Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

It’s not an especially unique observation that historical works are usually more indicative of the time when they were made than they are of the time they intend to represent. That quality of the mid-90s Gay Cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet still took me by surprise, though. The film still stands as an important work a quarter-century later, but the further we get away from its time of production the more peculiarly (and encouragingly) antiquated it becomes. Adapted from a critical text of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is intended to function as a history of onscreen gay & lesbian representation in Hollywood movies. In practice, it’s more of a documentary about how desperately starved queer audiences were for positive onscreen representation in the 1990s in particular.

As gay filmmakers & commentators walk the audience through the sordid history of Hollywood’s first century of homophobia (guided by a Lily Tomlin narration track), I found myself actively disagreeing with a lot of their opinions on what constitutes The Wrong Kind of Representation. I gradually recognized that I was feeling that way because of a somewhat spoiled vantage point of having a lot more variety in Queer Cinema to choose from decades after its sentiment had taken hold. At large, The Celluloid Closet is extremely dismissive of transgressive, morally troubling, or even actively villainous gay characters, the kinds of representation that generally creep up in movies that I personally tend to love (thanks to my bottomless thirst for low-end genre trash). Friedkin’s forever-controversial works Cruising & The Boys in the Band were singled out as especially toxic hallmarks of The Wrong Kind of Representation in the film, a poisoned leftover of Hollywood’s long history of unmasked homophobia. I love both of those movies; I’d even cite them among some of my all-time favorites. That’s an experience colored by a life lived when Normalized gay representation has since been achieved in popular media, even if it is still too rare to fully declare victory. In the 90s, transgressive, destructive creeps were the only gay characters who were allowed onscreen since the invention of the medium, which I totally understand would sour the thrill of their flagrant misbehavior.

Cataloging the censorship of The Hays Code era, the de-sexed caricature of the Sissy archetype, the villainization of “deceitful” trans characters, and so on, The Celluloid Closet mostly now served as a reminder of just how far gay representation has come in the couple decades since it was released. A lot of its searching-for-crumbs sentiment in its quest for positive onscreen representation sadly still resonates today, especially when looking for any prominent gay characters in big-budget media from corporate conglomerates like Disney. However, its push for cleaned-up, all-posi gay representation now feels extremely dated to me. I no longer believe we’re in a place where every gay movie has to be a sanitized Love, Simon-style journey of sunny self-discovery. I want to live in a world where Hollywood can catch up with the transgressive queer freak-outs of foreign indie releases like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. In the 90s, when all the gay characters you’d ever seen were minor roles played for “comedy or pity or fear” we obviously weren’t there yet. Revisiting this documentary is a nice reminder that things have changed, however incrementally.

Documentary filmmaking itself has also apparently changed in recent years. I was shocked that The Celluloid Closet doesn’t label its films or its talking heads for the audience’s reference. You either recognize Quentin Crisp or you don’t, which would be highly unusual in a modern doc. We can refer to user-generated Letterboxd lists & IMDb cast lists to clear up any confusion or gaps in knowledge, though, so the real hurdle is just in understanding & reckoning with the film’s dated POV. As one of the talking heads explains (I wish I had caught their name, dammit!), “Nobody really sees the same movie.” Our personal biases and life experiences shape the way we internally experience art. The Celluloid Closet’s greatest asset is in documenting the biases & life experiences of gay audiences in the 90s in particular, since the history of onscreen representation in Hollywood is obviously an ever-evolving beast so no one documentary on the subject could ever be a definitive, everlasting work.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Narcissus (1971)

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pride-themed recommendation lists circling around the internet in recent weeks, many of which are taking into account the peculiar circumstances of this year’s Pride Month concurring with COVID-19 related social distancing and the additional pandemic of police brutality meant to squash the global upswell Black Lives Matter protests. In general, this year has been a difficult time to recommend any specific movies to watch in light of our current Moment, both because cinema feels like such a petty concern right now and because the nuance of the moment is so vast & complex that it’s impossible to capture it in just a few titles. The intersection of racist & homophobic institutional abuses should certainly be pushed to the forefront of this year’s Pride Month programming – something directly addressed in titles like Born in Flames, Paris is Burning, Tongues Untied, and countless others that film programmers & political activists far smarter than myself could point you towards. However, I was also struck by how much James Bidgood’s art-porno Pink Narcissus feels particular to this year’s quarantine-restricted Pride Month, even though it is a film that has nothing useful or direct to say about race discrimination. It’s too insular & fanciful to fully capture our current moment of mass political resistance, but those exact qualities do speak to its relatability in our current, simultaneous moment of social isolation.

James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. gay porno reverie was filmed almost entirely in his NYC apartment over the course of six years. Using the illusionary set decoration skills & visual artistry he honed as both a drag queen & a photographer for softcore beefcake magazines, Bidgood transformed every surface & prop in his living space into a fantastic backdrop for his rock-hard fairy tale. Pink Narcissus is a pure, high-art fantasy constructed entirely out of hand-built set decoration & an overcharged libido, a Herculean effort Bidgood achieved by living and sleeping in the artificial sets he constructed within his own living space. If there’s anything that speaks to me about the past few months of confinement to my home, it’s the idea of tirelessly working on go-nowhere art projects that no one else in the world gives a shit about. Bidgood was eventually devastated when his film was taken out of his hands by outside investors who rushed the project to completion without his participation in the editing room (so devastated that the film was credited to “Anonymous” and was rumored to be a Kenneth Anger piece for decades), but I’m still floored by the enormity, complexity, and beauty of the final product. A lot of us having been building our own little fantasy worlds and arts & crafts projects alone in our homes over recent months; I doubt many are half as gorgeously realized as what Bidgood achieved here.

There is no concrete narrative or spoken dialogue to help give Pink Narcissus its shape. The film is simply pure erotic fantasy, explicitly so. A young gay prostitute lounges around his surrealist pink apartment overlooking Times Square, gazing at his own beauty in his bedroom’s phallic mirrors and daydreaming about various sexual encounters while waiting for johns to arrive. This is more of a wandering wet dream than a linear story, with the erotic fantasy tangents seemingly having no relationship to each other in place or time. The sex-worker Narcissus imagines himself caressing his own body with delicate blades of grass & butterfly wings in an idyllic “meadow” (an intensely artificial tableau that resembles the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). An anonymous blowjob at a public urinal drowns a gruff stranger in a sea of semen (staged in a baby pool full of thickened milk in Bidgood’s kitchen). A premonition of a dystopian Times Square where ghoulish hustlers openly jerk themselves off below advertisements for artificial anuses, frozen pissicles, and Cock-a-Cola flutters outside his window. A few of these tableaus uncomfortably skew into racist culture-gazing, treating matador costumes & a sultan’s harem as opportunities for bedroom dress-up scenarios. That’s par for the course in the context of old-fashioned porno shoots, though, especially before no-frills hardcore became the norm. What’s unusual about it is how Bidgood transforms those artificial, fetishized vignettes into high art.

If there’s any one movie deserving of a Blu-ray quality restoration treatment, it’s this. Bidgood may be frustrated by the way his vision was never completely realized thanks to outside editing-room meddling, but even in its compromised form it’s an intoxicating sensory experience. It stings that you have to look past the shoddy visual quality of its formatting to see that beauty, as it’s been blown up from its original 8mm & 16mm film strips into depressingly fuzzed-out & watered down abstractions on home video. Looking at the gorgeously crisp, meticulously fine-tuned prints of Bidgood’s beefcake photography (collected in the must-own Taschen artbook simply titled James Bidgood), it’s heartbreaking to see his one completed feature film so shamelessly neglected. Even in its grainy, sub-ideal state it’s still a fascinating watch that pushes the dreamlike quality of cinema as an artform to its furthest, most prurient extreme. It’s also a testament to how much just one artist can achieve when left to their own maddening devices in isolation for long enough. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll emerge from this year’s stay-at-home chrysalis period with some equally beautiful, surreal art that some horned-up weirdo has been anonymously toiling away at in private. Considering how shitty & distracting the world outside has become, however, the likelihood of that possibility is highly doubtful.

-Brandon Ledet

Circus of Books (2020)

As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.

So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.

A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.

Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.

-Brandon Ledet

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2020)

It feels like a frivolous thing to bemoan in a time when COVID-19 is wrecking people’s health & financial stability, but I really do miss going to the movies. Along with the sensory immersion of the theatrical environment and the physical ritual of it, there’s just something about the communal experience of watching a movie with strangers in the dark that’s irreplaceable with a home-viewing experience. This communal experience is at its strongest at local film festivals, where you watch a wide range of movies with the same strangers in the same spaces over the course of a week; you sometimes even make some friends along the way. When SXSW announced that it was launching a digital version of its film festival on Amazon Prime to make up for its COVID-related cancellation this year, I knew that communal experience was something the festival couldn’t replicate. It could offer a stuck-at-home audience a few low-budget, otherwise undistributed indie films to explore for a brief moment in this never-ending quarantine limbo. It couldn’t replicate the full film festival experience, though, not without risking its attendees’ lives.

