Movie of the Month: Trouble in Mind (1985)

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 BrandonBoomer, and Hanna watch Trouble in Mind (1985).

Britnee: Director Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind is truly a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s a neo-noir that blends in 80s new wave kitsch, creating its own genre that I like to call New Wave Noir. I’m not sure there are any other movies that would fall into that genre. Maybe Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? could qualify, but they’re way more on the fantasy side. I didn’t get around to watching Trouble in Mind until a few years ago when I was obsessing over Marianne Faithfull. After reading Faithfull: An Autobiography, I was constantly listening to her music, and that’s when I came across her rendition of the blues classic “Trouble in Mind”. I discovered that it was used in a film with the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, and an out-of-drag Divine. That was more than enough to draw me to the movie, and it turned out to be such a hidden gem.

In the fictional Rain City (it’s basically Seattle), an ex-cop/ex-con with the most neo-noir name ever, Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), becomes entangled in the lives of a young couple from out in the country. Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) drive into Rain City in their beat-up camper to build a better life for themselves and their baby named Spike. Hawk, Coop, and Georgia are all brought together by a diner owned by Hawk’s ex-lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Coop gets involved in selling knockoff watches and quickly gets pulled into Rain City’s criminal underworld, run by Hilly Blue (Divine). Coop’s fashion choices become progressively more cartoonish as he sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime. His hair becomes a growing new wave pompadour, his face becomes paler, his outfits get wilder, and his makeup becomes increasingly intense. It’s my favorite thing about this movie. He literally becomes a new wave monster. While Coop is out and about being a criminal, Hawk sets his eyes on Georgia. He gets the hots for her and becomes her “protector”, even though I find him to be pretty creepy when it comes to how he forces himself into her life.

One major aspect of Trouble in Mind that really didn’t make much sense and was completely unnecessary is that Rain City is under militia patrol and some of the characters randomly go from speaking Korean to English. The state of the city is never really explained and doesn’t add much to the story. Brandon, what did you think about Rain City’s militia and random Korean lingo? Would the film be any different if that component just didn’t exist?

Brandon: If I had to guess what they were going for with the militia patrols and American/Korean cross-culture, I’d say they were borrowing a little New Wave Noir finesse from Ridley Scott’s 1982 game-changer Blade Runner.  Trouble in Mind may take production notes from Seoul instead of Hong Kong, but its retro-futurization of Seattle feels like a direct echo of Blade Runner‘s retro-future Los Angeles.  The difference is that Blade Runner is explicitly set in the future (2019, to be exact), updating the familiar tropes & fashions of noir with a sci-fi bent.  Trouble in Mind, by contrast, doesn’t really subvert the noir genre template in any overt ways.  It’s not a parody or an homage.  It’s the real deal: a noir that just happens to be made in the 1980s (which makes the influence of Blade Runner near-impossible to avoid).

Personally, I was really into the characterization of Rain City as a setting.  It’s an intricately detailed, lived-in alternate reality that makes the movie feel as if it were adapted from a long-running comic book series.  I loved the “fictional” city’s clash of 1940s nostalgia with intensely 1980s fashion trends, and I was tickled by the scene set in the Space Needle restaurant, acknowledging that we’re basically just running around present-day Seattle.  I was much less in love with the characterization of Kris Kristofferson’s gruffly macho ex-cop.  Hawk is not so much of an enigmatic anti-hero as he is a boring loser, which is maybe the film’s one miscalculation in its low-key version of 1980s noir revival.  When Divine’s degenerate mobster villain looks Kristofferson dead in the eyes to snarl, “You have nothing but bad qualities,” I couldn’t help but agree.  What a pathetic asshole.

Hanna, did Hawk’s anti-hero status lean a little too hard into “anti” territory for you as well?  If so, were the other citizens of Rain City charismatic enough to save the movie from that misstep?

