-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet
-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet
Brandon: This summer, every major American sports conglomerate—the NFL, the NBA, MLB, etc.—publicly debated whether it was safe to restart operations as the COVID pandemic stretched on months beyond what was initially projected. This debate was unnecessary in the world of “sports entertainment“, however, as pro wrestling companies like WWE, AEW, and Impact! never shut down operations in the first place. Continuing a notoriously shitty history of exploiting their roster for maximum profit (see: lack of employee benefits for wrestlers because of their dubious status as “contract workers”), WWE has maintained consistent weekly broadcasts and monthly Pay-Per-View specials while COVID halted the rest of the entertainment industry. Unsurprisingly, the company had a breakout of coronavirus cases among its staff in late June and still continued weekly broadcasts without interruption. While it would have been impossible to maintain operations without any risk of COVID outbreak (imagine opponents wrestling while somehow also maintaining a six-foot distance), there have been some performative measures to make WWE’s broadcasts appear “safe”. The eeriness of watching wrestlers perform in empty arenas, in front of LED screens of webcam-wielding fans at home, or for their enemies on the other side of a plexiglass barrier has been a fascinating symptom of our dystopian times. The real gem of COVID-era pro wrestling, however, has been WWE’s increased reliance on pre-taped, off-site matches.
While the COVID pandemic has made pro wrestling even more immorally dangerous for its workers, it’s also made pro wrestling more cinematic. The over-the-top, deliriously silly pageantry of wrestling that attracts me to the “sport” in the first place has been especially heightened this year. We’ve seen #SwampFight matches set in haunted wetland shacks straight out of True Detective, Season 1. This year’s Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View featured a #CorporateLadderMatch: a vertical fight from the lobby to the rooftop of WWE’s corporate headquarters. My personal favorite was the #FireflyFunhouse match: a darkly surreal, Lynchian descent into the troubled psyche of John Cena, possibly the single greatest wrestling segment of all time. The rules of reality have been entirely broken & disregarded in favor of delivering the most memorably entertaining matches possible, which is something I wish this proudly unreal “sport” pursued more often. While these pre-taped, off-site pandemic matches have been a freshly exciting development for modern pro wrestling, they don’t feel like a total anomaly. I’ve not only seen similar matches within pro wrestling broadcasts before (mostly in Attitude Era segments set at funerals & boiler rooms and in the Hardy Boyz’ recent “Broken” series for Impact!), but they also distinctly recalled a little-loved B-movie from 2011 that I hold near & dear to my stupid little heart: Monster Brawl.
Monster Brawl is a one-time-only pro wrestling tournament between famous monster archetypes, held in a haunted graveyard to determine “The Most Powerful Ghoul of All Time”. It’s staged as if it were a real-time Pay-Per-View broadcast of an actual pro wrestling event, with comedian Dave Foley & genre film veteran Art Hindle providing live action commentary as traditional ringside announcers. Competitors with generic famous-monster gimmicks like Werewolf, Zombie Man, Lady Vampire, Mummy, and Frankenstein (“Technically, it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, if you want to be a dick about it,”) fight to the death in a standard-issue wrestling ring in the middle of a spooky graveyard straight out of a 1950s B-movie. Scratch that; it’s a set straight out of the #BoneyardMatch at this year’s pandemic-altered WrestleMania, wherein real-life famous monster The Undertaker buried opponent AJ Styles alive in a pre-marked grave. I don’t know how to convey how awesomely stupid it is to watch classic monster archetypes murder each other in a wrestling ring if that premise doesn’t automatically speak to your sensibilities the way it does to mine. When I see a Louisiana-themed Creature from the Black Lagoon knockoff named Swamp Gut who’s mostly made of trash and is pissed off about wetlands erosion, my heart just sings. I do hope that audiences outside this exact B-movie/pro wrestling fandom Venn Diagram could at least appreciate the film’s commitment to the bit, however. It establishes a very simple famous-monster-deathmatch-tournament premise upfront and never steps outside of those parameters to win over any potential detractors.
This might be the absolute worst movie that I wholeheartedly love. That’s because it mimics the structure & rhythms of a wrestling Pay-Per-View instead of a traditional Movie, which requires the audience to adjust their expectations to the payoffs of that format. Everything I love & loathe about pro wrestling is present here: the over-the-top characters, the exaggerated cartoon violence, the infuriating marginalization of women outside the ring to Bikini Babe status, all of it. It’s a pure joy to see (generic versions of) the famous monsters that I also love plugged into that template, especially when the announcers underline the absurdity of the scenario with inane statements like “For the first time in professional sports, folks, we’re witnessing the dead rising from their graves to attack Frankenstein.” That combination delivers all the deliriously absurd action I’ve been enjoying from COVID-era WWE programming without any of the behind-the-scenes worker exploitation spoiling the mood. In fact, it looks like it was genuinely fun to conceive & film, judging by the loving care that went into the detailed character designs of the monsters and the unembarrassed commitment to the Pay-Per-View broadcast gimmick.
Hanna, while we’ve all been known to enjoy a cheap-o horror movie or two, you’re the only other member of the crew who watches pro wrestling with any regularity, so it’s probably safest to start with you. Was there anything particular about the spirit of “sports entertainment” that you saw accurately represented in Monster Brawl? How well do you think the film mimics the feel of either current or classic wrestling broadcasts – then, now, or forever?
