Movie of the Month: Girl Walk // All Day (2011)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer & Britnee watch Girl Walk // All Day (2011).

Brandon: Mashup DJ Gregg Gillis, better known by the stage name Girl Talk, releases all of his sample-based mixtapes for free through an imprint collective named Illegal Art. This isn’t necessarily a choice based in artistic integrity (although Gillis himself does have a lot to say about the legitimacy of copyright laws), but rather a product of the circumstance that Girl Talk tapes would be illegal to sell commercially. In an industry where hip-hop artists & pop music producers are careful not to get sued over borrowed melodies & uncleared samples, Gillis composes his music entirely out of repurposed, previously copyrighted material. His work as Girl Talk is fantastic party music, but it’s also commercial suicide. I assume Gillis makes most of his money mixing songs at live gigs since the art he’s most well known for is decidedly “illegal”.

Having this uncopyrightable material floating around out there has its advantages, though. For instance, a rogue dance crew could, say, make a full-length music video centered around one of your mixtapes without any fear of legal persecution (at least not from the DJ). Girl Walk // All Day is a movie-length dance video constructed around Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day (which is still his most recent full-length mashup release). The film (and I do think it qualifies as a legitimate film) seems to take Gillis’s “illegal art” imprint as a mission statement. Stealing its soundtrack & candid reactions from outside sources and operating around what presumably had to be permitless film shoots, Girl Walk // All Day has an inherent sense of danger at its center that makes the film feel like it shouldn’t exist. Yet, its star dancer Anne Marsen (billed simply as “The Girl”) brings a childlike exuberance to every scene that makes the movie feel like it does have a right to exist even if it’s on earthquake-scale shaky ground legally, as if good vibes & positive intentions should outweigh any potential scandal. Girl Walk // All Day is frequently removed from YouTube & broken into annoying chapter segments on Vimeo due to its inability to secure an official release, but when you watch the film you’re left wondering exactly why someone (or some corporation) would want to crush or erase a work so joyful & goodhearted in the first place, uncleared music samples or no.

Legality aside, I feel like the first thing we have to address about Girl Walk // All Day is whether or not it has a legitimate claim as a feature film. It screened at film festivals, it made critic David Elrich’s Top Films of 2012 countdown, it has several narrative arcs that run throughout its 74 minute runtime (one about The Girl’s personal growth as an antonymous woman, one about a love triangle where she’s caught between The Creep & The Gentleman, and one about the sprawling structure of NYC), but it’s easy to see how someone could brush the film off as an overlong music video. Britnee, where do you fall on this divide? Is Girl Walk // All Day a modern spin on the dying art of the cinematic musical or does its thin, near dialogue-free narrative exclude it from consideration as a legitimate motion picture?

Britnee: First and foremost, I was unaware of the legality issues with Girl Talk’s music prior to this conversation. I always thought that he had permission to use all the popular music samples in his mashups. I’m far from being a Girl Talk expert, but the thought just never crossed my mind. It’s amazing how his musical career is so huge while he’s surrounded with so many copyright issues. This makes Girl Walk // All Day seem so dirty, and I like that.

As for your question of Girl Walk // All Day being considered an actual film, I would have to say that it’s most definitely a legitimate film. I can also see how some would consider it to be an “overlong music video,” but I consider many music videos to be the equivalent of short films. Take Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” or, more recently, Adele’s “Hello” music videos for example. How could those not be considered cinema? Music videos are directed, contain acting, and tell a story. Is that not what makes a film, well, a film? Girl Walk // All Day does contain quite an interesting plot, and although the film contains no dialogue whatsoever, emotions are portrayed through expressive dance and facial expressions. That doesn’t make it less of a film; it just makes it a little different.

The dancing in Girl Walk // All Day was so contagious. Just watching The Girl dance her heart out all over New York City gave me such a sense of freedom, to the point that I was getting a bit lightheaded (I was only drinking water during the viewing). Boomer, if you were one of the many bystanders during this film’s production, would you join The Girl in quick jig or would you walk on by? Did you find her to be a likable main character or did you find her to be annoying and intrusive? What exactly did you make of The Girl?