Hanna: I love a good anti-hero, and I’m a cursed sucker for a gruff neo-noir cop/PI character, even when their behavior is problematic or despicable. Unfortunately, Hawk embodies all of the worst aspects of macho authority—including possessiveness and that special type of sexual aggression that somehow eludes the label of assault—and none of the appealing qualities (e.g., smoldering charisma). On top of everything, his relationship with Georgia was totally baffling and uncomfortable. I kept holding out for Hawk to develop some humility and self-reflection, but I was foiled at every turn. Will Hawk stop stalking Georgia outside of her trailer (a moment that reminded me of that scene in Smooth Talk where Arnold Friend tries to coax teenage Connie out of her house)? No? Okay, well maybe he’ll realize that he can care about a beautiful woman without having a sexual relationship with them? No again! Well, maybe he’ll care for her in a loving, non-controlling – oh, he’s demanding total ownership of her in exchange for saving her New-Wave pompadour’ed ex-thing. I guess he’s a changed man because he asks her out for dinner?

Fortunately, the world of Trouble in Mind has more than enough splendors to enjoy apart from Hawk and Georgia, especially in the vibrant criminal underground. Coop was actually one of my favorite characters; he’s a huge creep for the majority of the film, but he shows at least a semblance of self-reflection towards the end, and his transformation into an 80s glamour criminal is indeed a glorious surprise. Just when I thought his pompadour couldn’t get more delicious, a little curl would spring up at the top, or the tips would be touched with a kiss of red. Divine was totally captivating as Hilly Blue, and I even liked Nate (John Considine), the crazed criminal that Coop accidentally robs. I found myself wishing I could spend just more time amongst the various fiends of Rain City; I sighed every time the film cut from Coop slinking around in oversaturated suits to Hawk eating his dumb eggs. If nothing else, I would have loved to see a version of Trouble in Mind without Hawk where Wanda helps Georgia leave Coop while he goes off to crime it up with Solo and Hilly.

Boomer, what did you think of the balance between the two worlds of Rain City (the Diner and Hilly’s criminal cabal)? Do you think there were more interesting depths to plumb in the criminal underworld? Are there aspects of Rain City do you wish had been more developed, or developed differently?

Boomer: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, this movie felt very loooong to me, to the point where I had to research whether a runtime of this magnitude was normal for film noir. I was convinced that they must normally be shorter than Trouble in Mind‘s 111 minutes, but reviewing the classics, it looks like this is pretty standard, with The Maltese Falcon clocking in at 101 minutes, Double Indemnity at 107, and Touch of Evil matching Trouble exactly at 111. Those movies don’t feel their length to me the way that this one does, and although Geneviève Bujold is giving the performance here that I like the most and she only occupies the diner and its adjacent rooms, I would have liked to see more of the criminal underworld. By having the audience experience the seedy underbelly of not-Seattle mostly through the eyes of Coop, who is the least interesting character, it hinders our ability to fully realize both this city and its criminal element. On the other hand, part of the appeal is that Hilly Blue is a figure that exists outside of the characters’ day-to-day lives for a long time, building him up as a figure of great influence and prominence among the denizens of Rain City’s underclass, before we finally meet him. So while I want to see that world fully, I also think that seeing more would mean cherishing less, and any increase to the film’s runtime would be to its detriment as a piece of media overall. 

What I think we could have benefitted from seeing more of without the risk of diminishing returns was exactly what was going on with all of the fascist goose-steppers constantly breaking up rallies. Every time Georgia gets more than two blocks from the diner, she doesn’t actually seem to be all that imperiled, but she’s certainly overstimulated to the point of losing her mind (and her baby!) histrionically. What I liked about the film’s aspirations to be more noirpunk than it succeeds in achieving is the unspoken acceptance of all of the odd little futurisms that pop up throughout and how they go uncommented upon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and wouldn’t have liked to understand more. Their iconography is clearly aping that of the fascism of the day—red and black, harsh angles—and they appear throughout and people are tolerant of (if not necessarily deferential to) them, and I think that drawing a comparison between a fascist force and Hawk’s need to be the ultimate authority in the lives of the women he seeks to dominate and control was an opportunity that was missed. I don’t need to know the whole genealogy of their rise to prominence (if not power), but a few hints would have been nice. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I want to make sure that it isn’t overlooked that this is our second Movie of the Month featuring Geneviève Bujold, after Last NightAlso, as always, it’s worth mentioning that although Hawk is awful, Kris Kristofferson is a real goddamn hero