Hanna: I should preface this by saying that I am the kind of wrestling fan who likes the idea of the Repo Man, so I realize that my opinions about what makes wrestling appealing may not be shared by the majority of the Sports Entertainment community. Apart from the athleticism and the glorious spots, wrestling makes me happiest in its highest moments of theatricality and absurdity. I also love horror movies, and I’m especially interested in global horror mythologies. In theory, this movie should have been a dream come true for me; I was so ready to love it, but ultimately it fell flat (in part due my extremely high expectations).
Unfortunately, I think that Monster Brawl’s fatal flaw is its monsters; for a movie focused on wrestling and goofy monster tropes, I didn’t find the characters that compelling. For the most part, the monsters didn’t fulfill any of the three criteria that generally attract me to wrestlers: they weren’t dramatically engaging, they weren’t scary, and they weren’t funny. You could argue that it’s hard to establish the kind of character investment that WWE has years to build in an hour and 29 minutes, but the pure glee that Swamp Gut instilled in me kills that argument (the Swamp-speak diatribe against pollution is one of my favorite movie-watching moments from this year). He’s the only character with a unique or memorable identity, the only one that I found myself rooting for – and he gets squashed by a werewolf! Despicable booking. How did they get the other monsters so wrong? How did a slimy pile of green swamp trash have more charisma than a vampire?
It’s absolutely possible that I’m being too hard on this movie; I don’t think it intended to be a masterpiece. Still, I was so disappointed at the untapped potential in the premise. I at least would have enjoyed it more if the camp had been turned up a few notches. What did you think, Britnee? Did the Monster Brawl monsters resonate with you? I know that you’re a sucker for theatricality, so did this film pique your interest in wrestling?
Britnee: Monster Brawl is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I really do enjoy watching wrestling because I’m a sucker for all things tacky and trashy, but I honestly don’t watch it all that much. I’ll watch clips online or watch a match or two when I’m indulging in someone else’s cable, but that’s pretty much it. Monster Brawl really felt more like a wrestling match than a movie, but could it be that wrestling matches are actually more like movies than I thought?
The part of the film that I kept going back and forth on were the monsters. It was like a Spirit Halloween store threw up on the screen. I actually enjoyed the cheap looking costumes and makeup effects because it really went with the B-movie vibe, but the biggest disappointment was the lack of creativity with their characters (except for Swamp Gut, of course). Like Hanna, I really wanted the monsters to go all out and have fun with their characters. Most of them just made gross scary noises and boring comments to one another. I was laughing immediately at the Witch Bitch character when she was introduced in the film’s beginning, but as time passed, she just became so boring. I wanted her to do insane witchy stuff during her battle with Cyclops, like brand a pentagram on his head or shove a broomstick up his ass.
The lack of creativity with the monsters was the only negative thing about this movie for me. Otherwise, it really was an all around good time. The tiny details in some of the stories were super funny, like the Mummy character being called a MILF (Mummy I’d Like to Find). Those little cheeseball moments reminded me why wrestling is great.
I know that the format of Monster Brawl is that of a wrestling tournament, but I wonder if the film would have been a little better if there was some sort of focused plot. For instance, what if there was more of a focus on just one of the monsters and their journey within the tournament? Boomer, did you enjoy the film adapting to the mold of a wrestling match? Or would you have preferred something different?
Boomer: It would appear that I am the only MotM-participating Swampflixer who has no interest in wrestling whatsoever. It’s not that wrestling didn’t try to grab hold of me with all of its might: my fifth grade class went completely apeshit for WWE while the rest of the world was getting into Pokémon and Animorphs (both of which were forbidden at our evangelical school), and there was even a tie-in promotional episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which the not-yet-famous-as-an-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared as … an alien cage fighter (it’s bad, although Jeffrey Combs is a delight as always). But despite all the pageantry, the sweaty homoeroticism, and the constant barrage of subliminal (Voyager), liminal (constant advertising and even airing on Sci-Fi/Syfy; a half decade period of Austin 3:16 shirts for sale in every store in America), and superliminal (being forced to watch wrestling events at elementary and middle school sleepovers) advertising, I was never all that interested. I can tell you that I know the names Chyna, Sting, and of course mainstream/mainstream-adjacent figures like Hulk Hogan, John Cena, and Dwayne Johnson, but until this moment I was unaware that there are two famous “The Undertaker(s),” and, don’t judge me, but I’m more interested in the monster truck. I knew of Jimmy Hart, but only as the former trope namer for “Suspiciously Similar Song” on TVTropes. So the fact that this follows the format of a big Pay-Per-View match is news to me, but isn’t surprising, because the cultural touchstone that I couldn’t stop thinking about was Celebrity Deathmatch, which I would often see portions of while waiting out the clock for Daria to start. It followed a pretty similar trajectory; I didn’t really care for Celebrity Deathmatch either.