However, there was one unexpected aspect of the authentic, in-the-flesh film festival experience that this year’s digital SXSW substitute offered: the conundrum of how to plan your schedule. There were only seven feature films offered for the fest’s weeklong run on Prime (among a myriad of shorts), so it wouldn’t be exceedingly difficult to have watched the entire slate if you were motivated enough. Part of the fun of film fests, though, is digging through their line-ups and deciphering what titles are worth your time and of your interests, based only on thumbnail images and their accompanying blurbs. Even with only a few titles to choose from, I had fun researching the digital SXSW catalog to schedule out what movies I had enough time for and enough interest in, as if I were attending an legitimate film fest irl. Only a couple titles really jumped out at me at first glance, so I ended up taking a chance on other films that were more longshots just to pad out my schedule (thanks to the luxury of the free time I have being stuck at home). All that was missing from the authentic film fest experience, really, were the nerdy crowds and the rushed, overpriced meals.

I mention all of this to say that I’m Gonna Make You Love Me is the exact kind of programming I usually pad out my film fest schedules with. It’s a self-funded, artistically muted documentary on an intriguing fringe-culture subject that you wouldn’t likely see covered in a more robust film with a proper budget. Its subject, Brian Belovitch, has lived an undeniably fascinating life. Through a series of interviews with Belovitch, friends, family, and neighbors, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me pieces together an aging gay man’s troubled history with his own gender identity, including a decade lived as a trans woman in 1970s-80s NYC. It’s a captivating, intimate story told in a bland & scattered style that unfortunately robs it of its initial allure. The film’s aimless, rambling opening offers no context for the story it wants to tell until far too late into the runtime; its lopsided editing style has no critical eye for what interviews or life moments are actually significant to the task at hand; it relies heavily on archival footage & photographs, but has to repeat what few scraps it has to the point of redundancy to fill out its runtime, etc. There’s an amateurish, unfocused quality to the entire picture, which is unfortunate since the story it tells deserves to be heard.

I’m Gonna Make You Love me fares much better as an oral history than it does as a film. While its skills & means may be limited, the movie is still admirable for allowing Belovitch a platform to tell his story for cultural posterity. He has effectively lived multiple lives (and married multiple husbands), most significantly as transgender nightlife celebrity Tish Gervais back when NYC was cheap living. While some transphobic creeps might be tempted to use Belovitch’s eventual choice to “detransition” as fodder for gender-essentialist rhetoric, his story is much too personal & period-specific to be abused that way. He recounts a tough life where he gained easier social acceptance (and more profitable sex work) as a trans woman than he did as an effeminate gay man, especially in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. His gender transition & detransition story is one defined by tough choices made for daily survival, and ultimately confirms the emotional & physical damage that’s heaped on people who are bullied to live outside their gender identity. It’s a story that’s very much worth hearing, as long as you can get past the clumsy way the film tells it.

As disappointed as I was in I’m Gonna Make You Love Me in terms of craft, I still appreciate its kind tone & willingness to give Belovitch space to tell his own story. As a few of the headlines in the background reveal, it would be easy to turn Belovitch into a sensationalist sideshow with attention-grabbing monikers like “The Real-Life Hedwig.” Instead, the movie approaches him as if conversing with an old friend, which may hinder its editing choices but at least does right by its subject on a moral level. He has already been through enough without being exploited one last time for a juicy true-crime style exposé. The results are a little shaggy & disjointed but ultimately still enlightening to one very specific queer perspective that’s rarely afforded this kind of screen time. In that way, it’s the exact kind of film festival fodder I’m used to padding out my schedules with, so it was perfect programming for the at-home SXSW experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast: Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle

Welcome to Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, CC & Brandon tackle Kenneth Anger’s decades-spanning short film series “The Magick Lantern Cycle– from Fireworks (1947) to Lucifer Rising (1972).   Expect occultist rituals, leather bondage regalia, LSD freak-outs, and good old-fashioned homoeroticism. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Brian Raftery’s film criticism book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen has had many pop culture pundits gazing twenty years back to 1999 as a creative pinnacle of modern cinema. Frankly, I don’t fully buy the claim that the year was anything special, as many of the examples cited as phenomenal releases that year – Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, Audition, etc. – were not immediately hits upon release and took years to gain cultural traction as significant works. Every movie year is practically the same; most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift though the deluge to single out the gems. I’m sure in twenty years’ time, with enough breathing room to reflect back and grow into nostalgia for the modern era, someone could compile a long enough list of standouts to contend that 2019 was the best movie year ever. Or 2017. Or 2003. Or any other year. Still, even if I don’t fully buy Raftery’s thesis the way other pop culture nerds have seemed to, the mental exercise of singling out a particular year for collective re-examination has been fun, and it’s thankfully lifted the profiles of smaller, niche films that still haven’t gotten their full due as great works. I’ve seen this play out with movies I personally love in genres that aren’t always critically respected – especially femme high school cruelty comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader!, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions, and Drop Dead Gorgeous. I’ve also been pushed outside my own comfort zone to check out excellent titles I’ve overlooked, like The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I was thirteen years old when The Talented Mr. Ripley was first released, and I did not understand its appeal from the scattered snippets of it I caught at the time whatsoever, other than that it was a thriller made for grown-ups. In fact, I’ve often mixed the film up with the innocuous-looking The Thomas Crown Affair remake of the same year, likely because they both involve con artists named Tom doing sexy European crimes among high-society snobs. I do get it now, though. Despite being generally suspicious of the “[Year X] was a better Movie Year than [Year Y] or [Year Z]” mode of criticism, I’m happy this celebration of 1999 cinema has boosted The Talented Mr. Ripley’s profile, as it’s the exact kind of “movies made for adults” that people bemoan have disappeared from the big screen in recent years (at least in terms of major studio Hollywood productions). Story-wise, it’s no less sleazy than lowly genre films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, but it’s dressed up with enough handsome costuming, cinematography, and in-their-prime movie stars to convince you of its intellectual value as a night out at the Theatre. Plus, it’s got something going for it that too few Hollywood productions can boast now, in the 90s, or otherwise: it’s gay. Not undertone/subtext/implied gay either; this is a menacing thriller about handsome young men who love each other to death in an explicitly gay context, leaving no wiggle room for any other interpretation. Of course, because it’s Hollywood, there’s unfortunately no explicit gay sex onscreen, but you must take your minor victories where you can find them. If only I had clued into the seedy, sordid, sexual menace of the film’s surface pleasures as a teen instead of passing it over as a boring drama for boring adults; it might have been a decades-long favorite instead of a late discovery.

