Season of the Witch (1973)

In one of the more recent episodes of The Swampflix Podcast, Brandon, James, and I got together to virtually discuss what we categorized as “smart zombie movies.” During the recording, I mentioned that I’m not a fan of George Romero’s zombie films, such as Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. I find them to be boring, and I just really don’t care to waste time watching them. I know that is a blasphemous thing to say since he is considered to be one of greatest horror filmmakers of all time, but I’m just speaking my truth. Then, a few nights ago, I stumbled across a film called Season of the Witch. At first, I thought it was my favorite entry in the Halloween series (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), but it actually turned out to be one of Romero’s earliest films. It also happened to be considered one of his worst. Of course, I ended up enjoying it.

Season of the Witch has an interesting backstory. It was written and directed by George Romero and produced by his first wife, Nancy Romero. It was originally marketed as a softcore porn film called Hungry Wives with a poster that featured drawings of a few sultry women and the tagline, “Caviar in the kitchen, nothing in the bedroom.” The film itself is far from being anything close to a softcore porn; well, minus one quick sex scene and a few nude moments. It was the distributor who pushed Romero in the softcore direction, wanting him to incorporate pornographic sex scenes between the film’s main character and her young lover, but Romero refused. He had a different vision.

Influenced by second-wave feminism, Romero made a fantastic film about a dissatisfied housewife who dabbles in the occult, and he did it all with a budget of about $100,000 (it was originally $250,000 before his funding dropped). The main character, Joan Mitchell, is played by actress Jan White. White is somehow only credited with acting in four films (many of them from the 1970s). I was shocked to find out that her acting career was so short, because she is phenomenal in Season of the Witch. She has such a naturally entrancing, striking look that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Something about her is so delightfully haunting. To make things even better, she wears some of the most magnificent beehive wigs and late 1960s/early 1970s fashion. There’s also tons of cobalt blue carpet throughout the film that serves as an exquisite backdrop for her fabulous looks.

Season of the Witch starts off in a very exciting way. It opens up with a long dream sequence where Jan is walking in the woods while being ignored by her husband, and encountering all sorts of other bizarre dreamlike things (spooky music included). It gives off major The Feminine Mystique vibes. Jan is a housewife with an abusive husband and young-adult daughter, so she’s at the point in her life where she’s trying to figure out what her next step is. At a neighborhood party, she discovers that one of her neighbors is a witch. This sparks an interest in her, so she decides to explore the practice of witchcraft. There’s a great scene where she goes into town to shop for witchy supplies while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays in the background. The first spell she casts is a love spell that results in her having a tryst with her daughter’s lover. It’s so scandalous! As she dives deeper into the occult, she has progressively intense dreams about someone in a rubber demon mask breaking into her home. The dream later becomes infused with her reality, leading to a shocking act that I won’t spoil in this review.

Season of the Witch is not a horror movie, so don’t go into it expecting anything of the sort. It’s also not the softcore porn it was marketed as initially. It’s simply a wonderful drama that explores the internal struggles of an unhappy suburban housewife through the use of witchcraft. I was so impressed with this film, and I have a newfound appreciation for George Romero. I can’t wait to explore more of his non-zombie movies from this era. Hopefully I’ll find more hidden gems like Season of the Witch.

-Britnee Lombas

The Misandrists (2018)

Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. Although he has been making films long enough to have been lumped in with the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s (a descriptor he rejects in favor of association with the “queercore” punk scene), LaBruce still traffics in transgressive, microbudget outsider art that recalls John Waters’s trashy protopunk beginnings in the early 1970s. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming The Misandrists was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

Set “somewhere in Ger(wo)many” in an alternate timeline 1999 (near the release of Waters’s similarly militant Cecil B. Demented) The Misandrists establishes a femmetopia comprised of man-hating revolutionaries who train to violently overthrow the Patriarchy. The women’s testosterone-free environment is disrupted by three types of intruders before their pornography-funded political revolution is fully launched: a male anti-capitalist revolutionary harbored under the noses of their leadership, pig cops searching for that persona non grata, and the trans & non-binary comrades already in their midst despite their cis-femmes-only recruitment policy. There are abundant red flags early in the film that suggest it subscribes to grotesque TERF ideology, but that outdated lack of intersectionality & inclusivity becomes its exact political target if you allow it time to get there. It affords characters air time to voice repugnant trans-exclusionary ideals, but when one of its most disruptive outsiders declares “It’s time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics,” the sentiment rings genuine in a way few of its radical extremist bon mots do.

For the stretch of The Misandrists that does voice rad-fem, TERFy ideology, it does so only to indulge in over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exaggerations of what feminism looks like in an exploitation cinema context. The femme “comrades” of the film form a “separatist commune” disguised as a convent of nuns-in-training. They’re actually training as “an army of lovers” looking to establish a self-sustaining lesbian society free of men, whom they consider “repulsive,” “despicable,” “contaminating,” and “the cops of the world.” Their political ideology playfully crosses the line into religious dogma, as they form a new femme version of Christianity around “The Mother, The Daughter, and The Holy Cunt.” Terms like “(wo)manual,” “herstory,” and “womansplain” roll off the tongue as if they were commonly spoken phrases instead of humorous perversions of idioms. As the title suggests, The Misandrists presents an exaggerated version of what shithead men imagine when they hear the word “feminism”: militant man-haters & lesbians gearing up to steal power from all men everywhere in a violent overthrow. When depicted so crassly & without nuance, that imaginary version of feminism is a hilarious, over-the-top cartoon. It’s also, unsurprisingly, badass.

What’s most distinctive about The Misandrists is how LaBruce finds ways to express his true, genuine ideology through pornography while still allowing rad-fem caricatures to voice the politics he’s openly mocking. Two femme comrades watch masc gay porn for “research,” voicing violent disgust for the very sexual acts LaBruce is infamous for including in his art. The film itself often crosses the line from militant feminism-spoofing exploitation cinema into full-on lesbian porno, leering at girls making out while a tender pop song dryly intones “Down, down, down with the Patriarchy.” A transgressive, queer filmmaker, LaBruce goes out of his way to make sure this display is not straight-guy masturbation fodder. He not only plays extensive clips of hardcore gay pornography in an early scene, he also includes graphic footage of a real-life gender reassignment surgery and disrupts the straight eroticism of the lesbian sex scenes with perverse kinky defilements of food (including the filthiest use of eggs that I’ve ever seen in any film, including Tampopo). When a character proclaims, “Pornography is an act of insurrection against the dominating order,” it feels like one of the few moments when LaBruce is expressing a genuine political thought, as opposed to an over-the-top cartoon caricature of feminism. Of course he believes pornography could be a useful tool for funding a queer revolution – he’s already been using it that way for decades.

If you’re looking for a shocking, over-the-top slice of campy schlock, 2018 isn’t likely to offer a much more perfect specimen than The Misandrists. That might be the only way in which the film is “perfect,” as it deliberately traffics in imperfections & insincerities to prove a larger political point and to stay true to LaBruce’s D.I.Y. queercore sensibilities. Every year I ask myself which calendar release I would most want to watch with John Waters, The Pope of Filth, and I imagine this sarcastic, pornographic, politically angry act of feminist camp would tickle him like no other 2018 release I’ve seen.

-Brandon Ledet

The Red Krayola’s Anthemic Repetition in Born in Flames (1983)

There isn’t much immediately noticeable structure or organization to Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, deliberately so. Lizzie Borden’s no-wave feminist screed was pieced together over five years of no-budget NYC filmmaking, building its narrative around the disunion and lack of cohesion among separate factions of political radicals who should all be united for a common cause. That story of gradual, incremental cohesion and those means of fractured, piecemealed filmmaking make for an excitedly dense picture, but also a stubbornly messy one. Before the disparate themes and feminist factions of Born in Flames cohere late in its runtime, one of the only aspects of the film that goes out of its way to provide the audience with a structural anchor is Lizzie Borden’s use of music, especially the repetition of the film’s titular theme song. There are needle-drops galore in Born in Flames, or at least more than you’d expect from a no-budget political bomb-thrower. Among less recognizable disco, reggae, and funk tunes that soundtrack the film’s many pirate radio broadcasts, the song selection includes more numerous, iconic needle-drops than you might fist realize: The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” “New Town” from The Slits, etc. Less surprising is the repetition of a track from the NYC punk band The Bloods, since the vocalist for the group, Adele Birtei, is one of the two main radio DJs who provide a mouthpiece for the film’s opposing feminist factions. Birtei is shown performing in concert & “rapping” acapella on her radio show (a faux pas that made Boomer cringe), but her biggest musical contribution is providing vocals for a track by The Bloods that repeats three times in this 80min sprint of a feature film. Somehow, though, that Bloods contribution is still less prominently used than the Red Krayola song “Born in Flames,” which is the movie’s true thematic anchor in addition to being its titular anthem.

Artist attribution over “Born in Flames” is oddly iffy, as the song itself is a kind of political collaboration reminiscent of the one at a Lizzie Borden’s film’s core. The lyrics of the song are attributed to the songwriting collective Art & Language. The track also features vocal contributions from former X-Ray Spex member ­­Lora Logic, so significantly that it was included on the Essential Logic retrospective collection of her work, Fanfare in the Garden. Even The Red Krayola’s attribution is a bizarre issue in isolation, as the song arrived in an early era of their career when they were still billed as The Red Crayola. The band had a long journey form Texan proto-punk rock n’ rollers to No Wave scene peers with groups like The Bloods, but the pulsing, off-kilter dance punk messiness in their “Born in Flames” track is the exact right tone for Borden’s film, so much so that its repetition outshines the very similar use of the soundtrack contribution from The Bloods. The piano intro to The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” is the first sounds we hear in Borden’s film before a fictional news broadcast explains the sci-fi conceit of the failed socialist revolution dystopia where the story will be set. Adele Birtei warns her radio show listeners that they should get used to this political anthem, because “You’ll be hearing it wherever you go.” That’s no false promise. Each of the four times their titular anthem repeats in the film, its burrows further into your brain, making it feel like it’s the only song on the soundtrack, when that’s far from the truth. Re-watching Born in Flames specifically to pay attention to how & how often the Red Krayola song is employed on the soundtrack, this relentless repetition appears to be something much more thematically purposeful than just providing a rallying cry that echoes the film’s title. The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” only emerges in-film in a very specific, repeated instance, one that reinforces Borden’s central themes of women’s labor & true, ideal feminism.

Every time the Red Krayola song repeats in Born in Flames, it soundtracks a montage of women performing labor. In these montages, Lizzie Borden strings together a fractured, frantic vision of what’s often dismissively described as “women’s work,” offering a varied sampling of what appears to be documentary footage of women at work. This labor is visualized in grocery store checkout clerks, office receptionists, childcare professionals, dental assistants, nail salon technicians, school teachers, and so on. The domestic labor of pouring a husband’s coffee, feeding children, and washing dishes is presented on an even playing field with regular office work. Likewise, sex work is so normalized in these sequences it’s difficult to tell if the hand-on application of a condom is categorized as domestic labor or prostitution, since it’s immediately juxtaposed with images like factory workers shrink-wrapping chicken or hands plunging into a sink full of soapy water. In these disjointed, fractured flashes of “women’s work,” the only anchor providing cohesion is the repetition of the song “Born in Flames,” a steady constant that only appears in these specific montages. The one exception might be the song’s fourth repetition, which soundtracks a montage of political organization imagery: meet-ups, radio broadcasts, punk concerns, intellectual discussions, etc. Of course, political organization is its own kind of labor that deserves to be valued just as much as any other profession represented in these montages, a point that’s only made clear by the shared accompaniment of the Red Krayola song. As Born in Flames is a film about women’s labor and radical political organization, these montages are essential to its core concerns, creating a thematic throughline that establishes narrative cohesion out of the film’s general fractured vision of feminist unrest. There’s no question why it was important enough to Borden’s work to provide her film its title.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Born in Flames without The Red Krayola’s titular anthem driving its rhythm and providing it thematic structure. There are other songs used in the film that are just as essential to the soundtrack, but none feel like they could have held the same weight in repetition, not even contributions from other punk heavy-hitters like The Slits. That’s almost an indisputable fact, given the way The Bloods’ track repeats three times throughout, but makes for a much less memorable impact. In this case, the movie & the song are one and the same: a D.I.Y. punk collaboration meant to jolt its audience into political unity & direct, radical action. Repeating that message can only strengthen its cause, as it becomes just as much a political mantra as it is an earworm.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this exploration of its place in the No Wave movement, and last week’s look at Lizzie Borden’s follow-up film, Working Girls (1986).

-Brandon Ledet

Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

My favorite image in the entirety of Lizzie Boden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is the hands-on application of a condom. Casually included in one of the many montages set to Red Krayola’s titular anthem that repeats throughout the film, there’s something intensely provocative about that matter-of-fact condom application. Juxtaposed with a wide range of images depicting labor derisively considered “women’s work,” the hands-on work of applying a condom is (somewhat in dark humor) positioned as a burden often laid on women, no different than dental assistant labor, child care, call-center duty, or the factory work of shrink-wrapping raw chicken. Its contextless, matter-of-fact presentation leaves a lot of room for interpretation, though, dividing me & Alli on whether that image was being coded as domestic labor of professional sex work. Similarly, Born in Flames’s attitude toward sex work at large is open for interpretation, as it’s a narratively disjointed picture that relies in the strengths of ideas & images (like the contextless condom application) more than concrete explanations of intent. My personal interpretation of Born in Flames saw its attitude toward sex work as the only aspect of the film’s radical politics that did not age particularly well. In my view, the film advocates for the abolition of sex work as an industry, lumping it in with rape & gendered subjugation. Boomer & Alli both saw it differently, saying Born in Flames presents sex work as just any other kind of job (albeit one in desperate need of advocacy for workers’ rights), which would put it closer in line with modern political thinking on the subject, as opposed to the more hardline stances of feminism past. It could be that I was lumping individual characters’ negativity toward sex work in with Lizzie Borden’s own views; all sides of nearly every political issue are allowed to conflict onscreen in Born in Flames with equal weight. It’s tough to tell with just one picture as evidence, especially one this deliberately disjointed.

Thankfully, Lizzie Borden’s next feature film, Working Girls, delves further into this exact topic. Depicting a single workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls finds Lizzie Borden tackling the topic of sex work head-on and at feature length.  It even follows a much more straight-forward, linear narrative than Born in Flames, so much so that it could easily be adapted into a stage play. Weirdly, though, it never fully settled my mind on Borden’s political views of sex work as an industry, which is indicative of both her own internal ideological conflicts and the complex nature of the subject. ­­Louise Smith stars in Working Girls as an aspiring photographer with a live-in girlfriend (and daughter) who secretly pays her bills by working johns in a brothel/apartment that resembles a windowless version of the Seinfeld set. Over the course of the film she works a double shift, making money off a variety of men who visit the apartment by appointment and pay to spend time with her in rooms upstairs. As the title suggests, brothel work is depicted in the film as if it were any other kind of industry. The workers who comprise the operation are tasked to alternate personalities & functions, from receptionist to office girl to therapist to hostess to actor to lover to dominatrix to housecleaner, as the minute-to-minute demands of the job shift. The manual labor of condom application implied by that single image in Born in Flames is expanded to include used condom disposal, laundering of soiled towels, and the insertion of diaphragms. This matter-of-fact presentation of sex work in a functioning office context even comes with a demanding boss who takes credit for all their employees’ labor and changes the mood of the room depending on their emotional outbursts. Judging by its office environment hierarchies & work flows, Working Girls indeed reinforces the idea that Lizzie Borden views sex work as just being like any other profession. That would indicate Born in Flames’s views were much closer to modern radical politics than the prostitution abolitionist views of feminism past. That’s not all that’s going on in the film, however.

The function & method of sex work might be framed in the context of office culture mundanity in Working Girls, but the sex itself is a punishing, relentless nightmare that complicates that intellectual distancing. The disjointed landscapes of Art of Noise-style music & disembodied grunts mix with subtly grotesque expressions of masculine violence in a never-ending nightmare that resembles an early 80s slasher with condom-wrapped dicks instead of glistening kitchen knives. Consensual trading of cash for pleasure shifts into acts of rape within the span of a single phrase or physical gesture. The capitalist hierarchy & financial desperation that presses its boot on the neck of the workers with increasing intensity makes the cramped setting feel like an ongoing hostage crisis. Even the women eating junk food between customers is a stomach-churning display, an effect Borden plays for a sinisterly humorous tone. Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.

Where that leaves Borden’s political views on sex work at large is still as hazy as the contextless, provocative imagery of Born in Flames, but that’s honestly a large part of what makes her work so engaging. According to Borden herself, she made Working Girls after collaborating with the women who starred in & crewed Born in Flames, noticing that a large number of them were financially dependent on sex work to survive (and had fascinating stories to tell on the subject). That at least acknowledges that if Borden was politically opposed to sex work as an industry, it was a question of anti-oppressive ideals, not of denigrating individual people it employed. The shame is that we never had a chance to see her expand even further on the subject. Because of the studio influence that compromised her later work, Borden considers Born in Flames & Working Girls to be the only two titles that are truly hers as the principle artist at the helm. With more, better funded movies her world view may have had a chance to clarify, evolve, or self-conflict in a clearer political display, but instead she’s been effectively silenced by a lack of opportunity. Luckily, the two films she was able to compete without outside fuckery are both ideologically dense, provocative works of D.I.Y. political filmmaking, as well as essential documentation of a long-gone, grimy era in NYC history. I’m unsure of my interpretations of either film, something that’s made no better through repetition, but I’m also awestruck by the potency of her D.I.Y. matter of fact imagery. Isolated images of a condom application, a greasy cheeseburger, a pantied spanking, and an exploding World Trade Center miniature will haunt me forever in their political implications & daringness to provoke. In two no-budget films, Borden left me with more to think about & debate within myself than most directors achieve with entire catalogs of professionally financed, polished studio productions. That’s about as punk as you can get, no matter what your exact political stances may be or how they may age with time.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its place in the No Wave movement.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

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 Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Born in Flames (1983).

Brandon: I first watched Lizzie Borden’s ramshackle punk screed Born in Flames shortly after the historic Women’s March that protested Trump’s inauguration last year. The film’s mere existence is incredible for countless reasons, but what struck me most at the time was how closely it resembled current, compromised news coverage of radical political resistance. Early 1980s protest footage integrated into Born in Flames’s sci-fi narrative could just as easily have been captured at the 2017 Women’s March with just the right Instagram filter to match the film’s low-fi static. It’s not that the Born in Flames’s politics were especially predictive or ahead of their time, either. What’s most striking is not the film’s prescience, but how little the world has changed in the 35 years since its release. Current concerns of respectability politics, White Feminism, Men’s Rights Activism, public sexual harassment, patriarchal rape culture, and dishonest media coverage of peaceful protests are all demonized in Born in Flames as the enemies of true social progress. The film preaches a message of Intersectionality & true feminist unity (across borders of race & sexuality) that still hasn’t been fully achieved to this day, but has become a much more commonly expressed ideal. Its vision of D.I.Y. punk culture, from bicycle gangs to alternative modes of broadcasting & press to dingy nightclubs & ripped street clothes, still feels true to how radical counterculture looks today. This D.I.Y. punk ethos also extends to the film’s form, which is a version of sci-fi filmmaking so lacking in budget & traditional craft that you’d never be able to tell it was set in the future if that weren’t explicitly stated.

Set ten years after a fictional American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

Born in Flames splits its efforts as both a document of its time in D.I.Y. political filmmaking and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to a long-gone, idealized past.  Alli, do you think either side of this divide overpowers the other? From your perspective, does Born in Flames excel more as a historical document or a living, breathing ideological manifesto?

Alli: I don’t think the idea of black lesbian punks running the streets is necessarily part of an idealized past. There are things like Afropunk and many radical Tumblr blogs right now making a lot of waves (Afropunk even has its own festival) and inspiring a lot of kids to just be themselves, loud and proud. Maybe New York isn’t the same, but other places in the country are seeing demonstrations, women trying to take care of each other, and celebrations of these kinds of lifestyles. We can yearn for the optimistic ideas of this era, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while progress is happening at a molasses pace and America feels like a “two steps forward one step back” country as far in its progress, these people are out there and are being more open.

As much as these ideals feel like a past moment looking towards an optimistic future, like every sci-fi book that predicted we’d have flying cars by the year 2000, a lot of the movie actually felt very prescient to me, but also made me feel sad for the radical movements currently at work in the country. The “suicide” of Adelaide Norris felt a little too much like the life and death of Sandra Bland, which should have galvanized many movements into action but instead most of the talk around that tragedy has quieted down. Just as sad as this movie made me feel, it also gave me hope. Radical ideas haven’t died out. Radical people have been fighting forever and are still around and kicking, even though we live in a near police state where any slightly rowdy protest is considered a riot, and the same old lukewarm liberal narrative exists that any major action is just as bad as the oppression. In this way to me, it definitely felt like a living, breathing manifesto. I have never seen a movie embrace so much of my personal ideology while also teaching me a thing or two about direct action and the power of large groups of people acting together even if they have different priorities within their shared goal. The quote about one lion versus hundreds of mice really stuck with me. There are so many teaching moments here. As you said, it’s still so relevant. We can look at the writings of people like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Marx, Engels or Bakunin and still there’s so much to take away from these works. Just because the ideas posed aren’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a call to action and even a proposed guide to how to get change started.

Of course, all the writings I just compared Born in Flames to are essays, works of nonfiction. If I had to compare this to any fiction parallels, it would be the writings of my personal favorite, the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. She, too, looked to future utopias with a critical eye. Her works are filled with critiques of gender, capitalism, tyrannical government, religion, and, even though she identified as an anarchist, anarchy itself.  There was no ideal too perfect for her critical eye, and I think that’s also what I like about this film. None of the activists here have all the answers as to how to get things done. These characters live in a supposed ideal government system, in which people are supposedly taken care of, given jobs and housed, and yet there’s still so much wrong. We’re shown a future that many socialist activists have been working towards for years and changes still need to happen. Movements are shown as hard work worth fighting for, even though you can’t even be sure of the outcome.

Which brings me to the unfortunately dated, open-ended conclusion. Boomer, how did you feel about the ending? Do you wish the movie had shown what happened after that first major strike of taking down the transmitter of the World Trade Center?

Boomer: I think that showing what happens next would undermine the message as a whole. In one scenario of the film’s continuation, there would be sudden and efficient retaliatory action by the patriarchal government system against the Women’s Army (and associates), thoroughly knocking the uprising off its horse and reinforcing the supremacy (not the superiority) of the system in place; which would be a bummer and run counter to the film’s self-evident call to action on the part of the women and allies in the audience. On the other hand, if the film committed to the concept that The Movement would install a newer, truer, more egalitarian utopia, then that new society would have to be depicted. Not only does this lie outside the film’s budget, it also falls outside of what I would like to call its thesis, except that the term suggests a cohesive idea, which I don’t feel the film has. Its various points of views overlap in a Venn diagram of ideologies between different groups, but these groups rarely manage to put up a united front and is fractious when doing so. There’s a lot of discussion in the film about what constitutes right, proper, reasonable, and fruitful action in response to government oppression, with little conversation about what an improved world would look like in comparison to the one in which the women reside now. There are a lot of opinions, and even when there is collaboration, there are still those who are in the oppressed group whose ideals are in conflict with others. Born in Flames is, as am I, a proponent of intersectionality, but there’s no definitive answer as to what the ideal form of governance does, how it treats the members of its society, what it looks like, and how it works.

This lack of singular vision isn’t a flaw objectively; documents of reactionary art, especially those made outside of any studio system and which are iconoclastic but not necessarily reformative or restorative, are often an amalgam of different branches of critical theory that are prominent in academia or highly educated groups at the time of the text’s creation. One could argue that such a reading makes Born in Flames a kind of artifact of a bygone era just as much as the image quality, fashions, and presence of the WTC Towers dates it, and while it is a bit of a time capsule, that doesn’t make its questions any less potent or applicable, even if it never quite gives an answer. The answers, both to the question of what comes next in this world post-revolution, and what happens next in our world after having heard this film’s arguments, are up to you. I had a hard time getting with the film, despite my alignment with many of the philosophical ideals of various characters (and from which other characters distanced themselves). It’s not because it’s not “for me,” which is all-too-often trotted out as a placeholder for legitimate criticism by people who can’t or won’t inspect their preconceptions, and it’s not because of the film-making quality, as I love low-budget films and legitimately enjoy the aesthetics of this one. And I’m not opposed to films counterposing various ideological constructs and leaving it to the viewer to piece together a personal political philosophy from the constituent parts, nor am I simply depressed at how little ground we’ve advanced in some areas since 1983. But, if you put all of these things together into one movie, what remained for me once the movie was over had little staying power, even when I was in agreement with it.

One of the things that kept pulling me out of the film was the music. And I’m not just talking about Isabel’s cringeworthy spoken word/rap, although I was embarrassed for her in the moment; I didn’t care for the title song the first time it was played, and it didn’t grow on me as it was repeated throughout the film. Even when I recall the montages from the film, I mentally replace the music with Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “The Parade”. The DIY aesthetic comes through in the music, definitely, but I wasn’t feeling it. What about you, Britnee? Did the music pull you of the film or help you cement yourself in its world? Would you change anything, if you were able?

Britnee: As I was reading through everyone’s thoughts and responses to Born in Flames, I sang “We are born in flames” out loud each time I ran across the title. I cannot shake this song for the life of me. The scratchy recording with those funky yodeling female vocals were sort of like a less-polished version of a Rubella Ballet tune. It conjures up images of dirty city streets filled with young folk in denim jackets, which is what we see in Born in Flames.  In my opinion, the “Born in Flames” song perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the film. I even felt a bit more rebellious than usual after the first couple of times hearing it. Although I enjoyed the song and its presence in the film, it was a bit repetitive. I want to say that it played over 5 times throughout the films 80 minutes, and that is just way to much for a single song to be played in a movie. Getting other songs may have just been too costly for this low budget flick, but it would have been better to just have less music.

I went ahead and gave Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “Parade” a listen while keeping all of those important scenes in mind. It would definitely be a great theme song for the modern version of Born in Flames. What a modern version of the film would look like is a thought that crossed my mind when I realized that what was being portrayed in the film was supposed to be the future. Progression in our country moves at a snail’s pace, so a “modern” Born in Flames would be almost identical to the original (bicycle gangs included), but with different music.

Speaking of the bicycle gangs, I was disappointed that they appeared once when a girl was being attacked by two thugs. The whole idea of a bicycle girl gang is fabulous, and I wish they would have had just as much screen time as the “Born in Flames” song. Brandon, do you wish there was more focus on the bicycle girl gang in this movie?

Brandon: At the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival, I caught a small documentary titled Ovarian Psycos about an all-female-identifying Latinx bicycle brigade that was dedicated specifically to feminist community-organizing in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s incredible, in retrospect, how much the political tactics & D.I.Y. aesthetics of that film resemble the “bicycle girl gang” that appears briefly (but is referenced often) in Born in Flames. More than three decades apart and on the opposite American coast, the bicycle brigades in the two films feel like they’re of the same cloth, a continuation of a political organization tradition that remains constant in punk culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve already seen the intricacies of exactly how feminist biking crews aim to destroy the social norm of public spaces only being safe for men detailed at length in the Ovarian Psycos doc, but I don’t think Born in Flames necessarily needed more of their presence to strengthen its thematic fabric. I was just appreciative that they rolled into the scene at all, presented as a communal feminist alternative to the police state in cases of sexual assault, as it’s yet another detail to Born in Flames that feels true to what punk-culture-in-action still looks like today.

Most of my appreciation of Born in Flames works this way. Much like the various, ideologically-conflicted women’s movements that populate its narrative, the film itself is a kind of well-meaning, but disorganized political screed that does gradually become focused & coordinated, but starts in total chaos. The messiness of its structure is partly due to an overabundance of ideas (something that I always admire in any film), which means that no one detail is afforded a wealth of screentime (outside the repetitions of the post punk theme song). The bike brigade, the Sandra Bland foretelling, a pre-auteur Kathryn Bigelow’s presence among the White feminism journalists, etc.: Born in Flames is a collage of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details, which is something that makes your head swim in the moment, but also makes for rewarding repeat viewings.

In fact, my favorite aspect of the entire film is a single image included in one of the earliest montages set to the Red Krayola song. A series of images details labor that would be traditionally coded as “women’s work”: dental assistant labor, factory work, childcare, etc. Mixed in with these details is a woman’s hands applying a condom to an erect penis, a sly comment on the sexual labor women are expected to perform domestically. The matter-of-fact presentation of that image is also subversively funny, as it’s juxtaposed with factory workers shrink-wrapping raw chicken (among other menial tasks). I don’t think everything the film has to say about sexual labor is on-point (more on that in the “Lagniappe” section below), but I found that montage to be incredibly clever in visually defining what “women’s work” actually looks like and challenging the way it’s socially undervalued. There’s a lot of thematic power behind that singular condom application, an effect that extends to other barely-seen ideas like the bicycle brigade.

Alli, are there any other minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details in Born in Flames that felt powerfully resonant to you even though they barely appeared onscreen?

Alli: You mentioned the condom scene, and that one stuck with me not because of the domestic aspect but because of the sex work positivity of the film, which is extremely interesting to me given the time period. Radical feminism of from this era didn’t necessarily see sex work as anything more than objectification and oppression, where this movie takes a more updated approach in saying that it’s just a job, which is the view intersectional feminists and what I’m going to call true radical feminists stand by these days. (True radical feminists here meaning those opposed to every institutional system to oppression and aren’t trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary.) It’s just awesome to me to see radical women of this time period embracing other women from all walks of life and not looking down on one another because of their occupations.

Another ahead of its time detail that stuck out to me is the inclusion of women from other countries in the movement. A lot of what’s lacking in modern feminism is a lack of solidarity, a focus on America’s problems (or the problems of whatever country you’re settled in), and even a focus on individual empowerment & declarations. We’ve become fixated on the commodification of self-care, buying bath bombs and the like, and celebrity identification, instead of group acts and collective action. (There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a revolutionary act, but it isn’t about buying things to make yourself feel better while setting the expectation of self-care prohibitively high for low income or houseless women.) The idea of women’s liberation being a worldwide movement is powerful to me, especially in the context of women everywhere freeing themselves and teaching each other things rather than white saviorism.

Other blink and you miss them details: queer women making love without the male gaze, women in what are thought of as traditionally male trades such as construction, and posters identifying men as rapists. Basically, I love this movie, including the Red Krayola song (but I was already a fan of the band).

Boomer, I know you mentioned that this movie had a very “not for me” feeling for you, but are there any ideas that you feel the modern era of resistance could benefit from? Are there any superfluous ideas that you feel would be detrimental to modern activism?

Boomer: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that sex work is presented in the way that more modern (and more true, non-TERF) feminism would, as this is an element of radicalism in the past that can be easily forgotten. Again, this is an unusual situation for me, in that I rarely find myself in a position where I am so completely aligned with a text’s stated and envisioned ideals while also feeling so completely cold about the text itself. I can only conclude that this is the result of the film being so cheaply (if not poorly, necessarily) made. I’ve seen films that are worse, and I’ve seen films that are cheaper, and I’ve still been able to get “on board” with those movies, but there’s something blocking that here for me, and I can only conclude that it’s because this film is just kind of . . . ugly. This is at least in part because 1980s New York was an ugly place: despite being the Platonic ideal of an the bohemian artist’s “New York” that took root the public consciousness before the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole city by stamping out and destroying many of the things that made it truly unique, this film certainly doesn’t highlight anything that makes it beautiful (and not that this has stopped the husk of New-York-That-Was from drawing countless mothlike hopefuls to beat their wings vainly against the searing flame). The philosophical theses are clear, but film is a medium that requires a confluence of different kinds of expression to adhere into a complete whole; the scenes of a woman being attacked on the street are not distinct, visually, from those scenes of women in bed together or vigorously discussing different political ideals while straddling a windowsill (metaphorically and literally): they’re all filmed in an ugly way, which is understandable given that this is an independent feature that took years to make. This lack of difference in the framing of different scenes with dissonant purposes can be chalked up to an evocation of a documentarian’s distance from the subject, but that simply doesn’t work for me here, as it attempts to graft an apolitical (at least in theory) aesthetic onto an inherently political text. As a result, the whole thing is just too muddled for me, like a painting that uses a lot of vibrant colors but mixes them together in such a way that you end up with a canvas of various muddy browns. I wouldn’t claim that any ideals in the film are backward (although there’s a questionable one I’ll get to in a minute here), but since the medium is the message, the overall palate of the film may be detrimental, at least to the general public’s willingness to empathize and get anything out of the movie.

I understand that the intent is to demonstrate that a supposed socialistic democracy can descend into misogynistic policy-making and oppression just as easily as an authoritarian, conservative-dominated society can when the figurehead at the top practices autocracy instead of representational democracy, or when representatives act as advocates for only some voices in their districts instead of all. And I applaud the film for focusing on society’s “lower decks,” as confining the presidential/governmental presence in this world to speeches and television appearances better reflects the world the characters (and we) inhabit, with the implicit distance between the working class and lawmakers made explicit, with TV screens as manifest barriers of this distance and demonstrating that power in this system flows only one way: from orator to spectator. That’s certainly an important part of the discussion of any dichotomy of power.

As I wrote back in my first part of this conversation, the most depressing thing about this movie is how much it demonstrates how little has changed. Thirty years later and wheatpasting is still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal? But with regards to the messages that modern activism can still benefit from and if any are detrimental, I’d like to circle back to your discussion of sex work. (Disclaimer: this is outside of my lane as I am a cis man.) This is an area in which many modern people who consider themselves feminists, men and women alike, consider to be inherently oppressive, which is an understandable reaction given that, historically, sex work has been dominated not only by male interest but also male violence and authority. Different people can find the same thing liberating or oppressive depending upon the horizons of each individual’s lived experience and point of view: hijabs can bring comfort to some while others find them oppressive; pride parades might give some the strength to come to terms with themselves and self-expression while others balk at the commercialization and pursuant capitalism of pride celebrations or feel unwelcome among the sea of twinks and hunks because gay culture can be just as cruel as the mainstream to those whose bodies fall outside of the “ideal” range; testing accommodations for students can make life easier for some while others resent the fact that having to make such arrangements increases attention on them. As a result, I’ve also seen certain discussions descend into angry name-calling and ad hominem attacks instead of mutual edification and respect when it comes to discourse about the topic of sex work and its place in feminist movements. As such, I would argue that the only place where I feel there’s a real disconnect between the feminism of Born in Flames‘ then and the feminism of our now is in response to the president’s proposed policy allowing for payment for domestic work for women. Although its goal is to roll back the clock on progress and push women back into kitchens (as evidenced by the fact that it is explicitly stated as a program for women instead of remaining gender-neutral in indicating who would be eligible for such a benefit), but removed from the context of the attitudes we’ve seen evinced by the men in power, a stipend or paycheck for stay-at-home domestic duties is not terribly dissimilar from modern policies that advocate for a basic universal income or even newborn supplements and allowances like those available in Australia and parts of Canada. It’s presented as a universal ill in the film (and within the context of the film, it is), but the philosophical descendants of those ideals present in Born in Flames would be less likely to reject the concept outright, but if they used the film as a fundamental and cornerstone text of their philosophy, it could be detrimental, at least hypothetically.

Britnee, I too was disappointed that the bike gang only showed up once in the film and then disappeared. Some of the issues present in the film were hammered over and over again, to the point where it felt preachy, while others were given barely a passing mention. Were there other elements that you felt could have born to be repeated more often, and was there anything you felt got more attention than necessary?

Britnee: When I hear the word “revolution”, the image of youthful, energetic beings is what generates in my mind, which is why I completely understand why there is such a focus on young women in Born in Flames. Interestingly enough, though, I really enjoyed the few moments of screen time afforded older women in the movement. Zella Wylie and The Belle Gayle Show are the only times we really see women over the age of 25, and their camera time is brief compared to the rest of the cast. Nothing gets me more jazzed than aged feminists because they have seen and been through it all and still have hope for brighter days to come. I don’t think not having women from different age groups equally present in Born in Flames hurt the film or prevented it from making bold statements; I just think it would’ve made the film a little more interesting.

As for what I felt got more attention than necessary in the film, I can’t really think I of anything. I enjoyed how there were a variety of issues that were addressed, and I didn’t feel like anything was overdone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would have gotten so much more out of Born in Flames if the film’s main ladies saw more character development. Knowing about their background and day-to-day on a more emotional level would have helped me connect with the characters. Instead, I found most of them to be sort of annoying, as they reminded me of the mean crust punk girls in college who made me feel like I was never good enough to hang out with them. Even though Born in Flames reopened those wounds, I did enjoy the film for the most part.

Brandon: I’m going to have to contradict both Alli & Boomer on a couple points here: the effect of the ending and the film’s view towards sex work , which was wholly negative in my interpretation. I understand why someone would find the World Trade Center explosion that concludes this film to feel dated in a cringe-inducing way, but I find it at peace with its larger “All oppressed people have a right to violence” messaging. I’d even say it feels exciting as a go-for-broke call to arms, a continuation of the film’s political organization aspirations at large. What hasn’t aged so well, however, is the film’s attitude towards sex work.

While most of Born in Flames’s radical leftist ideologies feel consistent with modern politics, the way it lumps all sex work in with rape & gendered subjugation does feel out of step with political thought in the 2010s. If this film were contemporary, I suspect it would shift its stance from abolishing sex work entirely to advocating for sex workers’ rights that would protect them from gendered power-imbalances. A film’s political ideology feeling slightly outdated is more of a positive sign of real-world progress than anything, though, so that sex work-shaming attitude is more than forgivable, especially considering the striking amount of the film’s messaging that’s still on-point. Lizzie Borden’s next film, Working Girls, was also specifically about upscale NYC sex workers, so I’m curious to see if expanding on the subject makes her abolitionist stance seem more nuanced that I’m giving it credit for here (as indicated by everyone else in the crew taking away an entirely different interpretation of her views on the subject).

Alli: Discussing and viewing art is entirely subjective. Every person brings their own experiences and opinions to the table. I was predisposed to like this movie as a crazy radical. Sure, it’s not pretty, but neither is oppression or the world these women inhabit. Sure, the same song is repeated like an anthem over and over again, but as cheesy and “spiritual” as it sounds, we all need a mantra to get by in times of conflict. I’m not saying that this is a flawless movie by any means or that these aren’t valid criticisms of it. I just think that this movie lives and breathes its ideals.

One tenet of true punk radicalism that I absolutely love is the fact that you don’t have to be trained or an expert to make art. The idea of gatekeeping art to only include “intellectuals” or those who went to art school is inherently classist and against “the cause.” Many untrained people, children even, have produced movies that are gorgeous and perfectly composed. Some people can make untrained, unpolished work beautiful, like Daniel Johnston or the sisters of the band The Shags.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty to mean something and be good.

Boomer: I saw this film for free on Amazon Prime by participating in a free trial for Fandor as part of Amazon’s services; as of this writing, that free trial is still ongoing, so it’s not as difficult to find as one might expect. The Amazon reviews for the film are unsurprisingly positive or negative on the extreme ends of the star rating spectrum, from such insightful ratings as “Sucked like a lamprey” and “Looks like this was made for a college film class” (which, to be fair, it does) to more positive ratings from more thoughtful viewers like this one or this one. But my favorite simply reads “I am not sure to remember I was watch movie,” which makes me think poor Patsy Johnson had her world rocked so hard by the film that she couldn’t think straight. Nice work, Borden!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August:
Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

Born in Flames (1983)

Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.

Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Ovarian Psycos (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I previously complained that the recent documentary Check It stumbled somewhat in its oral history of a disenfranchised “gang” of queer kids, undercutting its celebration of their self-made, survivalist culture by glorifying attempts to “reform” & normalize them through outsider gang counselor influences. A more honest & less self-conflicted version of the story might’ve focused more on the way the kids had already saved their own lives through (admittedly violent) solidarity long before the cameras even showed up. The documentary Ovarian Psycos seems to be that exact idealized version of Check It I was hoping for, just one that covers a wildly different topic from the opposite end of the US.

Instead of documenting a queer gang in Washington DC like Check It, Ovarian Psycos profiles an all women of color bicycle brigade from Los Angeles. Comprised mostly of abuse survivors & DIY punks and inspired by the Chicano social justice movement of the 1970s, Ovarian Psycos attempt to claim public space for women of color by organizing mass bike rides & community fundraising in a self-actualized, unapologetically feminist act of revolution in action. This documentary allows them to tell their own story without influence or judgement, only stepping in to provide historical context when necessary. In a lot of ways it’s the ideally calibrated document of small, marginalized groups like this. It finds a fascinating subject, allows them to talk, and then backs the fuck up, giving them space to be their already wonderful selves. The film will occasionally allow gatekeeping, masculine voices of dissent to enter the conversation as context for how the bicycle collective’s accomplishments are often trivialized, but these moments mostly serve as contrast to a powerful strength in numbers that’s too potent & too obvious to refute. In scenes like when a group of women previously anxious about being in public at night join in a militaristic chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!” on a monthly “Luna Ride,” the impact the Ovarian Psycos crew has made on their community doesn’t need to be explained; it just needs to be broadcast to inspire similar change elsewhere.

Besides allowing the impact of its subject speak for itself, one thing Ovarian Psycos truly excels at is intersectionality. The brand of feminism promoted here takes into account issues of race, poverty, gender identity, social justice history, and every other concern that can often be overlooked in more narrow-minded wings of feminism. There’s a fun, playful aesthetic to the crew’s branding is familiar to a lot of flashier feminist forms of protest: ovary & fallopian tube graphics printed on bandanas, calling their recruiters “clit rubbers,” organizing their rides around the phases of the moon, etc. As lighthearted as some of these details can seem, the crew’s need to create a safe space is never downplayed or trivialized. They were raised to believe they lived in a literal warzone where women weren’t safe alone at night without a man’s protection. Biking with Ovarian Psycos is not only exciting for them because it allows them to be surrounded solely by other women; it also empowers them to proudly exist in a space where they were taught to cower. Although they are mostly made of cisgender Latina women from specific neighborhoods in L.A., you can feel them reaching across all cultural, class, race, geographical, and gender identity lines to include more women in that sense of empowerment and the movie does its best to promote that ideology openly & without apology.

There’s an incredible specificity to Ovarian Psycos’s titular subject that helps its political messages ring true & genuine on a more universal scale. There’s even a sort of novelty to the basic concept of a documentary on an all-female bicycle brigade on a fundamental level. The group’s founder is a single mother Latina rapper with a devastatingly dark past & an infectious air of fierce confidence. The young women she’s inspiring to take her reigns are an exciting reminder that D.I.Y. culture will never die as long as there’s another wave of youth waiting on deck. There’s a lesson to be learned in the way Ovarian Psycos broadcasts its profile of the titular feminist biking crew without pushing for disingenuous story beats. It may open itself to accusations of being narratively slight or thematically thin, but the truth is witnessing this group of women simply existing out there in the world is more than enough to justify the film’s existence. Anything more would be dishonest.

-Brandon Ledet

Suffragette (2015)

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three star

Suffragette is a costume drama set in an early 20th Century London in which working class women frustrated with the women’s suffrage movement’s lack of progress gained through years of peaceful protest decide to stake their claim through civil disobedience. You can pretty much guess how the film goes from there, as there are very few stylistic embellishments provided to distinguish the film from the majority of its genre. Much of Suffragette is a dutiful catalog of the daily injustices a typical working-class woman might’ve suffered a century ago, including domestic abuse, the tyranny of the second shift, lack of rights in terms of child custody or property ownership, rampant sexual assault from male authority figures, more work for less pay, and a brutal class system that essentially amounted to lifelong indentured servitude for the less-than-fortunate. In response to these oppressive forces, lofty proclomations are announced for the audience’s benefits, phrases like “All my life I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now,” “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” and “You’re a mother, Maude. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” “I’m not just that anymore.” The rest of the dialogue is mostly comprised of the film’s “suffragettes” greeting each other by name at various political rallies in long strings of “Edith.” “Maude.” “Violet.” Etc. There’s some genuine tension achieved through the gradual escalation of violence in the women’s various protests, but for the most part Suffragette‘s significance as entertainment depends heavily on how you feel about straightforward costume dramas as a genre. As for me, I thought it was pretty alright.

Perhaps the only real surprise Suffragette brings to the table is the way it also plays like a wartime drama. Filmed in drab earth tones & grimly scored, the film literally pits men & women together as opposite sides in a hard-fought war. Police stations function as war rooms, women train themselves (often through montage) to look tough by not crying & to fight hand-to-hand, violence escalates from smashed window displays of shops to homemade bombs, men detect & dissect weaknesses in their ranks, and so on. Suffragette seems very much aware of its war movie tendencies & draws a distinctly linear, A-B progression from how the idea that “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote” leads directly to the assertion that “We burn things because war is the only language men understand.” It’s, of course, a well-justified shift in protest tactics, since the men in charge were highly unlikely to budge from their stance that “Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands” without intense physical provocation. As far as war films go, Suffragette is light on both violence & battlefield strategic planning, but that genre context is still undeniable.

If Suffragette suffers one particular Achilles heel that hinders it from exceeding its genre limitations, it’s in the film’s pacing. As a mildly-fictionalized historical overview of a specific moment of tribulation in London’s past, the film feels the need to hit a wide range of plot points like it’s dutifully fulfilling a checklist. The always-welcome Carey Mulligan is perfectly engaging as the protagonist Maude, but the way the movie moves through her various victories & degradations rarely leaves enough room for her moments of crisis to properly land will full impact. Just like how Maude is sort of swept up by the suffragette movement around her without ever intending to become an activist, her run-ins with threatened imprisonment, police brutality, troubled relationships with family & employers, and subsequent public shaming all feel like natural, easy-to-come-by progressions instead of the moments of utter devastation that they could have been if they had allowed to properly breathe. In a lot of ways the sole moment the film allows the proper reverence for is an overblown Meryl Streep cameo in which the universally-loved actress is treated like royalty as she briskly passes through the film (even though she”s prominently featured on the poster). Not helping at all is a steady-as-she-goes score from Grand Buddapest Hotel‘s Alexandre Desplat. The score sounds fine, but it rarely escalates to match the action, so that the whole runtime just sort of runs together with very little tonal distinction.

I almost hate to say it, since it plays into the current cultural tidal shift in media preference, but Suffragette might have been better served as a television show or a one-off mini-series than as a feature film. The movie covered a little too much ground to establish any significantly intimate moments with its characters and as a result I really felt the back & forth war of the sexes would’ve played much better over the course of 20 hours instead of 2. As is, it’s a serviceable genre film that melds the finer aspects of the costume drama & the war film into a just-alright compromise of the two aesthetics. It’s pretty much destined to be mid-afternoon easy-viewing for a certain kind of target audience. And there are certainly much worse fates than that.

-Brandon ledet

The Smokers (2000)

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halfstar

This was the dumbest film that I’ve watched so far this year, and the only interesting thing about it is a couple of fun facts about the “masterminds” behind the film’s production. After graduating from Tulane University, Nick Loeb became one of the co-founders of the International Production Company (IPC), and the first film the company produced was The Smokers. He also played the role of Jeremy in the film. Jeremy was supposed to come off as the film’s nice guy, but Loeb’s acting was subpar at best and the character ended up just being pathetic. Thankfully, he went on to become a well-known businessman and put his acting career on the backburner. Loeb has been in the news on and off in the past few months because of the embryo controversy between him and his ex-fiancé, Sofia Vergara. It seems like he’s probably still butthurt about being associated with The Smokers. Also, just to make things a little more interesting, Quincy Jones was the film’s executive producer, and the film’s director, Christina Peters (aka Kat Slater) is also a director in the adult film industry. Dream team!

What I expected to be an edgy film about a group of rebellious teenage girls turned out to be the one of the worst representations of feminism that I’ve ever seen, feeding into the misconception that empowered women are psychotic man haters. The leader of the pack, Karen (Busy Philipps), is angry at the entire male species and attempts to start a revolution with a few bullets and handgun. She also enjoys sporting terrible Juggalette inspired makeup from time to time. Her two pals, Jefferson (Dominique Swain) and Lisa (Keri Lynn Pratt), had some bad experiences with boys, and while they don’t have as much of a violent attitude as Karen, they sort of follow her lead. But not really. They don’t know what they want to do, just like this film. It has absolutely no direction and it’s about an hour too long.

-Britnee Lombas