Of the things that others have mentioned liking about the film, I also enjoyed the overall cheapness of the costumes, which did in fact feel like they were kitbashed together from a Spirit Halloween or the seasonal section of a Savers or Big Lots; the unblinking eye on the Cyclops was particularly endearing in its “Let’s make a movie, gang!” aesthetic. It was a wise idea to intersperse these throughout the film before each match instead of frontloading the movie with all of the narrative elements and then devolving into the wrestling scenes. It took me over two hours to watch this 90 minute feature because every time a fight started, my eyes glazed over and I completely dissociated from the experience, my mind alternating between flashbacks to those sleepovers and my desire to be doing anything else while Jesse Simpson and Matt McCulloch re-enacted the moves that they saw on screen. I had to deliberately remind myself to pay attention, rewinding to make sure I hadn’t missed some element that would give me something else to write about in this segment other than Voyager, reciting segments of Roger Ebert’s review of North, and my boredom. As a longtime fan of Swamp Thing (both the character and the terrible eighties TV show), I did get a kick out of Swamp Gut, and I liked how his introductory segment was framed like a TV documentary show from a formerly-respectable-but-not-so-much-anymore station. I also really liked the potential of Witch Bitch, who could have been a lot of fun. The idea of a time-displaced Colonial Era witch finding meaning in the ring could have made for an interesting story, like a Million Dollar Baby-Eater, but her introductory segment took a turn for the very mean spirited almost immediately, and her early defeat made it clear that she was more of a placeholder than someone worthy of investing time in the characterization of.
I did like the aforementioned “Frankenstien’s monster if you’re a dick” joke, though. I’m glad that, even nearly ten years ago, everyone was already tired of that pedantry. It reminds me of this, one of the best Onion articles from the time when they were making satire and not just predicting the next horrible thing this administration was going to do.
Britnee: I would love to see more of Swamp Gut. He needs his own movie where he wrestles swamp-polluting douche bags. This is what will save the planet.
Hanna: Like Brandon mentioned, this wouldn’t have been a wrestling movie without some Bikini Babes. One is completely dedicated to the part of cheering on the monsters (or at least marginally enthusiastic), and the other looks like she’s mourning her career in the cemetery.
Boomer: In the recent podcast where Brandon and I talked about A Tale of Two Sisters, I admitted that I know I tend to be the most negative Swampflixian, although I still adhere to the maxim that enjoying something is more interesting than hating it. But now, at long last, with everyone else finding something to enjoy here and me being completely miserable, I am glad to have finally paid my debt for forcing everyone to watch Live Freaky, Die Freaky, which was universally reviled. I can rest easy now.
Brandon: I knew recommending this movie would be risky, but I’m glad we can all at least share in our love for Swam Gut. It also seems like the movie is somewhat successful in “working” the audience the way a real-life wrestling promotion would. Getting us heated over Swam Gut’s loss immediately after falling in love with his eco-terrorist politics is classic pro wrestling booking. It’s even something that’s been recently echoed by Daniel Bryan’s “Eco-Friendly Heavyweight Champion” angle on WWE — playing heel by plainly voicing his heartfelt climate change concerns.
Another great example of this is the way the two women wrestlers are booked in the intergender matches; it’s frustrating to watch Witch Bitch lose so viciously to Cyclops in the first match, but that tension makes Lady Vampire’s victory over Mummy in the very next round all the sweeter. I find that keeping the monsters simple & generic allows the audience to quickly get invested in those broad archetypes’ failures & successes. They’re instantly familiar to us and, thus, easy tools for emotional manipulation during the matches. That’s A+ in-ring storytelling in my book.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020
-The Swampflix Crew
Welcome to Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna continue their Movie of the Month conversation about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) by discussing the career highs of provocateur director Pedro Almodóvar. They particularly focus on his award-winning hot streak between All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).
-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).
Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.
The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.
Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.
One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?
Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.
Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?
Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?
Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?
Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom. I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here. It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled. Ivan, I could live without. If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.
My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho. When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque. She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho). Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party. It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).
My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality. The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop. Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice. Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact. I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot. There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.
Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing! I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.
Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.
Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide). It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.
Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
-The Swampflix Crew
Britnee: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.
As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.
Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.
Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?
Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.
The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.
I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?
Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.
There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.
What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.
Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?
Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.
I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.
Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.
Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.
Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!
Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.
And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)
-The Swampflix Crew
Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?
Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.
Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.
Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.
Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?
Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.
It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.
In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.
Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?
Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.
Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.
All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?
Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.
Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.
Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.
Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.
Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch
Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
-The Swampflix Crew
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Hanna, and Boomer watch Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).
Brandon: When we were compiling our ballots for the Best Films of the 2010s earlier this year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what themes & topics defined the decade in moviegoing for me. Along with our increasingly intimate relationship with technology and the looming threat of total economic collapse, something that stood out to me as one of the major stories of the 2010s was the evolution of our cultural understanding of gender. Some of the most potent cinema of the decade (particularly recent titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and The Misandrists) were the films that reflected our cultural deconstructions & reinterpretations of socially-enforced gender norms, which have been cruelly limiting & embarrassingly outdated for far too long. Curiously, though, the trip to the theater in the last decade that sticks out to me as the most aggressively confrontational in its disregard for traditional gender boundaries wasn’t a 2010s film at all. That honor belongs to the 2017 restoration of Funeral Parade of Roses, which is over half-a-century old and still stands out as one of the most sharply audacious films I can remember seeing on the topic.
Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast mostly consists of trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary-style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself and high-fantasy fables that pull direct influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.
Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the potency of its imagery and in the political transgression of its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex-worker crew hang out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently) at soirees that often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait. Whether picking girl-gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in the mirror, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was subversive, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot-button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We GetTogether” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far-out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.
Even half a century after its initial release, Funeral Parade of Roses feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m just really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. Its sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender essentialism or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh-on-flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last-minute tragic downfall. Still, I could see the outdated terminology of the way it discusses gender & sexuality or the way it ultimately conforms to a queer-tragedy cliché with its Oedipal conclusion falling short of modern morality standards. I could also see its highly stylized, aggressively playful visual experimentation distracting from the dramatic empathy at its core, especially on a first watch. You can’t behave this wildly without alienating someone.
Hanna, there is a lot of visual & cultural information here for us to cover in just one conversation. Too much, even. So, I want to start small: Outside its stylistic flourishes & cultural significance, were you at all emotionally invested in this film’s central story? Was Eddie’s Oedipal journey engaging on a dramatic level, or were the film’s other, flashier qualities too overwhelming for you to fully sink into the narrative?
Hanna: Eddie’s arc did engage me, and I was totally immersed in her world, but I can’t say I was fully invested in her story. I don’t necessarily think I was overwhelmed by the rest of the film, although I would definitely be more grounded in her story upon a second viewing; I think that I always felt some distance and un-reality in her narrative because her character was intentionally refracted through the various experimental mechanisms (e.g., the abstract cuts, mask monologues, and the documentarian asides). The way she traveled through the membranes of the movie—in and out of dreams, forward and backward in time, into and out of character—left the impression of a person who is slowly dissolving. The film even includes a (gorgeously shot) interview with Pîtâ about how she feels playing the role of Eddie, which further distances us from the narrative; we are aware that the Eddie is one mask, representative of many people in Tokyo’s underground queer scene. All of that, layered on top of an Oedipal framework, situates Eddie’s story somewhere between a personal and communal context. This actually didn’t take away from the movie for me at all; t was a totally moving, surreal experience, like I was sharing a dream with someone.
Having said all that, Funeral Parade of Roses is also one of the most intensely sensual, wonderfully humanist movies I’ve seen in a long time, especially the scenes outside of the Oedipal plotline. Sex is shot like queer Edward Weston photographs come to life, and parties reverberate with that pure, corporeal 60s euphoria that you can feel (and smell) through the screen. One scene follows Eddie as she gets ready for the day, lingering on her immaculate, deliberate makeup application of eyeliner, then lipstick (in keeping with the surrealism of the film, this scene is almost immediately followed by a bizarre pseudo-shootout between Eddie and her rival, Leda). These moments of tactile intimacy balance out the porousness of Eddie’s experience really beautifully.
I definitely agree that Eddie’s Oedipal descent hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the movie, but the inclusion of Pîtâs interview added some nuance to the ending. Pîtâ muses that her background, lifestyle, and personality are all very similar to Eddie’s, and that she sympathized with the character except for “the incest part.” This snippet allows Pîtâ to publicly disavow the tragic queer narrative, or at least acknowledge that it doesn’t adequately or fairly represent queer life in a film that otherwise “portrays gay boys beautifully.” Boomer, how do you think Funeral Parade fits in the canon of queer cinema? How did you feel about the film’s resolution?
Boomer: A few weeks ago, Brandon posted a link to The Swampflix Canon across our various social media platforms. I took at look at my contributions to that list and realized that, to those who might know me solely by my presence here, I’m a complete weirdo. My additions are, as Brandon put it, “Populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors, and nothing in-between,” and he’s absolutely right, although I would add that my contributions that fall outside of that binary (Head Over Heels, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Citizen Ruth, Queen of Earth, An Unmarried Woman, etc.) add a genre of “women on the verge” to my bizarre palate (and pallet). If you mix my love of women on the edge, Euro horror, and queer cinema, you get the above-mentioned Knife+Heart, which probably explains why it ended up being my number one movie of 2019 and the 2010s. So you would think that the main throughline of Funeral Parade of Roses, of Eddie’s violent streak and the mythologically influenced finale would be really up my alley, but honestly, my favorite part is actually the “women on the verge” element of Leda’s plotline. The fear of being replaced is strong with me, and that was much more resonant to me than Eddie’s story; I sympathized with Leda from the start, and Eddie didn’t have my sympathies.
If you distill the Oedipus story to its two core tragic points, the marquee moments are Oedipus killing one parent and having intercourse with the other. The former isn’t a huge part of queer culture, luckily, but in a metaphorical way, the latter is, in a way that makes this film seem less dated to me than other elements. Compare the nonthreatening lead performance in Love, Simon (parodied here) to the queer people on parade here, which is much grittier and soaked in blood, literally at times. Queer men often grow up having difficult relationships with their closed-minded fathers, and as a result often seek out the guidance of older gay men as they come of age, and strange quasi-paternal relationships form out of these bonds, and those relationships are not entirely asexual. Metaphorically speaking, Eddie finding and fucking the father that he never knew strikes me as being a core part of many queer men’s earliest relationships; it’s only nonrepresentational when it’s literal, which is basically film in a nutshell. There have been many attempts to pathologize why so many young men out there are looking for their “daddy,” and the going theory is that they are looking for someone to initiate them into adulthood the way that a father figure would but that a straight father can’t, because he doesn’t belong to that world. I don’t know what it is, but Eddie’s journey has the ring of truth to me, putting it pretty squarely in the queer canon, even if the incestuous nature of the plot, borrowed from Western mythology, is icky.
Britnee, I guess this is becoming a pattern for me: I don’t seem to enjoy the experimental parts of the experimental films that we watch. I found the sped-up footage annoying (I know that the music used in multiple undercranked scenes is “The More We Get Together,” but when I reply it in my mind it’s always “Yackety Sax”), and the interviews with the actors and filmmakers were more distracting to me than anything else (although I found the interviews with street queens to be meaningful and to contribute something thematically), but I know you usually find them more digestible. Is that the case here? Did you find them to contribute or distract? Were there any that you like more than others?
Britnee: I actually enjoyed the experimental parts of the film more than anything that followed a clear storyline. The sped-up scenes with “The More We Get Together” blaring in the background were my favorite parts of the film! The carnival sounding tune had a way of making the subject matter seem darker than it already was, all while forcing me to hum the tune while doing my daily tasks for days after watching the movie. Perhaps my current mental state has something to do with my appreciation of all thing wacky in this film (thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic). I’m finding myself enjoying art that is more on the eccentric side more so than usual because nothing really makes sense anymore, and I kind of don’t want to make sense out of anything for the time being. The experimental components of Funeral Parade of Roses did prevent me from focusing on the film’s plot (if there really was one), but they also pulled me into a wild gender-queer universe that I loved so much. I honestly only grasped bits and pieces of the plot (mostly the Oedipus story), but I still feel a though I got just as much out of the film than if I would have been 100% focused on the story.
The opening scene really had me hooked on whatever the film was going to throw my way. The grainy black and white close-ups of two bodies making love without any detail to indicate if those bodies were male or female was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve seen in a long time. The other scene that I found to be really striking was the big finale, where Eddie gouges out his eyes Oedipus style. The way that the world around him reacts to such a violent act was bone chilling. The stillness of the people on the streets, watching Eddie without offering assistance or making any commotion really sat with me for a long while after the film was over. The opening and closing scenes were like the brioche bun on a Popeye’s sandwich, holding the spicy chicken that makes up the rest of the film together beautifully.
Hanna: Honestly, I would recommend this Funeral Parade of Roses on the imagery alone; I wish I could make this movie into a quilt. Over the last few weeks, my mind has repeatedly drifted back into the black-and-white dreamland, running its fingers over the masks and roses and blood and wigs. Plus, it was totally refreshing to the Japanese version of a stoned-out record orgy.
Britnee: I was surprised by how many parts of Funeral Parade of Roses reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. I was very much into A Clockwork Orange in high school, partially due to some of the cheesy punk music I listened to that was inspired by the film, like Lower Class Brats. The sped-up scenes with loud, well-known instrumental music and the up-close focus on Eddie’s eyes with those heavy lower lashes are just a couple elements that were very Clockwork-like. I was not surprised to discover online that Stanley Kubrick was heavily influenced by Funeral Parade of Roses while making the film.
Brandon: As I’m looking at my own contributions to The Swampflix Canon that Boomer referenced—especially my Movie of the Month picks—I’m finding that a lot of these severely low-fi experimental works that punch far above the weight of their resources to approximate arthouse prestige on a shoestring budget: Jubilee, Smithereens, Born in Flames, The Gleaners & I, Girl Walk//All Day, Local Legends, etc. I hope this strand of D.I.Y. outsider art is not becoming a nuisance to the rest of the crew, because I apparently can’t help but be inspired & energized by it. The best aspect of punk is its anyone-can-do-this democratization of art production, opening the gates for people without proper funds or training to have their own voice in a cultural space that normally locks them out. Funeral Parade of Roses would never be able to tell this story this wildly if it were made through proper production or distribution channels, so I have to admit one of the things I admire most about it is that it’s a volatile, dirt-cheap experiment that’s likely to alienate, confuse, or annoy a significant portion of its audience at every turn. That very same quality makes it something of a risk to recommend to friends.
Boomer: About two years ago, I met someone on Tinder. I won’t deadname her or risk outing her by using her current name, so let’s call her Veronica. At the time, Veronica was still figuring herself out, and although we weren’t compatible romantically, we became good friends, and I introduced her to the Austin Film Society, where we attended a screening of On the Silver Globe. Veronica started going to more screenings there, including Funeral Parade of Roses, although I didn’t make it to that one. Seeing the film transformed her, as she went from identifying as a cisman, to an occasional self-described cismale cross-dresser, to genderfluid, to finally coming out as a transwoman in 2019. I may not be the biggest fan of Roses, but it sparked a fire in my friend Veronica that burned away the untrue parts of herself, and that’s fucking rad.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
-The Swampflix Crew
Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched. He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites). Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time. About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.
Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything. Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.
These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended. Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement. The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting. In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.
What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on. It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful. Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime? Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant? How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?
Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene. Everything about each environment felt so sterile. I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease. I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be. I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general). They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it. That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie. While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t. It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t. Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others. You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment. I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience. It’s the worst.
I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away. An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again. RIP Tativille. Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question. Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors. Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness. The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today. However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant. I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans. They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look. So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere. Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar. I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967. It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.
I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all. Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world? These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre. This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays. Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?
Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film overall. It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat. As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it). Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons. On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision. Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.
If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses. As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief. I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters. Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist. I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc. The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.
I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so. Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows. The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate. There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to. In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas. All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos. If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier). Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.
Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair? Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?
Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination. This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak. I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure. Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.
As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon. To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery. At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy. Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily. For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me. I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced. There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken. But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts. So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?
I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it. My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”). I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.
Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.
Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.
Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.
Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight. If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
-The Swampflix Crew
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Hanna, Brandon, and Boomer watch Fried Green Tomatoes (1991).
Britnee: Growing up, my main sources of movies were cable TV, Debra’s Movie World (a local video rental store in my hometown), and the local public library. The highlight of my weekend was checking out the TV guide in the newspaper to see what movies were going to be on TV (mostly the TNT, TBS, and USA channels) and taking a trip to Debra’s or the library to browse through the racks of VHS tapes. When borrowing movies from the library, I was limited to two. My first pick was always a film I had never seen before, and my second pick was always reserved for one of my go-to movies. Almost every time, that go-to movie was Fried Green Tomatoes. The film is adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I was also a fan of. I even did a book report on it when I was in the seventh or eighth grade! I was, and still am, very much in love with this movie, and I’m so excited to share it with the Swampflix crew for our April Movie of the Month.
Fried Green Tomatoes is a heartfelt, hilarious, tearjerking masterpiece that focuses on the relationships and lives of Southern women. Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) is a housewife in early 1990s Alabama. She’s riddled with low self-esteem and is desperately trying to add life back into her dull marriage. One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Evelyn fantasizes about wrapping herself in a cellophane dress to seduce her husband but, sadly, he’s even just as boring in her fantasies as he is in real life and isn’t into it. While visiting her husband’s aunt at a nursing home, who really doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s company, Evelyn meets Ms. Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy). Ms. Threadgoode begins to tell her stories about the lives of the residents of a small town named Whistle Stop during the Depression Era. The two stars of her stories are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), two women who are in an obvious lesbian relationship even though it’s never blatantly stated. Evelyn becomes obsessed with hearing these stories and starts making regular visits to the nursing home to hear Ms. Threadgoode tell them. The stories bring Evelyn back to life and inspire her take control of her life, all in the name of Tawanda!
The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is both beautiful and tragic. The two women are soulmates who are known throughout the town of Whistle Stop as “really good friends” beacause, well, this is the South in the 1920s. Both women run The Whistle Stop Cafe (yay for female business owners!), serving pies, BBQ, and you guessed it, fried green tomatoes. Fun Fact: The Whistle Stop Cafe building used for the film was actually turned into a real restaurant Juliette, Georgia. It still looks just like the restaurant in the movie and serves up fried green tomatoes and BBQ (hopefully not like the “secret sauce” BBQ in the movie). Prior to the cafe, Ruth was in an abusive marriage, and when Idgie discovers Ruth is both pregnant and being beaten, she rescues her. The two women start their own life together, and Idgie helps Ruth raise her child. Everything seems to being going okay for the two until Ruth’s husband goes missing, and Idgie is a suspect for his murder.
Boomer, this film has received criticism for glossing over the lesbian relationship between Idgie and Ruth. What are your thoughts on this?
Boomer: I was really excited when Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for Movie of the Month, because I just read the book last October and was itching to talk about the book with pretty much everyone I knew. The film was also a treasure of a different kind, albeit one that made me turn to my friend with whom I was watching it and say “In the book . . . ” at least twenty times.
The nature of film is different from that of literature, and some excisions are to be expected. For one thing, the novel is much more realistic in its presentation of period accurate language, which is a polite way of saying that I’m completely comfortable with the fact that studios decided it wouldn’t be much fun to watch beloved actors and actresses say the n-word with the frequency it appears in the novel, even in the mouths of characters we otherwise like and admire, simply to be more historically correct. Those who have only ever seen the film would also likely be surprised to learn just what a large part of the novel focuses on Sipsey’s family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the hardships of the pre- and post-King civil rights movements as seen through their eyes. Of particular note are Big George’s two sons, one of whom is light-skinned and other darker, and how life is harder for the latter than the former despite their identical lineage; one becomes a train porter who lives long enough for his modern grandchildren to be critical of his attitude towards white people (remarking behind the old man’s back that his “bowing and scraping” to white people is “embarrassing”) while the other lives a shorter, more tragic life that involves a self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration following an initial arrest that is extremely unjust, even for its time. This excision also leaves out, as a consequence, one of my favorite little touches of the novel: Evelyn’s visit to the black church in the novel (unaccompanied by Ninny) involves her sharing a pew with and shaking the hand of one of Sipsey’s great-granddaughters, with no one but the omniscient voice of the author to recognize this serendipitous connection and meeting.
Even though Fried Green Tomatoes was hailed as such a breakthrough that it received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film in 1992, it’s surprising how understated the romance between Idgie and Ruth is, although it is explicitly and openly queer in a way that I’m surprised to see in such a mainstream film of the time (and which was such a big hit, grossing nearly $120 million against its $11 million budget). Even more surprisingly, this isn’t that different from the book, which never uses the word “lesbian” or any derivatives – which is for the best, as I would hate to have had to watch a scene of aged Jessica Tandy telling Kathy Bates “They were lesbians.” The closest the text gets is in a scene between Ruth and Idgie’s mother in which the latter begs Ruth not to leave at the end of the summer in which she and Idgie first meet, with only Mama Threadgoode tells her that Idgie loves Ruth in her own Idgiosyncratic (sorry) way. What the film adds is Ruth’s earlier love of Buddy, which layers on a Schrodinger’s Sexuality element that allows a more conservative audience to dismiss the queer undertones that discomfit them, getting them to unwittingly cheer a queer romance. That Ruth and Idgie are in love is evident, both to the others in their town and to the reader and audience, without ever having to verbalize or label it, which is beautiful in its way. It’s also not shot for the male gaze at all, either; although Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker are beautiful women, but there’s nothing salacious or sexualized about them. I’d consider it a win across the board . . . were it not for that Buddy/Ruth added element.
So, uh, one thing I didn’t know about this narrative before reading the novel is that unwitting cannibalism is arguably the crux on which the entire story rests. That was unexpected. Brandon, what did you think of this development? Did you foresee it at all; did it take you completely by surprise? Do you think that a great and grievous wrong was committed against the people of Whistle Stop by feeding them human flesh without their knowledge?
Brandon: I felt fully prepared for the cannibalism by the time it arrived in the story, but only because the movie trains you to be prepared for anything. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie on the surface, but it constantly veers into absurdist humor, grisly violence, and straight-up Gay Stuff that you don’t normally get to see in a Hollywood picture of this flavor. Before starting the film, however, I never would have guessed that cannibalism would play such a central role in the story, since it looked from the outside to be a good-ol’-days, Simple Southern Living melodrama along the lines of Driving Miss Daisy or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I even remember chuckling about how adorably quaint the tagline on the poster felt: “The secret of life? The secret’s in the sauce.” In retrospect—now knowing that the sauce’s recipe sometimes includes human flesh—that tagline is absolutely horrific, which is a perfectly illustrative example of how subtly bizarre this movie can be.
By the time the cannibalism arrives in the story, we’ve already been thrown for so many loops by Kathy Bates’s cellophane lingerie fantasies & mirror-squatting vagina workshops, the nearby train’s bloodthirsty quest to crush all children, and the local sheriff’s side hustle as a barroom drag queen that I was game for pretty much anything. I wasn’t even especially aghast that they fed the beautifully barbequed corpse to their clientele, since the only customer we see chowing down on the stuff (in the movie, at least) is an evil cop we’ve been prompted to hiss at every time he appears at the café. I love how the mystery of who among the main cast killed the KKK member that winds up on the Whistle Stop’s menu is given tons of breathing room to loom large over the plot, but the cooking & consumption of that monster’s body is practically a throwaway punchline. It’s that exact emphasis on the conventional vs. underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that made Fried Green Tomatoes such a treat for me overall. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.
While the murder mystery eventually gets settled (both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the audience), I think there’s a much more inconclusive mystery the movie leaves open for interpretation: Who, exactly, was Jessica Tandy playing? From what I understand, the book is explicitly clear about who the old woman was at the periphery of the central romance (Idgie’s sister-in-law), but I think the movie is a little more ambiguous. There’s enough evidence onscreen to implicate that the elderly Ninny Threadgoode was actually Idgie Threadgoode all-growed-up, not just some tertiary family member who watched Idgie’s life play out from a distance. Hanna, how did you interpret Ninny’s identity? Did you take her word at face-value that she was a distant relative of Idgie’s, or did you suspect that she might be Idgie herself?
Hanna: I was one thousand percent convinced that Ninny was Idgie. In fact, part of my brain is still refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary that may be provided in the book. It would have been pretty easy to establish Ninny’s selfhood outside of the Idgie’s story (e.g., “Idgie’s sister told me … ” “I was visiting my brother when I heard …”), especially considering that Ninny’s identity is made clear in the source material. More than that, I would like to keep myself blissfully ignorant because I like the idea of Idgie telling her own story disguised as a secondary source; I feel like that mischief is in keeping with Idgie’s character in general.
I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of the queer romance. I really didn’t know that much about Fried Green Tomatoes except that “Were Idgie and Ruth lovers in Fried Green Tomatoes?” is apparently a popular question on Google. Based on the need to ask the question, I assumed that the love would be purely subtext, projection, and wishful thinking; I was surprised by the tender sensuality between the two, especially in that bee scene! I do wish the relationship had been pushed further, I think it was a pretty perfect depiction of what a lesbian love would look like during that period of time.
Besides the queer Southern lady romance, the mythos of Whistle Stop is one of my favorite aspects of the movie: the shadow of the ever-present Trauma Train, for example, or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth’s horrific ex-husband. Idgie is nestled at the center of all of these myths, and she weaves her own, too: she robs trains and Robin Hoods the spoils away! She is a friend to bees! She’s a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, Southern lesbian! She’s like a considerate version of Tom Sawyer, embodying the spirit of wildly compassionate independence; her unconventional bravery raises her as a kind of folk hero in the eyes of her community, and just as much in Ninny/Idgie’s stories for Evelyn decades later. I think this is another reason I’m prone to believe that the sisters-in-law are the same person: I am in love with the idea of an elderly Idgie leaving an offering of honey for her lady and disappearing into the woods at the end, cementing her status as the grand ghost of Whistle Stop.
Brandon: I also found it incredibly refreshing how open this film was about the romantic spark between Idigie & Ruth . . . up to a point. There’s an early scene where Idgie takes Ruth on a picnic to pull honey for her directly out of a beehive (a total show-off move that invites horrific My Girl flashbacks) where I thought “Is this a date?,” but I initially brushed it off. Later, when Ruth kisses Idgie on the cheek after a round of drunken nightswimming, I was astonished that we were actually Going There. And then the movie just kinda drops it. The two women eventually establish a Boston Marriage version of domesticity while running the Whistle Stop Cafe, but we never get to see them share that kind of intimacy again after the kiss. The closest we get is some light sploshing during a flirty foodfight scene in the Whistle Stop kitchen. Otherwise, their daily routine mostly consists of Ruth looking after her baby at home while Idgie tends the store, together but separate. I’m not saying that I was aching for a passionate on-screen love affair, but over time I did come to miss the private, intimate conversations between the two women, since their connection was one of the main anchors of the story (before it evolves into a murder mystery, at least).
Speaking of Lesbian Content, I was not at all shocked to learn that Fannie Flagg was at one time in a relationship with feminist author Rita Mae Brown. Brown’s landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle is not as wildly chaotic as Fried Green Tomatoes in tone or narrative, but their settings & thick Southern drawls are remarkably similar. I suspect that a movie adaptation of Rubyfruit Jungle would resemble this film a great deal; it would just have to swap out the cannibalism for explicit lesbian sex.
Hanna: Usually in these Present/Past movies, one of the two storylines drags a little bit, and it’s typically the present (e.g., Big Fish, although the final with the father still gets me). Evelyn’s story, on the other hand, is just as delightful as the Idgie storyline. I would watch a whole movie about Evelyn ramming the cars of youngin’s in the parking lot, attempting to familiarize herself with her vagina, and bashing down the walls of her own house in the name of Towanda (decked out in her fabulous 90s prints, of course).
Boomer: (Content Warning: mention of Sexual Assault)
My favorite thing that was in the novel but not in the film is the fact that Frank Bennett (Ruth’s abusive husband, who is also a gangrapist in the novel) has a glass eye. It’s so well made that he makes a habit of challenging strangers to a bet to see if they can guess which one is real, and he never loses. Until, that is, a homeless man correctly identifies the glass eye; when asked how he knew, he admits that the manufactured glass eye was the only one of the two that had a glimmer of humanity in it. It’s as poetic an indictment of a character as I’ve ever read.
I also love that, in the novel, the judge presiding at the trial is actually Curtis Smoote, who had years before been the one investigating Bennett’s disappearance. He sees straight through Idgie and Company’s ruse from the very beginning, but the omniscient narrator tells us that his own daughter had been a victim of Bennett’s, even fathering a child with her and then beating her when she came to him for help for the baby, so he lets the farce play out. The world won’t miss an asshole like Frank Bennett, and there’s a kind of justice that supersedes the law.
I only get five channels clearly with my TV antenna, and one of them is Buzzr, a game show whose most up-to-date regularly aired program is Supermarket Sweep. I’ve seen many an hour of The Match Game and author Fannie Flagg is consistently one of the funniest contestants. Nobody asked, but my dream Match Game lineup is Scoey Mitchell, Brett Somers, and Charles Nelson Reilly on the top row and Marcia Wallace, Dick Martin, and Fannie in the bottom row. I swear that I am in fact 32 and not actually in my 80s, and I will be taking no follow up questions on this subject at this time.
One of the caveats of Movie of the Month selections is that the film has to be one that no one else in the group has seen before (it’s right there in our charter), and I was positive I never had, but there was one scene that I had seen some time in my primordial memory was Buddy getting stuck in the train tracks. That scene imprinted on me pretty heavily, and over the years I folded that memory and the scene in Stand By Me when the kids run from a train into one and “stuck” this scene there in my mind. When I rewatched Stand By Me recently, I was struck by the fact that I had fully inserted a scene in it which did not exist, and thought, “Well, that must have been in The Journey of Natty Gann.” But nope! Here it was, waiting for me to rediscover it in Fried Green Tomatoes after all this time.
Britnee: One of the most beautiful scenes in Fried Green Tomatoes is when Idgie retrieves honey from a tree for Ruth. This is how she gets her romantic Bee Charmer nickname. Mary Stuart Masterson actually did the bee scene 100% herself without a stunt double. Her stunt double quit before the bee scene because she was too afraid to do it, so Masterson performed the stunt herself. There’s a great article about the scene from the blog of the Asheville Bee Charmer honey shop where they speak with one of the location scouts from Fried Green Tomatoes. The shop is owned by a lesbian couple, and the name of the shop was inspired by the film. Fried Green Tomatoes lives on! Tawanda!
Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Hanna presents Playtime (1967)
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
-The Swampflix Crew
Welcome to Episode #104 of The Swampflix Podcast! For this episode, the podcast crew discusses all eight features they caught at the 2020 New Orleans French Film Festival, with a particular focus on the 1945 epic melodrama Children of Paradise – which is often cited as “the greatest French film of all time”. Enjoy!
-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, CC Chapman, and Brandon Ledet