Matt Damon stars as the titular Tom Ripley, a piano tuner turned con artist who grifts his way into the upper class of the jazzy, closeted days of the 1950s. After costuming as a Princeton alumnus at a swanky NYC cocktail party, Ripley is hired to retrieve a millionaire’s spoiled-brat son, Dickie (Jude Law), back from his permanent vacation in coastal Italy. Dickie has been living it up on his father’s dime, all the while fucking any & every willing participant who crosses his path – including a socially compatible fiancé (Gwyneth Paltrow), a village full of naïve working class women, and also possibly a string of closeted boytoys from his college days (most notably including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a grotesque frat-boy ogre). At one point he even vows to fuck an icebox, the hedonist, simply because he loves cold beer. If there’s any major fault in The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s that the who’s-fucking-who dynamics at play remain a little ambiguous, as there is somehow no onscreen sex in this incredibly horny movie. It’s all kept behind closed doors, mirroring the hush-hush extramarital sexuality of its temporal setting. Ripley himself, a supposedly dishonest con artist who elbows his way into a wealth class where he doesn’t “belong,” is the only character who is clear & direct about his intentions with Dickie, romantic or otherwise. He confesses, “I’ve gotten to like everything about the way you live. It’s one big love affair!” It’s difficult to give him too much credit for the virtue of that honesty, however, since the means by which he attempts to claim Dickie’s lifestyle & sexual charisma for himself quickly escalates from simple grifts to a complex web of lies – one with an exponential body count. Ripley is blatantly honest about being a liar, a forger, and an impersonator by trade, but he doesn’t quite let on how violent he’s willing to get to protect the believability of those lies once they inevitably spin out of control.

Thematically, there isn’t much going on in The Talented Mr. Ripley that you couldn’t find in plenty of other wealth-class thrillers. The way Dickie plays with other people’s lives like a spoiled brat with a shiny new toy and the incestuous in-circle politics wherein the ultra-rich all know each other (which is often the downfall of Ripley’s schemes) are common tropes in this setting. The unspoken cruising & spark of homosexual lust in a closeted past is of a rarer breed in pop culture media, but not totally unique either. If nothing else, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote this movie’s source material novel, also covered that territory in her work that eventually became Carol (and both adaptations feature Cate Blanchett!). Beneath its handsome, prestigey surface The Talented Mr. Ripley is essentially a genre film – a horny European-set crime thriller of a very particular type. Like with all great genre films, the exceptional achievements it manages to pull off are rooted in minor details & aesthetic choices, not in story or character dynamics. Seeing these particular young movie stars at their sexiest (Hoffman excluded) in gorgeous wealth-class locales is perhaps the most astonishing detail of all, as this is the kind of genre film that’s now relegated to small-budget indies & foreign pictures like Double Lover, The Duke of Burgundy, or Piercing in the 2010s. The other exciting quirks & details of the picture (like Dickie wielding “You can be quite boring” as the ultimate insult or Tom bludgeoning wealthy brats with tools of their own class – like boat ores & Grecian statues) can’t compete with that kind of bygone-era appeal. I can’t match the general enthusiasm for 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever, but I was at the right age then (as many of the Millennial & Gen-X critics writing this stuff were) to have enough nostalgia for the era to make The Talented Mr. Ripley an incredibly sumptuous example of its genre. Well, that, and the gay stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet