than any of their foils give them credit for. I don’t really see the point in diving into the particulars of either films’ jabs at bulimia or stupidity, though, since it’s the easiest, most common sources of humor you’d expect from any fashion world comedy. What interests me, and I think what makes these films memorable, are the more unconventional places they find their dark humor, the real weirdo shit.

At its core, Head Over Heels is a much sweeter movie than Zoolander, with more of a sincere focus on its milquetoast woman/fashion world weirdo romance. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t indulge in its own forms of pitch black humor. The reason our generic romcom lead puts herself on the market for a new man at the beginning of the film is that her old biddy coworkers keep announcing, plainly, “You are going to die alone.” She then has her “meet cute” moment with Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hotshot fashion exec when the dog he’s walking tackles & mounts her in the lobby of their apartment building, which is a special kind of brutally embarrassing public humiliation for a cutesy romcom. The movie later indulges in other similar raunchy comedy moments, like a stray cunnilingus gag or an epic scene where the leads’ fashion model roomates are covered head to toe in human feces. What’s even darker is that the movie’s entire romcom plot is built on a Rear Window moment where the lead witnesses the fashion exec hunk “murder” someone through his apartment window, but romantically pursues him anyway, because of their overwhelming sexual chemistry. This includes a scene where she bangs the possible murderer before he’s convincingly absolved of the crime, an act her roommates gleefully watch through the window as if it were a plot point on a daytime soap. Sometimes these models’ lack of sexual inhibition is played for light laughs, like in an early scene when they aggressively catwalk nude through their apartment’s shared living space. Sometimes it gets much darker, though, like when the Russian-born model casually accuses a Girl Scouts troupe of being a childhood prostitution ring or when the Australian-born model (who has a crippling addiction to plastic surgery) constantly makes casual references to being molested by her uncle as a child, which is played for laughs. For all of its indulgences in cutesy romcom tropes, Head Over Heels can be a deeply strange, deeply fucked up comedy.

Much like how Head Over Heels builds its madcap romantic mixup around a possible cold-blooded murder, Zoolander finds its humorous A-plot in a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia so that child labor laws will relax enough in that country for fashion clothing production to pinch a few pennies. That’s pretty fucked. Its dark soul wasn’t lost on critics at the time of its release either. Ebert famously wrote in his post-9/11 review of the film, “There have been articles lately asking why the United States is so hated in some parts of the world. As this week’s Exhibit A from Hollywood, I offer Zoolander, a comedy about a plot to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia because of his opposition to child labor.” Besides that boldly crass plot line (which does have a pointedly satirical jab at fashion as an industry built into its DNA) and its much harsher stance on models being oversexed, anorexic idiots than the one taken in Head Over Heels, Zoolander ups the stakes of its dark humor by actually claiming a few human casualties. While the witnessed “murder” of Head Over Heels turns out to have been faked, one of Zoolander‘s first big gags (and easily the one that got the biggest laugh out of me as a teen at the theater) involves four of its idiotic lead’s closest male model friends perishing in a gas station explosion. It’s the kind of gag that you’d expect to see in the icily funny mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, where the punchline is a smash cut to a funeral service. Later in the film, the fashion industry is again skewered when Ben Stiller’s male model lead participates in a runway show that exploits/appropriates the tattered rags of the world’s “crack whores” & homeless for a marketable fashion aesthetic. And the darkest joke of all is that the film’s very first celebrity cameo (one of thousands) is none other than Donald J. Trump. Yikes.

As harsh as the humor can be in both of these movies, they’re still largely absurd, silly, light-hearted films. In both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, initial competitive jealousies in an industry where vanity is everything eventually give way to heartfelt camaraderie. Initial unease with the fashion world’s liberated, uninhibited sexuality eventually leads to sexual & romantic satisfaction. Models considered to be useless idiots at the outset save the day & prove their worth as human beings. Still, there’s a dark soul lurking at the center of both Head Over Heels & Zoolander, a black comedy undercurrent that occasionally cuts through the deliriously silly fashion world parody to laugh in the face of betrayal, death, bulimia, child abuse, etc. 2001 not only saw the release of two energetically silly fashion world comedies; it also brought out a surprisingly corrosive spirit in each of them that can disrupt & subvert the cheeriness of their shared mainstream comedy surface. Both movies were better & more memorable for it.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Head Over Heels (2001)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Alli, Britnee , and Brandon watch Head Over Heels (2001).

Boomer: Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Head Over Heels is not a good movie. Objectively, it’s actually kind of awful. It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life. There’s a silly voice-over at the beginning about growing up in [small Midwest location] but now the protagonist lives in [major metropolitan city] with [impossibly perfect job], but gosh darn it she’s just so unlucky in love! It’s so dumb, and I love it so, so much.

I already wrote a more complete recap of the film’s plot in my review of it so I won’t go overlong with the details here, but I’d stand by my assessment of it as “Two parts standard turn of the century romcom, one part Rear Window, with just a dash of genderbent Zoolander.” Future Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters directs Monica Potter as Amanda Pierce, an art restoration expert who moves in with four supermodels after catching her fiancé in bed with another woman. With the encouragement of her newfound group of unlikely friends, Amanda reluctantly begins to open her heart to handsome neighbor Jim Winston (Freddie Prinze Jr.), upon whom the women spy through his windows. He seems perfect, until Amanda alone sees him murder a woman. Or does he?

Britnee, what did you think of the relationships between the women in this movie? The film just barely passes the Bechdel Test (when the models talk about fashion and trading clothing), but that’s not a make-or-break barometer, really. I feel like the representation of non-traditional female friendships and the presentation of the supermodels as being vain and vaguely self-centered but also powerful and accepting of their new friend was fresh, especially for 2001. What do you think?

Britnee: First off, I just have to say that I absolutely loved Head Over Heels. It has that late 1990’s vibe that I am totally addicted to (Romy and Michelle’s High School ReunionJawbreakerShe’s All That, etc.), even though the film was released in 2001. What can I say, brightly colored mismatched clothes, frosty lipstick, hair chopsticks, chunky heels, and halter tops get me jazzed. To top it all off, the movie stars Freddie Prinze Jr.! He’s such a great actor for those terrible-yet-addictive types of movies, so what a perfect choice for the lead guy in Head Over Heels. It’s a shame that he doesn’t really act anymore. If I’m not mistaken, I remember him becoming involved with WWE after he stepped away from acting, but the latest I’ve heard of Prinze is that he wrote a cookbook (with a forward by Sarah Michelle Gellar). I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I hope that he makes references to his films in them (Spaghetti à la House of Yes).

To answer your question, Mark, I loved the relationships between the film’s female characters. Amanda’s friendship with the models and Lisa (her hilarious lesbian coworker) really shows that sisterhood comes in many forms, some more unique than others. In the beginning of the film, Amanda is harassed about not being married by her elderly coworkers, and I get it, being single wasn’t seen as an option during their youth, but it was still annoying to listen to their comments. Once she moves in with the models, they didn’t seem to be interested in her other than the $500 per month she was going to pay to live in a closet to fund their spending habits. I couldn’t help but assume that they were going to be a portrayed as the stereotypical self-absorbed group of air-headed models that were total mean girls, but thankfully, things didn’t go in that direction. The models, although very self-absorbed, did care about Amanda. They saw that she was interested (more like obsessed) with Jim, and they helped her score a date with him. Unfortunately, they covered her in makeup and dressed her up to their liking, making her look nothing like herself, but they were truly doing what they thought was best. And during Amanda’s quest to find out whether or not Jim was a murderer, they helped her break into his apartment to look for clues. They even endured Jim’s very intense poop and an absolutely disgusting septic tank shower in a public men’s room to get information for Amanda. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

What surprised me the most out of all the insanity in Head Over Heels was the incorporation of a murder mystery. I definitely didn’t see it coming, and I just about flew off my chair when Jim “murdered” Megan in his apartment. I sort of wish that Jim would’ve actually committed the murder and was part of a Russian mob or something like that because it would’ve made for a more interesting ending. Alli, what are your thoughts on the idea of Jim being an actual murderer? Or were you satisfied with him being an undercover agent?

Alli: I, too, actually kind of wish he was an actual murderer. The contrast between the bubble gum 90’s romcom aesthetic and a grim serial killer story really could have saved this movie for me. If Amanda had actually had a bad case of Hybristophilia (a crime fetish; I just looked up this word in case anyone was getting worried about me), I think the dark turn could have made for an extremely interesting and unique twist. Imagine her going to all this trouble and Rear Window-esque voyeurism to find out he actually did, only for her to realize that she doesn’t care and still loves him anyway. I thought the whole undercover agent thing was tacked on and sloppy. I understand that we’re supposed to be rooting for Amanda and want her to finally fall in love with Mr. Right, but it just seemed like a forced way to have a happy ending. It did make it possible to have that bizarre fashion show chase scene, though.

Fashion is an interesting part of this movie. The four models are dressed in perfect representation of current fashion for 2001, fashion that is now extremely dated. It seemed like, though, Head Over Heels was already acknowledging how ridiculous this all is. In the scene where the four models give Amanda a makeover, she knows it’s ridiculous. Her crush, Jim, knows it’s ridiculous.

Rather than a love letter to the fashion of the times, this movie strikes me more as a subtle satire. There’s vapid models constantly getting pointless plastic surgery done, who only care about rich men so they can continue a comfortable lifestyle (though, they do have a certain amount of Girl Power and protective instinct when it comes to Amanda), and there’s the fashion show gone wrong, but the press thinks it’s intentional. Brandon, what do you think about fashion in this film?  Do you see this movie as a satire of the industry?

Brandon: It’s clearly satire, but I think there’s a pretty distinct difference between the way this film handles its fashion industry parody and how that same attitude is executed in meaner, more pointed works of the era like Zoolander & Josie and the Pussycats. When we first encounter Amanda’s fashion model roomates, Head Over Heels clearly sets up a dichotomy between our protagonist’s supposedly more worthwhile career in fine art academia and the mindless frivolity of fashionista trend chasing. Unlike with Zoolander, however, the fashion industry and the perceived stupidity of fashion models eventually fades as a punchline and we start to see the value of their lifestyle. One of the roomates is a cunning academic who put her education on hold to take advantage of what a young, beautiful body can (temporarily) afford her. Casual nudity, aggressive catwalking, uninhibited attitudes toward sex, and blatant financial negotiations with men who want to be seen in public with them all afford these women a certain confidence & power that Amanda’s missing out on as a meek, academic shut-in. Waters (who is no stranger to dark humor in projects like Mean Girls and House of Yes) will sometimes undercut their power with somewhat tragic jokes about incest, child prostitution, and routine plastic surgery, but his script makes it clear that these are worthwhile, intelligent people who improve Amanda’s life with their specific skill set & collective life experience. There’s plenty of stray jabs aimed at the basic absurdity of fashion modeling as a profession, but the models themselves aren’t portrayed as nearly as cruel or idiotic as the people who look down on them merely for being models (especially the reoccurring police officer who won’t take their legitimate cries for help seriously until after they’re vindicated by his higher-ups).

One thing I love about the film that the modeling industry opens up to it is the incessant runway music. Gay 90s club music is just as omnipresent here as it is in the SNL comedy A Night at the Roxbury, which feels like a deliberate choice, given that this film would’ve been released a few years after the heyday of acts like La Bouche and Real McCoy. From the A*Teens’ aggressively bubbly cover of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” in the make-over montage to the film’s wordless, repetitive Gay 90s theme music to the choice to include The Go-Go’s titular hit song “Head Over Heels” instead of the more obvious (and more romantic) Tears for Fears option, there’s a very specific soundtrack direction to Head Over Heels that keeps it away from the detached cynicism of Zoolander and moves it toward the absurdist fantasy of films like Spice World & Teen Witch. As Head Over Heels shifts its genre gears from romcom to Farrelly brothers-style gross-out to murder mystery to action comedy, the 90s style club music remains its only real constant, a consistent runway beat that feels just as important to the fashion world setting as the actual on-the-runway debacle of its Fashion Week conclusion.

Boomer, did you at all notice the soundtrack while watching Head Over Heels or did it just feel like typical romcom tunage to you? Is the film’s 90s-hangover club music significant to its fashion world aesthetic or am I allowing my love of acts like Deee-Lite & Snap! to make it appear to be more than it is?

Boomer: I love this question, because I’ve held a longtime fascination with films that are named for song titles. Until the 1980s, most movies that followed this naming convention were about music and starred musicians: White Christmas (1954) starring Bing Crosby, Rock Around the Clock (1956) starring Bill Haley and the Comets and The Platters among others, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) starring future Mrs. Brian De Palma Nancy Allen and focusing on four girls going to see The Beatles. Starting with John Hughes’s 1984 film Sixteen Candles, there was a boom of more romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music. Candles was followed by Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful, Roxanne, and Can’t Buy Me Love (all 1987), My Girl (1991), Love Potion No. 9 (1992), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), One Fine Day (1996), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Simply Irresistible (1999)Of course, the veritable apotheosis of this concept was 1990’s Pretty Woman.

This conceit started to die out around the time that Head Over Heels was released (give or take a Sweet Home Alabama here and there), but I have to admit that, minus the cover of “Take a Chance on Me,” and the inclusion of the title song, none of the music in the film stood out to me all that much. That’s odd, considering how often I find myself consciously dissecting a film’s score while watching, sometimes to my own annoyance (while at a recent screening of A Tale of Two Sisters, every time the piercing, intense strings started playing, I found myself daydreaming about Psycho). Maybe the overall generic nature of the (accurately described) “gay 90s club music” is what makes the film flow with such grace. It fits well enough that it’s beneath notice, which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

When I hear the phrase “head over heels,” I too first think of Tears for Fears, but looking at the lyrics of the Go-Go’s “Head Over Heels,” it’s apparent why this is the title song and not the more famous new wave track. The song includes lines like “I couldn’t see the warning signs/I must be losin’ it/Cause my mind plays tricks on me,” which is much more in line with Amanda’s state of mind than poetical waxing about talking about the weather, wasting time, or being lost in admiration. It’s more consistent with the film’s thesis of a woman who has been fooled too many times but still finds herself smitten with a handsome stranger against her better judgment, although I can almost hear her say “don’t take my heart, don’t break my heart/Don’t, don’t, don’t throw it away” (presumably while sitting on the stairs outside a dreamboat’s apartment while he explains that his work persona is a facade).

To be honest, a part of me wishes that this was less of a romcom and more about an art restorer who gets into international shenanigans with the help of her fashion model roommates. Britnee, what do you think of the espionage plot? I agree with Alli that it feels tacked on and sloppy, and I wish the intrigue of smuggled diamonds had played a larger role in the overall narrative. Do you feel the same way? What changes would you make to the screenplay if you had the chance?

Britnee: I agree that the whole secret agent twist was sloppily thrown in. To be honest, I was waiting for another plot twist to happen about 5 minutes to the end of the movie where Jim reveals himself as a murderer disguised as a federal agent who was pretending to be a murderer. Anything would have been better than the overused agent-in-disguise cop out. I get it, Amanda and Jim needed to end up together, and this was written in the script so the two love birds could have their “happily ever after.” It just felt so lazy. Thankfully, there were many other interesting events that made up for it.

Like Mark, I too would like to see the film focus more on Amanda’s career as an art restorer because that has to be one of the coolest jobs on the planet. If I could make changes to the screenplay, I would definitely make the film more of a fantasy romcom that would focus on Amanda’s art restoration skills. Amanda receives a renaissance painting in desperate need of restoration, and as she starts to restore the faces on each person in the painting, they come to life. Sort of like the street art in the movie Xanadu. The characters from her paintings are confused about the time period change, and she has to bring them home with her until she can figure out a way to get them back to their world. When Amanda leaves the medieval folk at her apartment while she attempts to research the mysterious painting, her model roommates give them makeovers and take them out clubbing. Amanda would end up falling in love with one of the painting characters and in the end, she would chose to go back with them to their time period as she doesn’t feel like she fits in with early 2000s city life. Also, I would make sure that my version of Head Over Heels would be a bit slower than the original so the audience could have time to catch their breath and comprehend what’s going on.

Alli, did you feel as though the pace of Head Over Heels was extremely fast? The moment the film begins, Amanda’s voice immediately started to describe her upbringing, and everything was moving at 100 mph from that moment on.

Alli: I did think the pace of the movie was pretty strange actually. I felt like it breezed over interesting and important things and then spent too much time on others. Like you said, there’s barely any time spent on her career, even though it’s made out to be a minor plot point eventually, but we get to see a bunch of Freddy Prince Jr. doing chin-ups. I think part of it was that there was so much stuff going on in this movie, too much even. There wasn’t enough time to make a well paced film, because there was just a lot. It’s the sort of movie that makes you think, “less is definitely more.”

I think I would have cut out the jewel heist, and made it an art related plot. The diamonds just felt thrown in there. I know it was a good vehicle for the runway sequence, though. I think it would have also helped to have the big undercover agent reveal earlier on if we’re forced to go that route, instead of Amanda investigating this murder forever. Another thing that could go is the voiceover. We can see she’s in New York. We can see that she’s unlucky in love, but has a dream job. Maybe, I’m just being a hardline film snob here, but the voiceover felt completely unnecessary.

Brandon, are there any details you find unnecessary? Am I being too hard on the voiceover?

Brandon: “So dumb,” “sloppy,” “extremely dated,” “lazy,” “not a good movie,” “actually kind of awful;” I’m being a little unfair with the pull-quotes I’m cherry picking here, but it is funny how willing we are to tear this movie down even though we seemed to have a lot of fun watching it (excluding maybe Alli). The problem there might be that the romcom fantasy is so inherently frivolous as a genre that it can’t support this kind of roundtable critical discussion without the conversation devolving into nitpicking. I don’t often excuse the use of voiceover as an easy narrative tool, but removing it from Head Over Heels would be like asking a Batman movie to skip its suiting-up montage or a slasher film to cast geriatric actors instead of hot, horny teens. Without its voiceover narration, Head Over Heels would likely be a struggle to follow as an audience, given the film’s whiplash-inducing pace & shifts in tone. More importantly, though, it would remove one of the earliest & most consistent markers that this is an exercise in romcom genre filmmaking, with all the deliriously silly bells & whistles the format implies. The voiceover is just as much a part of the territory to me as the film’s dogwalking meet cute, its Big Misunderstanding romantic mixup, or its pretty-but-not-too-pretty lead (Monica Potter looks like she was built in a lab by combining Sandra Bullock & Julia Roberts DNA into a cute, but “approachable” hybrid).

What’s most fun about Head Over Heels is how it uses this familiarity with romcom tropes to allow the film to continuously shift gears from minute to minute in terms of content & tone. The clash of Zoolander-style fashion world parody with Hitchcock homage thriller beats, diamond heist action comedy, and scatological Farrelly brothers humor amounts to a disorienting, absurdist whirlwind that in any other situation might feel like an untethered mess, but there’s always the familiar romcom structure about a clumsy academic-type with “the worst taste in men” waiting to anchor the story to something that can easily be processed & understood. I believe that method of anchoring the film was an entirely intentional decision on Waters’s part, one that allows for a lot of the film’s more absurd tangents to creep in (like its crossdressing security guard or its unexpectedly raunchy cunnilingus joke), while still making for one of the most memorable romcom plots of all time. In terms of pure absurdity, it’s right up there with Brittany Murphy learning to make a magical bowl of ramen in Ramen Girl or Aubrey Plaza falling for a delusional “time traveler” in Safety Not Guaranteed or whatever the hell’s going on in former Movie of the Month entry My Demon Lover. I’m not saying that Head Over Heels is beyond critical nitpicking because of the genre territory it willfully chooses to occupy, but I just don’t have the heart to tear it down myself. I had too much fun going to the one million and ten places the movie took me in just 90 minutes to sour on the trope-reliant methods it needed to exploit to get me there.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Candi, the Australian model, was my favorite character. Her quirky personality and constant plastic surgery procedures added a lot of humor to Head Over Heels. However, I could have done without all the creepy Uncle Pete comments. Those just made me feel super uncomfortable.

Alli: I was really not expecting the amount of poop jokes. Poop jokes are fine and all, but it just didn’t work for me. The one in the bathroom stall is nauseating even.

Brandon: It’s funny to me that everyone’s drawing a line here as to where specific gags of crude, gross-out humor didn’t work for them. While I was a little more willing to follow Head Over Heels into its nasty child abuse humor and grotesque scatological visuals than Britnee or Alli (if not solely because they were such an absurd intrusion on the typically tamer romcom reverie at the film’s center), I also had a moment where the movie pushed me a little too far: the film’s plot-instigating meet cute. Freddie Prinze Jr. is introduced walking a friend’s dog (a Great Dane named Hamlet, heh heh) that knocks over and sexually mounts our poor down-on-her-luck protagonist. My shock at this most undignified public degradation might be a result of it arriving long before any of the film’s other gross-out gags. It was still shockingly cruel either way, a moment that’s even repeated to bring the chaotic plot around full-circle in a strangely sadistic way. Although I was taken aback by the film’s bestial meet cute cruelty, however, I still ultimately respect that it could have that kind of effect on me at all. It’s not often that a traditional romcom can surprise its audience that sharply and it’s only one of many examples of Head Over Heels continually pulling the rug.

Boomer: I think that some of the aberrant elements of the screenplay were an attempt to appeal to too many people: eye-candy in the form of FPJ doing pull-ups and lady models strutting about in various states of undress to suit whatever your tastes may be; scat humor and an action plot to serve as a more stereotypically masculine counterweight to the trappings of the “chick flick” formula (i.e., makeovers and girlie talk); a little bit of gay panic with Amanda and her overly-touchy friend but also a celebration of queerness in the form of Bob’s landlord. It’s probably not the only reason this film was a commercial failure and is relegated to late-night programming on USA, but it certainly doesn’t help. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick a movie that Alli likes next time.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Alli presents Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June: Brandon presents Cool As Ice (1991)
July: Britnee presents Something Wicked this Way Comes (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Dressmaker (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I don’t enjoy Westerns. They do nothing for me. It’s a frequent complaint I have, a well-respected genre that just completely shuts off my brain, and I have a difficult time falling in love with even the most modern updates to the format like Bone Tomahawk & Hell or High Water that are reported to be reinvigorating examples of the genre’s merits. To play directly into the “Actually, it’s really a Western if you think about it” critical cliché, The Dressmaker felt tailor made to shut my stupid mouth on the subject. The film, which is at once a violent camp comedy and a heartfelt melodrama, plays like 90s-era John Waters remaking Strictly Ballroom as a revenge tale Western where lives are destroyed by pretty dresses instead of bullets. If I were ever going to fall in love with a movie that could even vaguely be considered a Western, this formula would be my personal ideal. It’s violent, it’s campy, it’s unpredictable, it’s commanded by the female gaze; The Dressmaker is everything I love about cinema at large crammed into the mold of a genre that usually puts me to sleep.

Trading in the dusty roads of the American West for the dustier & more desolate landscape of a small Australian town in the 1950s, The Dressmaker may not have the authenticity in setting required to automatically qualify as a Western, but its intent within the genre is unmistakable. Kate Winslet, as fiercely talented & beautiful as ever, rides into town (on a bus instead of the traditional horse) to blaze a path of earth-scorching revenge for a past betrayal. A mother who doesn’t remember her and a community who has shunned her as an alleged murderess distort the facts of a childhood trauma she can’t quite piece together until the dust fully settles. Instead of establishing her dominance with a six-shooter, she fires off her sewing machine, crafting fashion so eye-meltingly gorgeous that the town that once conspired against her is powerless under the influence of her needle. They attempt to put an end to her coup by bringing in a hired gun seamstress as competition, but Winslet’s needle-slinging protagonist consistently proves to be the best dressmaker the town has ever seen. She will not rest until she knows the truth about her own past and everyone in her path is draped in her finery – dead, or alive & ruined.

There’s so much to love about The Dressmaker, but its most cherishable quality is its minute-to-minute unpredictability. The film has obvious fun with the general structure of a Western & plays with camp tones of an absurdist comedy, but it zigs where you expect those genres’ tropes to zag and much of its third act is an anything-goes free-for-all where the only thing that’s certain is that Kate Winslet is a badass and you’d be a fool to vex her. In the same film where Hugo Weaving plays a crossdressing sheriff with a John Waters mustache and enough room is set aside for a shameless drunk to heckle Sunset Boulevard, there’s also a romantic throughline that makes a boy toy out of Liam Not-Thor Hemsworth, pitch black revelations of rape & domestic abuse, accusations of witchcraft, jaw-to-the-floor wardrobe gazing (duh) and just about any other tonal left turn you can conjure. It has the small town melancholy of a The Last Picture Show, the over-the-top cartoon pomp & costuming of Death Becomes Her, and the in-cold-blood retribution of Westerns I can’t name because I usually sleep through them, sometimes before the title card. The Dressmaker is more than everything I wanted it to be. In a way it was also just everything, full stop.

Please don’t let all of this talk of violent Westerns & high camp cartoons steer you from watching this film, because it has so much more to offer outside those contexts. Regardless of genre, it’s a fascinating work in its rarity as an aggressively feminine revenge tale, one that feels so foreign in its isolated Australian Mortville setting & its worlds away from Hollywood tone that it’s almost operating in a realm of magic. The only other film from 2016 I could compare its general vibe to is the modernist Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship, but even that breath of fresh air can’t match the excitement & satisfaction of The Dressmaker’s consistent novelty. It’s a wholly unique experience, the kind of cinematic idiosyncrasy we’re all hoping to find when we go to the movies. The more I reflect back on it, the more I feel lucky to have seen it at all.

-Brandon Ledet