Brandon: Of course, for degenerates like us the main draw of this film is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters classics like Hairspray & Female Trouble. To that end, I’ll just share a quick piece of trivia I picked up from a recent rewatch of the documentary I Am Divine . . . The gigantic diamond earring Hilly Blue rocks in this film was not provided by wardrobe but by Divine himself. He was super proud of saving up for that piece of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in his later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen.

Britnee: The big shootout scene at Hilly Blue’s mansion is amazing. The Seattle Asian Art Museum was transformed into the unforgettable residence of Rain City’s big mob boss, and I find so much comfort in knowing that this wasn’t just a set build. The fact that I can someday visit Hilly Blue’s mansion (minus Divine and all the guns and stuff) lifts my spirits. I guess I have to pay a visit to the real-life Rain City soon!

Hanna: Whoever scouted locations for Trouble in Mind did a fantastic job. Every setting—Wanda’s lonely-heart diner, the Chinatown restaurant, the villainous mansion, etc. etc.—was the perfect version of itself in the cyber-noir/dystopian film landscape. Also, I was shocked to find out that this movie somehow only made $19,632 at the box office on a budget of $3 million! Thank you to Britnee for unearthing this gem of a financial flop.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: London Road (2015)

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 Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).

Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV. 

In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015. 

I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top SecretGod Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers. 

The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling. 

There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments. 

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich. 

I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community? 

Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.”  The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart.  I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense.  Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place.  Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds.  London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.

This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end.  Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes.  It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny.  Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do.  It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.

The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat.  There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech.  The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV.  What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee?  Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?

Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.

London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.

Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?

Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).

This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing.  He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead.  I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic.  A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth.  Smart.

Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”  

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Home of the Brave (1986)

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 Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Home of the Brave (1986).

Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.

This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.

United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.

Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.

I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?

Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.

Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson; she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!

Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?

Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.

It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).

I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?

Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.

Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat.  I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.

Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.

Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:

She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!

So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.

Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

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 The Match Factory Girl (1990).

Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.

In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)

I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).

The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?

Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.

One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.

Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?

Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull back from the edge of their cliffdissolves in upon oneself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.

Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.

What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?

Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance.  However, you’re in good company making that connection.  In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her.  To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort.  She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.”  The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories.  Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway.  At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.

I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone.  This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema.  It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion.  And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!

Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work.  I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro).  Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”.  It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.

Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.

Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Brandon presents Home of the Brave (1986)
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)

-The Swampflix Crew

Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2020

1. Deerskin Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist thriller about a man’s obsession with a fringed deerskin jacket is consistently funny, but also incredibly vicious when it wants to be. Despite indulging in the ridiculous, high-concept genre of Killer Objects horror (think Death Bed, In Fabric, Christine, or the director’s own Rubber), it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film about the inadequacy that mediocre men face at middle age, and their psychotic efforts to overcome that deficiency. Jean Dujardin previously charmed American audiences in Best Picture-winner The Artist, but here he’s a sad, pathetic grifter who has to scam people just to hang out with him. It’s a hilarious joke at the expense of male vanity (including the vanity of making an entire movie about a deerskin jacket in the first place).

2. Color Out of Space Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair after decades of mysterious exile to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft short story about a meteor crash and a malignant color. Most criticism has fixated on Nic Cage’s over-the-top lead performance, but those antics aside this is a harrowing film about loss & cancer, fearing not just the disease but also its emotional erosion of familial relationships, interpreted through the powerful medium of cosmic horror.

3. The Invisible Man A genuinely scary film that operates in a realm of traditional horror tropes. For a lot of its audience, it’s doubly scary because of its domestic violence aspect, capturing the feeling of the ground being pulled from under you when you realize your abusive relationship is not the loving one you initially pictured it to be. That realization happens before the film even opens, but we’re made to live through its terrifying aftermath.

4. The Twentieth Century This pseudo-biography of a real-life Canadian politician is a gorgeous, absurdist fantasy piece that retells the history of Canadian governance as “one failed orgasm after another.” History says its events are set in Canada, but what’s onscreen is some nowhere nether-reality of dry ice and matte paintings, populated by caricatures rather than characters. It’s like Guy Maddin directing an especially kinky Kids in the Hall sketch, stumbling out into feature length in a dreamlike stupor.

5. The Wolf House A nightmare experiment in stop-motion animation that filters atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s got all the trappings of a pre-Brothers Grimm folktale: the sour ending, the moralistic behavioral warnings, the magic that is both beautiful and cruel. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history.

6. Possessor This techno body horror from Brandon Cronenberg feels like the cursed love child between his father’s eXistenZ and his own Antiviral. It’s a compelling psychological battle between its characters to gain possession of the corporeal vessel they share (a battle powerfully performed by Christopher Abbott & Andrea Riseborough). A truly shocking film, both beautiful and disgusting.

7. Birds of Prey A wonderfully stylized, deliriously hyperactive superhero movie that doesn’t drag or feel laboriously obligated to comic book backstory or pathos. It steps on other superheroes’ capes, soaring in its own unique, chaotic way (a power seemingly fueled by Vodka-Red Bulls).

8. Bacurau A Brazilian film that mutates familiar details inspired by “The Most Dangerous Game” into a surreal sci-fi-horror-western genre meltdown. It uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

9. Swallow An eerie, darkly humorous descendent of Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a newly pregnant woman is compulsively drawn to swallowing inedible objects, much to the frustration of her overly-controlling family & doctors. It’s a subtle but highly stylized psychological horror about bodily autonomy, class warfare, and trauma, illustrating the complete lack of control you have over your own body & destiny if you’re born on the wrong end of class & gender dynamics.

10. His House Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. This bold debut feature from screenwriter and director Remi Weekes tackles topics of grief, disenfranchisement, loss, immigration, and cultural disconnection – all framed within the traditional scares of the haunted house horror film.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read CC’s picks here.
See Hanna’s picks here.
Hear James’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

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 Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Salome’s Last Dance (1988).

Britnee: Last year, while I was on a month-long Ken Russell binge, I watched Salome’s Last Dance for the very first time. I had avoided it for a while because I assumed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill period piece. I do enjoy period films, but I have to be in a particular mood to watch them. It turns out Salome is more than just a period film. It’s a trashy masterpiece! How could I expect anything less from Ken Russell?

Salome starts with a framing narrative where the staff at a London brothel put on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, Salome, for none other than Oscar Wilde himself. The play is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play within a movie. The vibrant set and gaudy costumes are visually pleasing components to this very sexy Salome production, and I just loved all of it. Ken Russell even plays the part of the play’s photographer! There all sorts of delicious little treats strewn throughout the show, such as topless dominatrix guards with silver nipples and a zombified John the Baptist.

The actress who plays Salome in the play, Imogene Millais-Scott, is phenomenal. She has a very cat-like presence that really makes for an interesting take on the character, and her passionate and intense line deliveries outshine everyone else in the film. Millais-Scott was almost blind from an illness before she started filming, so the fact that she showed up and showed out in Salome regardless is insane.

What I enjoyed the most about Salome is that we never really leave the theatre. There aren’t many moments where we go into different areas of the brothel to follow up on what Wilde and everyone else is doing while the play is going on. The play is just so damn good that I never wanted to leave, so that layout worked out for me. Brandon, was that something you enjoyed as well? Would you have preferred more scenes that were not part of the actual Salome play?

Brandon: While I appreciated Russell’s playfulness in burying the play under several layers of metatextual remove, I don’t know that diving any deeper into the off-stage narrative would’ve added anything to this film’s entertainment value. It makes sense for Russell to include Wilde’s off-stage antics in the brothel for a couple reasons: to help highlight their shared qualities as button-pushing provocateurs and to give shape to the brothel’s otherwise slight production of Salome. The onstage performance is presented almost as a series of living tableaus, where the actors’ costuming & positioning against the hand-painted backdrops is far more outrageous & attention-grabbing than any of the spoken dialogue. There’s almost a John Waters Community Theatre quality to the play, wherein total freaks endlessly rhapsodize about how gorgeous they are – only interrupting those breathlessly horny rants for an occasional fart joke or dance break. As fun and as wonderfully artificial as that production can be, it’s also a huge relief to occasionally drift away from it to check in on Wilde’s escapades as a half-attentive audience. He gropes the staff, ruthlessly critiques their acting skills, and fires off a few of his infamously dry witticisms as a form of self-amusement (including a particularly great one about how brothels “combine business with pleasure”), seemingly bored by the onstage tableaus. I was not bored by this stage production of Salome, but it was still funny hearing that potential complaint in real time from the author of its source material. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that to justify being there.

Overall, I found this movie to be a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Ken Russell’s specialty. It often feels more like Russell doing Derek Jarman or a Cockettes stage show than Russell doing Oscar Wilde, so it was smart for the director to include an in-the-flesh avatar for Wilde onscreen, injecting the writer’s more idiosyncratic quirks into an adaptation of his play that doesn’t especially highlight them (the way a straightforward adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest might have). I totally get Russell’s decision to stage Salome with that metatextual remove, as it allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapdifire dry humor and the director’s sopping wet everything else. What I’m much less clear on is whether there’s any significance to the movie being set on Guy Fawkes Night in particular. Boomer, is there any textual or historical significance you can glean from this private, brothel-set staging of Salome occurring on that uniquely British holiday? Or did that register as just as significant of a detail as the fart jokes and the hand-painted moon?

Boomer: Is there any figure in English history more widely misunderstood in the pop cultural consciousness than Guy Fawkes? His exaggerated likeness went from centuries-old scapegoat mask to symbol of anti-tyranny in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then to wider infamy with that graphic novel’s 2005 film adaptation, and then as the mask of online hacktivism group Anonymous. In all of his popular culture incarnations, Fawkes is a man of progress fighting for liberty against an oppressive state, but in reality Fawkes himself wasn’t … that.

Most of our readers probably already know this but just to be safe (and as Cliffs Notes as I can make it): infamously, Henry VIII blamed his wife/wives for giving him nothing but daughters (and thus no mail heir to the throne, as the law sort of dictated and tradition clearly required) and, since the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him divorce any of them, he created his own, new church (The Church of England, aka the Anglican faith) with blackjack and hookers with the option to let him trade in his wife for a new model without having to do all that beheading (which he still did sometimes anyway). He was immediately succeeded by his (Anglican) nine year old son Edward VI, and upon Eddie 6’s death at 16, the crown passed to Edward’s (Catholic) sister Mary. Better known as Bloody Mary, she attempted to return property that had been acquired by the state back to Catholic control but was largely prevented from doing so by Parliament, but that didn’t stop her from burning 280 (Protestant) people at the stake for religious dissent. When she died, there was yet another hullabaloo that eventually led to her (Protestant but, like, mostly pragmatic about it) sister, Elizabeth becoming the Queen of England. Elizabeth never had any children of her own and went to her deathbed saying “nah” to requests that she name an heir, there was another succession debate that resulted in her nephew James (also a Protestant but hyperfixated on the heresy of witchcraft rather than the heresy of Catholicism), Mary’s son, being coronated as the new king.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Catholics to assassinate James I solely because he was a Protestant (and a fairly tolerant one at that, having seen how the people turned on his mother for her religious persecution). Guy Fawkes was just a guy from York who had been fighting in Spain during a time when Spain and England were allied (mostly because they were both Catholic states) and was so unhappy that everything was so Protestant now that he went so far as to petition the Spanish throne to turn their attention toward retaking England, for Catholicism. His job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder, but he was caught, and the whole thing fell apart; this lead to the declaration of November 5 as Guy Fawkes Night, which became the primary commemoration of England as a nation-state (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Independence Day) as well as a focus for anti-Catholic sentiments. Eventually, things got so heated that Guy Fawkes Night may as well have been The Purge for Catholics, but reform eventually nerfed that element of the proceedings until GFN was essentially little more than a name for a celebration that was mostly divorced from its roots (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Labor Day, which was originally created as a celebration of the Labor movement and is now mostly a holiday for the enemies of Labor to get 50% off jeans while Laborers … labor), becoming just a holiday.

Historically, Wilde’s actual arrest occurred in late May 1895, at nearly the opposite side of the calendar cycle as early-November’s Guy Fawkes Night; Russell, as a Briton himself, would know this and wouldn’t have made such a significant change without reason. Or would he? Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, was beheaded like John the Baptist, but his decapitation was postmortem (in order for his head to be exhibited outside of Parliament as a warning, as you do). He did die (of being shot) clutching a portrait of the Virgin Mary, who was John the Baptist’s aunt. But really, that’s grasping at very tenuous threads. There’s little that correlates Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot to Wilde or Salome. Salome as a figure of myth/history is technically royal and the Gunpowder Plot revolves around an attempt at a religious coup via regicide, but the two events are fairly different otherwise. One could sift to find some relationship between Salome’s existence as Herod’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage and the succession crisis (that at least partially revolved around kingship transferring from Edward VI to Mary, his stepsister from his father’s previous marriage) that eventually led to James I’s reign, but that’s really pushing it. Biblically, Salome isn’t even given a name and is mentioned only as Herodias’s daughter, and we only have a name for her because of Titus Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (completed ca. 93 or 93 C.E.). There are some who argue that Salome the Disciple (one of the tenders of Jesus at the crucifixion and witness to his empty tomb, depending upon the gospel in question) and Salome the daughter of Herodias could be the same person, and that admittedly makes for a fun redemption arc Bible headcanon if that’s your bag, but most scholars hold that the latter Salome was the sister of Mary.

Beyond that, one is hard pressed to find a connection between GFN/The Gunpowder Plot and Salome/Wilde other than this: despite how they have been interpreted by right wing regressives in the present, the teachings of Jesus were iconoclastic and progressive, and the decapitation John the Baptist as both his harbinger and hype man could be interpreted as the state’s execution of a rabble-rousing progressive dissident; if one sees Fawkes as an analog of Herod II, pushing for a return to a more regressive, conservative form of governance, it almost works. But not quite. Maybe all he wanted was for future viewers to watch the film annually on GFN? Move over, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, it’s time for the real debate: “Is The Last Dance of Salome a Guy Fawkes Night movie?”

One of the things that I found puzzling while watching the film was the presence of ciswomen actors as women in the play and its framing device. Every plot summary of Last Dance online notes that the film takes place in “an all-male brothel,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of the ostensibly cisgender topless women serving in the ensemble or Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome/Rose. It’s possible that I’m very wrong about this (the copy of this film that I saw was the one that’s grainy, free on YouTube, and subtitled in Spanish), but I’m guessing that there was a body double used in the final, full monty frame of Salome’s dance itself, which makes me curious about the casting, given that I can find no evidence that Millais-Scott is trans. Does this casting of a ciswoman as a man-portraying-a-woman read strangely to you, Hanna? Given that Millais-Scott’s powerhouse performance is the biggest draw in the film (at least for me), I’m not sure I would have preferred this be done a different way, but I’m of two minds. After all, men portrayed all roles, including women, for a huge chunk of British theatrical history. What do you think?

Hanna: In general, I was a little torn by this too. Why not feature an all-male performance for Oscar Wilde, especially given the history of British theatre? I would have loved a glitzy, dragged-up rendition of Salome. On the other hand, since the premise of the film is that Salome is so publicly subversive that Oscar Wilde can only view its performance behind the walls of a brothel and women were banned from performing onstage in England until the 1660s, the use of female actresses would technically be the more subversive choice for that time (although that point was probably moot by the late 1800s).

Regarding Millais-Scott’s casting specifically, I actually didn’t think that she was cast as a man portraying a woman; I thought that Rose was a cisgender female chambermaid for the brothel playing Salome, not a male worker, and that the appearance of the body double – dubbed “Phoney Salome” in the credits –was meant to be a prank on Herod within the play (i.e., Herod got horny for an anonymous male slave and Salome never really danced for him) and a scintillating little show for Wilde. I would guess that the bare-breasted guards were also workers in the brothel. That being said, I truly have no idea what actually happened – that’s just my best guess.

If I’m wrong about the casting and Rose/Salome is meant to be a male actor playing a woman in the film, it might have bothered me if the role had been taken by any other cis-woman. As it is, I wouldn’t trade Millais-Scott’s mesmerizing performance for anything, and if it were up to me, I would probably shirk gendered roles and British theatre history to feature her. Her Keatsian monologue with John the Baptist was equal parts hypnotic and bratty, and has significantly contributed to my arsenal of obsessive, lusty similes. That scene alone was worth the $3.99 rental.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love the costume design in this movie, especially the costumes for Herodias and Salome. It’s all a mix of BDSM, pageant drag, and Victorian fashion. The costume designer, Micheal Arrals, is only credited for this one film, and I can’t find much about him online. I want to know more about this mysterious genius!

Hanna: My first exposure to the story of Salome was stumbling upon the grotesque and gorgeous illustrations that Aubrey Beardsley produced for Wilde’s original run of his play (especially “The Dancer’s Reward”). Those illustrations and Salome’s Last Dance compel me for the same reasons: they are intricately and ornately detailed, a little bloody, and horny as all get-out. Those illustrations were highly regarded by Wilde, and in my opinion, Russell did a fantastic job of bringing that mood to his adaptation.

Boomer: Thank you for indulging me in my recapitulation of various English succession crises. For a film that features an entirely male cast performing a play in which they inhabit men and women’s roles, I recommend Lilies. If you’re interested, the single-Salome interpretation noted above (that she was both Herodias’s daughter and later a disciple), was an idea probably influenced the narrative of the 1953 film Salome with Rita Hayworth in the title role.

Brandon: This conversation concludes five full years of Movie of the Month discussions, a tradition we’ve continued since our very first month blogging as a crew. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve ever doubled up on any one particular director over all those years, having previously covered Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (still one of my all-time favorite films) back in May of 2015. I’m proud of the wide breadth of movies we’ve discussed so far with this project. I’m also proud that when we inevitably cycled back it was for Ken Russell in particular. It couldn’t have happened to a bigger pervert.

Next month: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #118 of The Swampflix Podcast: She Dies Tomorrow (2020) & Killer Conversation

Welcome to Episode #118 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon and Hanna discuss three cosmic horror films about lethal language, starting with She Dies Tomorrow (2020).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Monster Brawl (2011)

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 Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Monster Brawl (2011).

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.

Lagniappe

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

Episode #116 of The Swampflix Podcast: All About Almodóvar

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).

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

-Hanna Räsänen and Brandon Ledet