Boomer: That’s a good question. At multiple points throughout the film, I found myself identifying with many of the people that The Girl encounters, the willing and unwilling participants alike. Although several of these passersby seemed disinterested in participating, she actively seemed confrontational with many of them (the one which stands out in my mind is the man whose hand she grabs while wearing the “Dance With Me” sandwich board), which didn’t sour me on the character but did leave a bit of a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Having lived in a few different cities, I can certainly say that my experiences with unsolicited engagement with others is not always pleasant. Over the course of the film, I found myself very much wanting to dance with The Girl in theory, but I don’t know if I would have actually had that desire in practice and in the moment. It’s pretty unlikely that the Girl Talk tracks that appear in the film were diegetic, given the movement from place to place and general public reaction, and as such I feel like my first instinct would be to avoid a potentially dangerous person approaching me, dancing to a song that I cannot hear. Other factors, like what kind of mood I might happen to be in when The Girl chanced upon me and whether I was in a hurry to get to work or another engagement would also affect how willing I would be to join in her movements, sublime though they might be. I want to answer your question with a resounding “Yes,” but I just don’t know if I would actually do so should the opportunity arise.

I’m talking, of course, about those scenes in which she is dancing through crowds and on the streets. Some of the Staten Island ferriers are utterly disinterested in her performance, and many of the people who seem taken aback by her look like NYC tourists to me. It makes sense that residents would be nonplussed by The Girl and her apparent mania, in contrast to visitors who are less accustomed to every performer within a 25 mile radius desperately fighting for attention and notice. Still, as fun and flouncy as the narrative is, there was an undercurrent to it that felt off, as none of the people captured on film seemed to have given their prior consent to being filmed, which is troubling despite how much joy I, as a passive observer, got out of the performance. I don’t know that I would find her annoying, and I really wish I could unequivocally say that I would have given in to the movement, but I know that I would have found her intrusive.

That may be why I got more enjoyment out of the less candid scenes. The opening scene in the ballet class and the overpass breakdancing dance off were a lot more fun to me, as was The Girl’s voguing in an alley with no other people around. There’s an exhilaration to the street scenes that I would find anxiety-inducing were I to be involved as a performer, and I like that the more rehearsed sequences felt a little calmer (but no less exciting) in that regard. Still, I didn’t care for The Creeper dancing with flowers in the park, despite the fact that it was one of the sequences that did not feature non-performers. It lacked some of the verisimilitude (insofar as that word has any meaning in a film like this) of the rest of the film, and I found it lacking as a result. What do you think, Brandon? Did you prefer the sequences that featured random people being pulled into the mix, or the more standard, “closed set” sequences?

Brandon: The individual set-ups in Girl Walk // All Day work for me on kind of a case-by-case basis. There’s so much going on in this film (which, although manicured to an extent, must’ve been a chaotic shoot) that each of the moving parts can be hit or miss depending on the execution. I’d agree that the closed set shoots do feel more purposeful in a general sense than the candid shots of The Girl interacting with the public do, but they sort of have to for the film to make sense narratively. Take, for instance, the graveyard flowers scene Boomer just mentioned. It’s a somewhat jarring tangent when the flowers first appear because they exist outside the Girl-Creep-Gentleman dynamic we’re used to until that point. However, the scene does carry a lot of significance to the film in a narrative sense, since it’s in that moment that The Creep literally grows a heart inside that dancing skeleton of his and makes the transition from antagonist to socially inept beau. The only “scripted” scenes I was lukewarm to, honestly, were the ones centered on The Gentleman, since he was the most static, least interesting character of the central trio. I guess it was fun for a moment to watch the random hardcore parkour dude steal his hat, but that’s about all there is worth mentioning.

As for the candid video interactions with the public, I think Anne Marsen’s performance as The Girl has a lot to do with how they go individually. She has an insanely infectious smile that can make you want to join in as well as a cartoonish grimace that can make you want to back way, way off. Marsen has incredible control over her physical language & expression (as I’m sure most talented dancers must) that can make interactions either inviting or confrontational depending on her desired effect. I’m in total agreeance with Boomer that the discomfort of these scenarios isn’t something I’d necessarily want to live through as a passerby, but The Girl’s mock aggression does make for some especially great moments in the film. I’m thinking not only of the aforementioned “Dance With Me” sandwich board sequence where she’s shown mentally unraveling & a scenario where’s she’s booted from a baseball game by the nonplussed security team, but particularly of the glorious moment when The Girl appears loaded with shopping mall ephemera in a high society fashion bitch outfit to taunt Occupy Wall Street protestors. It’s a beautifully over-the-top exchange that not only solidifies Girl Walk // All Day as a work of highly-functional performance art, but also a document of a very specific moment for NYC/America at large.

In most cases it’d be a massive cliché to say that New York City itself is a character in a piece of film criticism, but I feel that faux pas is inescapable here as it’s quite literally true. Not only are citizens (and tourists) of NYC roped into the production as performers, but The Girl’s personal journey (into adulthood? autonomy?) is more or less told through a guided tour of The Five Boroughs. Historical markers like Occupy Wall Street & the pop songs Girl Talk samples on the soundtrack are also very specific to the cultural zeitgeist of a particular time. Britnee, how much different would Girl Walk // All Day be if this physical & temporal setting were shifted? How different would the film be if it were set in, say, 2016 New Orleans? Are the time & place of its setting and the era of its pop music soundtrack entirely essential to its existence the way they’d be in a documentary?

Britnee: I’m quite unfamiliar with NYC as I have never visited the city nor do I personally know any residents, so I probably missed a good bit of symbolism that NYC offered Girl Walk // All Day. However, I am not that out of the loop and thoroughly enjoyed the hilarious yet profound Occupy Wall Street scene. I do think that the film would be very different if set in a different time and place. Music style and social issues change through time and by location, and these are major components of the film. The film’s essential message of self-acceptance and personal freedom might be the only thing that would not be all that different if this film were not set in 2011 NYC. It’s interesting that you brought up the question of the whether or not the film’s setting and music serve the same importance in the film as in a documentary. I definitely think that the importance of time and place in Girl Walk // All Day is very similar to that of a documentary. Her actions and the film’s music would hold a different meaning if she were to dance through Miami in the late 1980s or Atlantic City in the 1930s.

If set in modern day New Orleans, the film would be slightly different as New Orleans seems to be really different from NYC. Current issues New Orleans faces include gentrification, social segregation, and uncontrollable crime. I’m sure that the same issues occur in NYC, but not on the same level as they do in New Orleans. I can imagine The Girl dancing up a storm out in the Bywater to one of those extra-long bounce remixes Q-93 plays on Saturday nights. As she dances her way through the neighborhoods, life-long residents pack moving trucks while white upper middle-class families unpack moving trucks, carrying boxes to their new homes. Oh, and she would need to definitely leave that windbreaker behind since it’s always hot as hell down here.

Boomer, would you like to see more films in the style of Girl Walk // All Day? What particular album (from any artist) would you like to see turned into a film? And where would the setting be?

Boomer: Oh man, what a great question. The first album that springs to mind is The Decemberists’ Picaresque, if only because that album already has a particularly narrative quality. A film version of Picaresque would have to take a different approach, acting as more of a series of vignettes through which a dancer could travel; I would also see this as having more of an exaggerated, fantastic visual leitmotif, perhaps moving through several different areas inside a vast theater with individual plots being acted out in different small set pieces (or perhaps I’m just being too influenced by the album artwork in my imagining, as the characters I’m picturing all have the same ghoulish, caked-on white makeup as the members of the band). I would also love to see a film set entirely to Visions by Grimes; I imagine it as a Miyazaki style animated feature following Grimes herself as she makes her solitary, heroic way through a colorful jungle, a barren desert, a village full of people who refuse to interact with her (maybe they’re ghosts?), and other familiar Hero’s Journey locations, with each new track bringing her to a new locale.

Moving back to something more grounded (again, as much as that word can apply to anything in Girl Walk), I’m having a hard time trying to think of a particular album that’s actually New Orleansy enough to work in this context. Although they’re Brooklyn-based (or were 5 years ago, the last time they updated their Facebook page), I’ve always thought that Snakes Say Hisss! had a dirty South synth aspect to them, and I’ll Be Loving You feels right for something like Girl Walk filtered through a South Louisiana lens. The film could start in the Bywater (I imagining the film opening just like the video for NOLA-based Jean-Eric’s track “Better than Good”) with “Talk,” then move into the Marigny with “We Are Hot” before getting deep into the Quarter with the next few tracks before hitting the CBD with “Take It Slow” and “Right Behind You” (this track in particular makes me think of the rich carpetbaggers in suits hanging around the offices near Ampersand and Jos. a Bank). “I Control the Wind” is totally MidCity, as is “Avalon,” despite its region-specific references. I could go on, but I encourage people to listen to the album and trace their own journey, really. Of course, this runs the risk of locking non-Louisianans out of the loop, but that’s never really been a concern for large scale productions set on the coasts, has it?

Lagniappe

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Britnee: I love how this film made me insanely happy the entire time. There wasn’t a moment when I felt even the slightest bit disinterested. Films that contain the amount of good vibes given off in Girl Walk // All Day are a rarity.

Boomer: I agree with Britnee; this movie was a delight and it made me want to dance. In the intervening time since the viewing, I’ve found myself dancing to myself in spite of the general inappropriateness of the given situation. And although this isn’t a complaint (merely a fact of life), I’m with Britnee in her hesitant appreciation for the NYC-specificity of the film overall. I recently had a conversation with a friend (well, a member of a rival trivia team, but whatever) who was shocked that we were familiar with the Queensborough Bridge. He hails from New Jersey and was shocked that Southerners would know about a relatively unremarkable landmark in New York; I had to explain to him that all of America lives under the iron fist of NYC’s cultural stranglehold, for better or worse. Still, given the rate at which gentrification is rotting the soul of that city (as it is in New Orleans, and here in my new home in Austin), it’s entirely possible that Girl Walk may one day be remembered as one of the last pieces of real art to come out of the boroughs before all the artists actually starved to death.

Brandon: Besides whole-heartedly backing Britnee’s concept for a New Orleans version of Girl Walk set to a Q-93 Social Shakedown mix (not a bad idea for a Kickstarter campaign, honestly), I’d also like to conclude my thoughts here by highlighting my favorite section of the film: the shopping mall sequence. Just before The Girl emerges to taunt the Occupy Wall Street crowd, she gets through a butterfly-like metamorphosis at the shopping malls of Times Square. I’m typically a sucker for shopping mall delirium in film, anyway; it’s usually the imagery that sticks out for me when it’s done right, with Clueless, The Night of the Comet, Invasion USA, and the 2007 Dawn of the Dead remake being a few key examples off the top of my head. However, I think part of the reason it sticks out so much here is that it’s one of the better moments where The Girl is allowed to focus on herself instead of her place in the Girl-Creep-Gentleman love triangle. The self-reflective nature of consumerist pleasures like make-overs & fashion upgrades provides The Girl a lot of personal space to emerge as an oversexed butterfly in a moment that oddly glorifies & satirizes femininity as a performance & an identity.

This sequence always makes me so happy & by the time The Girl appears crunking in her Tell Me About It, Stud leather get-up at the end of it, I always get a little overly giddy. If the idea of watching Girl Walk // All Day in its entirety sounds a little too exhausting for some folks, I at least suggest checking out that particular chapter in isolation, especially since the film is often broken down into those rigid divisions anyway (instead of its ideal state as a fluid, continuous work).

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
June: Britnee presents Alligator (1980)
July: Boomer presents Citizen Ruth (1996)

-The Swampflix Crew

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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I was at first a little overwhelmed by the idea of a N.W.A biopic stretching out for a 147min runtime, but as I was watching Straight Outta Compton in the theater its length gradually began to make total sense. It’s an incredibly thorough biopic, digging not only into the cultural & political climate surrounding the group’s origins, but also the aftermath of their falling out & disbanding. Even at 2.5 hours, not everything was covered & large swaths of historical accuracy were tossed aside in favor of a tight narrative & an indulgence in a killer 90’s aural & temporal vibe. Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant. When a sample wraps up the music video portion of the end credits by proclaiming “Damn, that shit was dope!” (the very same sample that concludes the song the film’s named after) it was difficult to disagree.

Because stories ultimately belong to those still around to tell them, the film’s narrative is undoubtedly bent towards the stories of Ice Cube & Dr. Dre, who are both credited as producers here. In a lot of ways they use the film as a sort of redemption piece, reshaping their personal history to include a reconciliation with departed group member Eazy-E, who lost his life to HIV-related health complications at a young age. The real-life tale as long as I’ve known it has been that the group never truly resolved their very public feuds (a deeply ugly mess of shoddy contracts, legal disputes, and diss tracks) while Eazy was still alive. The movie version cleans that mess up in an unbelievably tidy way perhaps more fit for the likes of a made-for-TV TLC biopic, but that tendency towards a clear A-B narrative feels entirely intentional. There’s a scene late in the film where Cube confronts Eazy for calling out his acting debut Boyz n the Hood for being “an afterschool special” & Eazy responds “I like afterschool specials.” The simple, clean redemption story Straight Outta Compton tells doesn’t feel at all far from that sentiment.

So according to this romanticized, cleaned-up folklore, Dre was the group’s seminal producer, Cube was responsible for its best writing, and Eazy held down the majority of the raw talent, street cred, and business acumen. Folks like MC Ren, DJ Yella, and The D.O.C. are not only sidelined, but sometimes they’re even downplayed as lesser talents to make the film’s holy gangsta rap trinity shine all the brighter. Yella, for instance, shoulders most of the blame for Dre’s involvement in the Prince-influenced, sexually ambiguous funk days of the Worldclass Wreckin’ Cru & other club gigs that required him to wear sequins & play mindless party records. Ren gets the real short end of the stick here, though, verbally thrown under the bus as an inferior lyricist that couldn’t hold down the crew after Ice Cube’s departure. As a fan of the group’s entire output (and Ren’s solo records for that matter), these claims sting a little, but just as the fudging of the Eazy redemption story makes for a clearer narrative, dissing Ren in the script does actually make sense story-wise (even if it’s a shame that he only raps a total of three verses in the entire film to make more room for Cube, Dre, and Eazy).

If the film didn’t capture the entirety of the group members individual nuances, it at least got the imagery down. Actors Corey Hawkins & O’Shea Jackson, Jr. look & sound incredibly similar to the roles they’re playing (Dre & Cube, respectively), with Jackson having the distinct advantage (and possible awkwardness) of portraying his own father. New Orleans native Jason Mitchell pulls the hat trick of not only looking & sounding like Eazy-E, but also outshining his fellow cast members as a damn good actor, bringing to life what turns out to be one of the group’s more interesting & complicated characters. R. Marcos Taylor & speaking of Love & Mercy, Paul Giamatti (playing infamous record industry tyrants Suge Knight & Jerry Heller) aren’t nearly as visually accurate in their roles as the film’s villains, but they do provide an all-too-believable menace to their scenes that allow them to get by more as archetypes than carbon copies. The only actor who looks jarringly out of place here is a brief appearance by an absurdly inaccurate Snoop Dogg, but that’s more than made up by the likeness of the rest of the cast, an appearance from a Tupac lookalike so accurate he could’ve been a hologram, and clips of the “Straight Outta Compton” music video shown at the end credits to remind you just how detailed the film’s attention to visual preciseness was.

Visual & historical accuracy aside, director F. Gary Gray should get a lot of credit here for creating a wildly entertaining biopic with exactly zero deviations from the genre’s format. This is a movie that somehow makes room to capture our current cultural 90s fetishization, ludicrously timely reflections on race-based police brutality that are sadly just as potent now as they were in the days of Rodney King, and an extended gag that calls back to the infamous “Bye, Felicia” line in Gray’s debut film (and original collaboration with Ice Cube) Friday. Instead of calling into question N.W.A’s more unsavory attributes, namely their misogyny & homophobia, Gray just lets them play themselves out. Misogyny is on display in hedonistic, music video style pool & hotel parties where women are treated like party favors (sometimes literally tossed around like objects) & homophobic rants are allowed to be voiced in Ice Cube’s infamous diss tracks & Eazy’s reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Straight Outta Compton makes no moral judgements about its subjects, but rather just more or less portrays them as they were.

There’s some glorification inherent to the biopic format here & a lot of ground was breezily glossed over (including contributions from names like Vanilla Ice, Bone Thugs, Above the Law, and J.J. Fad), but it’s unwise to nitpick too many of Gray’s decisions here, since the final product is so enjoyable & packed-to-the-gills as is. It’s not only successful as an aurally & visually beautiful slice of N.W.A fan service, but it’s also a great primer for younger folks who mostly know Ice Cube as an actor & Dre as Eminem’s buddy who peddles expensive headphones. Even as a longtime fan, I learned a thing or two along the way (most excitingly that Eazy-E once dined with President George H. W. Bush). Gray competently captures the social & political climates that gave birth to his infamous subject as well as the context of their dissolution’s aftermath (even if he intentionally fuzzes up the details in-between), but the story he tells in Straight Outta Compton is mostly remarkable in how fun & rewatchable it is without at all straying from its biopic format. He used an already well-established narrative structure as a bottle to capture the lighting that was what the made the group so special & their songs so endlessly listenable to this day. That’s no small feat & the final product ended up being one of my favorite trips to the theater all year.

-Brandon Ledet

Blame It On the Streets (2014)

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Keenon Dae’quan Ray Jackson, better known as YG, produced Blame It On the Streets, a short film that offers an interesting look into what his everyday life in Compton was like prior to his success and fame as a rapper. What was intended to be a short film was more like an extra long music video without the music. There is a soundtrack that was created to accompany the film, but the film only contains short clips of YG’s songs. The lack of music was disappointing because the film was intended to illustrate the meanings behind several of his songs, such as “Meet the Flockers,” but it’s difficult to make that connection without the songs actually being in the film.

Blame It On the Streets wasn’t very good, but I highly doubt that YG wanted to make a cinematic masterpiece. The acting was very bland and the storyline was sort of all over the place, but despite all of its flaws, the film did hold my interest for its entire 28 minutes. There was a drive by, a high-speed police chase, a robbery, and loads of inappropriate language, so there was never a dull moment. One of my favorite scenes was when YG and his pals robbed a home in an Asian neighborhood in broad daylight. They didn’t have any gloves to mask their fingerprints, so they wore long black socks on their hands. It really lightened the mood.

Blame It On the Streets is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas