Babylon (2022)

“Welcome to the asshole of Los Angeles.”

Spending the holidays with family was a healthy shake-up for me after a couple years of COVID-related isolation, which only compounded my usual, longstanding reluctance to travel to rural & suburban Louisiana.  Getting outside the city meant getting outside my bubble, and I talked to a few distant loved ones about movies without being able to cite relatively popular artists like Bergman, Lynch, and Cronenberg as household names.  Meanwhile, actual household name Steven Spielberg’s magic-of-the-movies memoir The Fabelmans was being categorized as elitist snobbery for Julliard graduates on Twitter, and every movie without a blue space alien in it was drowning at the box office.  And if you count cameos, at least one movie with a blue space alien was drowning too.  Damien Chazelle’s Babylon sank while James Cameron’s Avatar sequel soared, and it was impossible not to fret over the two films’ disparate levels of success, since the madman Chazelle dared to include a few frames of Cameron’s Na’vi creatures in his film’s climactic Movies-Through-The-Years montage.  The financial failure of Chazelle’s star-studded movie industry drama sounds surprising in the abstract, but after a few days of talking about movies with people who don’t often Talk About Movies it makes total sense to me.  Caring about the craft & history of cinema as an artform is a niche interest, even when the cinema itself is populist media.  The thing is that Babylon is explicitly about that exact disconnect: the horrifying gap between how much general audiences love to be entertained by The Movies and how indifferent those audiences are to the lives & wellbeing of the people who make them.

The obvious reasons for Babylon‘s financial failure extend far beyond expectations that general audiences would share its nerdy academic interest in the century-old history of pre-Code Hollywood moviemaking.  If anything, Chazelle’s $80mil flop is most impressive in how eager it is to alienate its audience, regardless of its movie-nerd subject matter.  It’s a three-hour, coke-fueled montage on double-speed that not only indicts the unwashed masses for our indifference to the artistry behind our favorite movies but also assaults our eyes with every fluid the human body can produce.  Piss, shit, tears, blood, puke, and cum all dutifully grace the screen in their own time, with the piss & shit ticked off the checklist early on to help set the tone.  Modern-day movie stars Brad Pitt & Margot Robbie suffer the same rough transition from silents to talkies that has been mythologized as the downfall of Early Hollywood since as far back as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Only, their backstage debauchery between productions is cranked to a year-round Mardi Gras bacchanal never before depicted with so much onscreen hedonistic excess.  It’s enough to make you want to puke yourself, if not only from the carsick momentum of the film’s manic pacing, which rarely slows down from its intercutting dialogue barrages to stage a genuine scene of real-time drama.

Because its characters are more symbolic than dramatic (directly recalling past industry castoffs like Clara Bow, Louis Armstrong, and Anna Mae Wong), Babylon is often more interesting for what it’s trying to say on a big-picture scale than it is for its scene-to-scene drama.  I was particularly struck by the way its repetition of Singin’ in the Rain‘s talkies-downfall plot is directly acknowledged in the text, with Babylon consciously positioning itself as yet another example of Hollywood’s cyclical, self-cannibalizing nature.  When most movies cite the magic of cinema being greater and more enduring than the people who make it, it’s coming from a place of awe & respect for the artform.  Here, Chazelle projects pure disgust & horror.  In its mission-statement climax, our low-level-fixer-turned-high-level producer POV character Manny (Diego Calva) watches caricatures of his dead friends & colleagues mocked as comic archetypes at a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, then slips into a subliminal montage of the next 100 years of Hollywood-spectacle filmmaking, with each successive title—Un Chien Andelou, The Wizard of Oz, 2001, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Avatar, etc.—building on and borrowing from the past for its own in-the-moment splendor until there’s no splendor left to go around.  Chazelle even shamelessly participates in this ritual himself, as Babylon can easily be passed off a cruder, shallower Hail, Caesar! crammed into a Boogie Nights-shaped box. It’s an ungenerous reading of how cinema perpetually “borrows” from itself in a way that feels like homage but rarely acknowledges or takes care of the real-life people who built its founding texts.  And when Manny snaps out of it to gawk at the uncaring, unknowledgeable audience cackling at ghosts of his loved ones, the tragedy of his cruelly perpetual industry hits way harder than any of the character deaths that sparked his melancholy in the first place.

I was most impressed with Babylon in its scale and in its eagerness to alienate casual moviegoing audiences.  It likely would have been better received if it were a 10-hour miniseries that allowed each of its overlapping character arcs to breathe (especially since it already intercuts their stories like a long-running soap opera anyway), but its manic tempo is exactly what makes it special among the million other movies about The Movies, so it was probably better off flopping than capitulating.  I also love that Chazelle projects such a sour view of moviemaking as an artform, a compulsory practice he immediately likens to dragging a diarrheal elephant uphill.  The only reason I don’t fully love this movie is I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve already seen it all before (even if at half-time pace), but that kind of complaint only plays into exactly what Chazelle is trying to say about Hollywood’s cyclical history here.  Even his climactic montage’s assertion that cinema has already reached its end—a death knell also sounded by the hundreds of click-bait articles that auto-populate every time a major production like Babylon flops—feels like a self-cannibalizing repetition of Hollywood lore.  How many times has cinema already “died”?  Did it die when the talkies ended the silent era, when television became affordable, when television went prestige, when normies began to stream?  Every generation thinks they’re going to be the last, and although one day they’ll be proven right, the cinemapocalypse has yet to fully come to fruition.  In the meantime, artists can only watch in horror as their work and their peers are absorbed, digested, and regurgitated by subsequent art movements they do not understand, with no wide audience recognition for how they contributed to that greater continuum.  Even the populist Spielbergs of the industry become historical, esoteric references in the long run, and there will come a time when Chazelle’s own name is synonymous with The Russo Brothers, Kevin Feige, and Michael Bay as dusty antiques only of interest to high-brow academics.

-Brandon Ledet

The Assistant (2020)

Although it was released earlier this year, The Assistant feels like it’s from an entirely different cultural era. I missed its brief run in New Orleans theaters (despite being a big fan of Kitty Green’s previous film, Casting JonBenét) because it arrived during Mardi Gras season and looked like too much of a bummer to squeeze in between parties and parades. Looking back on that time now, the idea of attending parties and parades is an outlandish, alien concept, as I’ve spent the past eight months (almost immediately following Mardi Gras) avoiding crowds like the plague – literally. As a cultural moment, 2020 has defined almost entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from the presidential election to simple grocery store trips has been shaped by COVID in some way, to the point where I no longer recognize the cultural moment that birthed The Assistant. While we are currently living in the COVID era at the tail end of 2020, The Assistant is a film firmly rooted in the #MeToo era that was still very much at the forefront of public discourse at the start of this year. The entertainment industry and workplace culture at large have been violently disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks & safety protocols to the point where The Assistant feels like it’s a retro dispatch from a prehistoric world with its own distinct horrors & abuses. That world is not dead, though; it’s just quietly dormant, soon to return the minute we’re back to “Business As Usual.”

The Assistant is deliberately self-contextualized as a #MeToo era film. Julia Garner (who’s been due for a rise-to-fame breakout at least as far back as 2013’s Electrick Children) stars as a young, low-level assistant to A Harvey Weinstein Type. Her movie producer boss is a faceless, malevolent presence in the office, referenced only by “he/him” pronouns as if speaking his name would be blasphemous to his status as the office God. He is a well-known abuser of vulnerable young women looking to break into the movie industry, an “open secret” in the office that no one does anything about (beyond making jokes under their breath or strongly discouraging official HR complaints). New to the office, the extent to which her boss’s sexual abuses are known, tolerated, and enabled becomes starkly apparent to the disillusioned protagonist over the course of one spectacularly shitty workday. While the sexual abuse of these women is perpetrated by one clear villain at the top of the office hierarchy, he is largely absent from the screen; The Assistant is mostly concerned with the culture that fosters & enables the abuse rather than the physical act itself. It’s a cold, miserable examination of bystander complicity, implicating even its babyfaced protagonist for her own inaction in the face of a system designed to protect its own (as they exploit everyone else for sport).

While The Assistant is rooted specifically in #MeToo abuses within the entertainment industry, it also hits home as a generalized depiction of how demeaning & exploitative all office culture labor is even under the most mundane circumstances. Watching Garner clean up after her boss’s paper jams, children, half-eaten trash, and mysterious couch stains (*shudder*) is relatably grim to anyone who’s ever worked an 8-5 office job in any context. She’s a powerless twenty-something child who’s pressured from all sides to prop up an evil system with meaningless tasks that eat up her time & labor. It’s brutal to watch, even for just a quiet 78-minute stretch. It’s even relatable to the labor exploitations of the COVID era, which has dragged me back to performing mundane day-to-day work in an enclosed office environment despite an ongoing, worsening pandemic – just to maintain the pageantry of “Normalcy.” I don’t mean to imply that The Assistant is no longer relevant to the post-COVID world just because the #MeToo hashtag is no longer the #1 political issue currently at the top of our cultural priority list. It’s more that it now registers as a horrific reminder of what “Back to Normal” will look like once we get past this COVID lockdown disruption; it looks fucking grim.

-Brandon Ledet

Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (2019)

Once upon a time in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino was a badboy troublemaker on the movie scene, heralding in a new era of post-modern indie filmmaking that could commercially compete with the major studios in a way that shook up the status quo. Then, over time, Tarantino became the status quo. The dream of the 90s indie scene faded away, but he remained largely unscathed as a Blank Check auteur who could make just about anything he wanted – no matter how self-indulgent, esoteric, or #problematic – merely because he was established at the right time and grandfathered in. That protected status cannot last forever. With Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, the rebel-turned-Establishment director directly grapples with his inevitable obsolescence as an artist who’s no longer “needed” by the industry and whose time is approaching the rearview mirror. If Tarantino is still a movie industry troublemaker, it’s because his Gen-X sensibilities are now an outdated taboo among the youths, no longer a revolutionary paradigm shift. To pretend that he’s still cinema’s troublemaking badboy at this stage of his career would be embarrassing. Instead, he leans into his newfound status as cinema’s grumpy old man, and it’s oddly invigorating.

To address the approaching obsolescence of his Gen-X shock humor & political apathy, Tarantino dials the clock back to another inter-generational dust-up between institutional dinosaurs & idols-smashing youths: the fall of Old Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt star, respectively, as a has-been Old Hollywood television actor and his personal assistant/stunt double – a pair of aging knucklehead brutes who sense their days of usefulness in Los Angeles are nearly at an end. In real life, the death of the Flower Power hippie movement and the birth of the New Hollywood movie industry upheaval are often marked by the brutal murder of Sharon Tate & friends at the hands of the Charles Manson cult – the gruesome epilogue to the Summer of Love. In this film, Tarantino daydreams an alternate history where Manson’s brainwashed devotees were disastrously unsuccessful in their mission the night of Tate’s murder, and the New Hollywood takeover never took off as a result. Margot Robbie puts in a supportive, periphery performance as Sharon Tate, who thrives blissfully unaware of the dark forces surrounding her. Tate lives a carefree life as a rising star just next door to DiCaprio’s fictional Old Hollywood hangover, whose stubborn refusal to fade away gracefully and amorous exploitation of his personal assistant eat up most of the (sprawling, near three-hour) runtime. This is largely a plotless hangout picture between a childlike employer and his dangerously quick-tempered employee, two men who cover up the uncomfortable power imbalance of their relationship by disguising it as a friendship. The Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate is treated as an unfortunate distraction from enjoying the final days of these men’s relationship & industry as they near extinction; it’s an incident Tarantino would prefer to delay for all eternity so that Old Hollywood itself would never die.

I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about. Even when Tarantino arrived on the scene as a prankish youngster in the 90s, his work was already mired in nostalgia for the dead genres & traditionalist sensibilities of the Studio System that died with the 1960s; he just updated them with cussing & gore. These early Gen-X remixes of old-fashioned crime pictures were at least stylized to be cool, though. Here, he extends that nostalgia for The Way Things Were to Old Hollywood relics that are hopelessly uncool, square even: radio ads, paint-by-numbers Westerns, network television, chain-smoking, toxically corny Dean Martin comedies, etc. The encroaching forces that threaten to break up this (largely alcoholic & abusive) boys’ club traditionalism are much easier to defend as hip & worthwhile (the looming presences of Roman Polanski & Charles Manson excluded): casual drug use, Anti-War counterculture youths, hardcore pornography’s intrusion on the mainstream, New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper (whose name is tossed off as an insult) & William Friedkin (whose early-career title The Night They Raided Minsky’s appears on one of many onscreen marquees), and so on. Positing that the stale machismo of Old Hollywood’s late-60s decline is preferable to the youthful auteurism that soon supplanted it is borderline delusional (and maybe even irresponsible), but it’s at least a distinct & interesting perspective, and it’s perversely fun to watch an increasingly bitter Tarantino defend it.

There isn’t much that’s new to the Tarantino formula here. The stylized dialogue, apathetic slacker humor, gruesomely over-the-top violence, post-modern restaging of ancient film genres, and pop culture name-dropping typical to his work all persist here in a stubborn, unapologetic continuation of what he’s always done. If anything, the director goes out of his way to accentuate his most commonly cited tropes, even rubbing our faces in his notorious foot fetish with a newly defiant fervor. Tarantino has not changed, and neither will your opinion on his merits as a filmmaker or a cultural commentator. What has changed is that he’s now fully transitioned from bratty upstart to outdated Establishment. Aware of his newfound status as an old fogie, he goes full ”Get off my lawn!” here by positing that it’s the children who are wrong, that Hollywood traditionalism deserves to live on infinitely unchallenged & unimpeded. He may not be able to prevent his own approaching obsolescence (nor the end of days for when the Star Power of household names like Pitt & DiCaprio actually translated to box office receipts), but he can at least express that frustration in his fiction by undoing a previous death of Traditionalism in Hollywood’s past. He doesn’t even pretty up the surface details of the era he’s defending to strengthen the argument. The actor & stuntman duo in the film are childlike, destructive bullies who treat life like a hedonistic playground. The films & TV shows they’re making are dreadfully boring. The brainwashed Mansonite children they stomp out to rewrite history are deserving of pity the film is stubbornly unwilling to afford them. It’s an embarrassingly uncool, conservative worldview to defend, but Tarantino is maybe the most amusing messenger to deliver it possible, considering his trajectory as a cinematic badboy turned (as the film’s hippie youngsters would label him) Fascist Pig.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Allergic to Cats (2017)

Because its Adult Swim platform reached so many television sets and the show’s aesthetic somehow informed a wave of early 2010s advertising, the frenetic surrealism of Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! might just turn out to be one of the most influential touchstones of modern media. The awkwardly non-professional acting, aggressively hacky jokes, absurdist shock value grotesqueries, .gif-like repetition, and deliberately low-fi visual palettes of mid-2000s artists like Tim & Eric and PFFR are starting to creep up in feature length cinema in a palpable way. Often, this psychedelically aggressive amateurism can be nihilistic in its dedication to irony & emotional distance, as with the recent shock value gross-outs Kuso & The Greasy Strangler. Those instances can be their own kind of ugly delight, but what’s even more exciting is when films like The Brigsby Bear imbue this modern form of low-fi psychedelia with something Tim & Eric never had: genuine pathos. The dirt cheap passion project indie She’s Allergic to Cats operates on both sides of that divide. It embraces the grotesque, ironic absurdism of “bad”-on-purpose Tim & Eric descendants to craft a VHS quality aesthetic that amounts to something like John Waters by way of Geneva Jacuzzi. More importantly, though, it allows the earnest pathos of desperate, pitch black cries for help to disrupt & subvert that all-in-good-fun absurdism with genuine (and genuinely broken) heart to strike a tone that’s as funny as it is frightening & sad.

She’s Allergic to Cats opens with the admission “I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies, but instead I groom dogs.” In a land where everyone dreams of being in show business, we focus on the Tailwaggers-employed pet groomer who dreams the smallest. Michael is, by most estimations, a loser. He grooms dogs by day to afford to live in a rat-infested apartment where he works on his VHS “video art” projects & watches Bad Movies in isolation by night. His greatest ambition in life is to direct an all-cat remake of De Palma’s Carrie, but he’s laughably bad at pitching the idea to anyone he can get to listen. She’s Allergic to Cats chronicles a series of minor conflicts in Michael’s hopelessly minor life: negotiating with his Tommy Wiseau-like landlord over rat extermination possibilities, struggling to balance his pet-grooming career with his passion for VHS art, attempting to orchestrate a hot date with Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant (the titular “she”) despite his life & home being an unpresentable mess, etc. These trivial conflicts are frequently interrupted by the movie’s most substantive modes of expression: the VHS-quality stress dreams that invade Michael’s everyday thoughts. Spinning cat carriers on fire, naked human flesh, squinched rat faces, and rodent-chewed bananas mix with onscreen text cries for help like “My life is shit. My life is a mess. My mess is a mess,” and so on. Laurie Anderson-style voice modulation & Miranda July-style art project tinkering break down Michael’s comically drab life into a sex & career-anxious nightmare.

Buried somewhere under Michael’s sky high pile of dirty dishes & analog video equipment is a lonely, decaying heart. She’s Allergic to Cats does a great job of subverting the Tim & Eric-esque absurdist irony it touts on the surface by cutting open & exposing that heart at Michael’s most anxious, vulnerable moments to strike a tone halfway between campy comedy & surrealist horror. With a warped VHS look reminiscent of a mid-90s camcorder & a taste for gross-out lines of humor like .gif-style repetitions of expressed canine anal glands, She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls “I need help” across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

Madhouse (1974)

three star


One of the most depressing questions I encounter in everyday conversation is “Who is Vincent Price?” It comes up more often than you’d expect. I got it when I dressed as Price’s version of The Red Death last Mardi Gras. I got it when I was working at a movie theater with a bunch of skateboarding goofballs over the past year. It’s far from cool of me to have Kids These Days moments like this when I’m still just shy of 30, but what is the deal with kids these days anyways?  What are they teaching these whippersnappers in school? Surely there’s room in the curriculum for a little Vincent Price 101. Also, I remember the days when Vincent Price movies cost half a nickel and get off my lawn.

Madhouse would be far from my first choice for titles to show the young & curious who Vincent Price was, but it is an interesting addition to the horror giant’s resume because it’s explicitly about his own celebrity. Basically playing a fictionalized version of himself, Price appears here as the aging star of a horror series centered on the wicked Dr. Death. Relying on old clips mostly pulled from Price’s collaborations with Roger Corman in the B-movie legend‘s infamous Poe Cycle (which shared a producer in Madhouse‘s Sam Arkoff, naturally) the meta horror of this film is a little weak in that it constantly reminds you of the superior work Price made in his heyday. There’s a lot of interesting details in the film’s set-up, including Hollywood satire & the idea of a masked killer framing the “real” Dr. Death by recreating kills from his various films, but that novelty eventually wears off (in favor of a Brannigan-esque trip to London) and large stretches of the movie ultimately feel punishingly dull. Anyone with a vested interest in Vincent Price’s career (or meta horror in general) might get a kick out of Madhouse, but that appeal is unlikely to be universal.

That’s not to say that the film is stylistically lacking. Madhouse seems to intentionally ape the style over substance mentality of the giallo genre, even daring to lift images directly from the works of folks like Dario Argento & Mario Bava. A gloved hand enters from off screen wielding a shiny knife intended to slash a young woman down. The faceless mannequins of Blood & Black Lace appear for an odd jump scare. A trench coat, fedora, and mask combo shroud the identity of the killer to make for a sort of murder mystery where the murder is obviously more important that the mystery. Like the giallo it mimics, Madhouse exists as a sort of proto-slasher that would predict many horror trends of the late 70s & 80s to follow. It’s just unfortunate that the space between the kills feels so dull, especially once the Hollywood satire & meta horror fade to the background.

As much as I feel deeply dispirited when one of These Damn Millenials™ doesn’t know who Vincent Price is by name, here’s where I have to admit that I don’t know much of anything about the actor outside his onscreen roles. For instance, I always assumed that he was exclusively homosexual, based mostly on his campy, fey way of performing. Although a public ally to the gay community, Price apparently was married to several women & fathered multiple children. As a fan not previously in the know about this aspect of his personal life, my favorite parts of Madhouse were the ones showing Price’s fictional surrogate interacting with women, who are driven absolutely mad with lust for him. At the beginning of the film he’s depicted as an aging, wealthy actor engaged to marry a young porn star. Late in the proceedings he develops a weird sort of domesticity with an insane woman who raises hordes of spiders as her “babies”. In between these connections there’s several young groupies fighting for the chance to be near him. What’s odd about this is aspect is the way the film criticizes the film industry’s misogyny problem while also participating in it (as most slashers do by nature). In one breath Madhouse will criticize the way young women are left by the wayside at the wrong end of slut-shaming or mere aging. In the next the film will follow that sentiment up with wonderfully bitchy exchanges like “You scared the pants off me.” “Who hasn’t?” It’s an uncomfortably compromised balance, but it does reveal aspects of Price’s personality/sexuality that I was previously unaware of, a detail I appreciated greatly.

I enjoyed Madhouse well enough as a silly little meta horror with taglines like “Lights, Camera, Murder” & as a reflection of who Vincent Price was as an oddball celebrity, but I don’t think the film would hold the same level of interest for those not already predisposed to enjoy the actor’s work/aesthetic. For folks seeking a better introduction I’d recommend checking out pretty much any one of the Roger Corman classics this film tries to pass off as Dr. Death flicks (except for maybe the incomprehensibly inept The Raven; yikes!). The man had a massively impressive career with dozens of titles that help define the best classic horror has to offer as a genre. Unfortunately, Madhouse is more of a distant echo of those works than an active participant, interesting context or not.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)




“The ultimate Russ Meyer film has already been made: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Something special happened with that film . . . I’d never be able to approach it again.” – Russ Meyer

A lot of people would argue that the ultimate Russ Meyer film was made years earlier in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but I tend to side with Meyer himself on this issue. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his masterpiece, a grand manifesto of of the sex-crazed vitriol the director had been cultivating for more than a decade, a vicious satire attacking the “oft times nightmare world of show business”, a relentless display of the maniacal violence Meyer had used as highlights in his past work drawn out to a full length feature. Critics hated the film. A lot of Russ’ longtime fans hated it even more, citing screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) as a deathblow to the high camp value of Meyer’s oblivious earnestness the same way Tommy Wiseau’s self-awareness has ruined everything he’s touched since The Room. I disagree with that sentiment, though. Ebert did not ruin the Meyer aesthetic. He just complicated it with an over-the-top sense of ironic humor that added an extra layer of absurdity to what was already pretty knowingly ridiculous to begin with.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: “It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.” Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘ frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.

Buried somewhere under Meyer’s trademark mania is a story about an all-female rock band called The Carrie Nations getting corrupted by wicked Hollywood types as they try to Make It Big. The small town girls are destroyed by Los Angeles’ unwholesome cocktail of sex, drugs, murder, suicide, abortion, and pansexuality. What’s far more interesting than the band member’s individual downfalls, however, are two absurd party sequences that bookend the film. Hosted by Z-Man, king of the Hollywood weirdos, these ragers are sickeningly phony & psychedelic, a hateful portrait of Los Angeles’ excess at its most damnable. Even Z-man himself can’t seem to handle these soirées. In the opening party, where a cast of hundreds dance to The Carrie Nations and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Z-Man exclaims, “This is my happening & it freaks me out!” At the film’s concluding party, a much more intimate affair where two same-sex couples pair off for psychedelic drug-fueled lovemaking, Z-Man reveals himself to be an androgynous, sex-crazed supervillain named Superwoman and attempts to murder everyone within reach while proclaiming things like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” I feel deranged just describing that unraveling, let alone watching it. This film is admittedly incomprehensible, but damn, what a ride.

With a $1 million budget & an inflated runtime that dwarfed any of the films the director had made prior to its release, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer going for broke, rightfully fearful that he may never have the opportunity again. The film was produced by Fox studios, but with a hands-off approach that left Meyer free reign to make what pretty much amounted to a big budget indie film under a major studio banner. Much like Myra Breckinridge, Fox’s other X-rated sex comedy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was panned by critics. The difference is that it made money, tons of money. Ten times its original budget, in fact. Meyer somehow made a crowd favorite while sticking to his authorial vision, something he had mostly ditched for modest success in his then-recent, high-profile indie Vixen!. He even populated the film with past players from his oeuvre, including Vixen!‘s Erica Gavin, Fanny Hill‘s Veronica Erickson, and the wonderfully strange Princess Livingston, who brought  lot of proto-John Waters cool to early Meyer productions like Mudhoney & Wild Gals of the Naked West.

Despite rampant nudity & occasional sultry lines like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime,” Meyer had found success while striving for a nasty, hateful vision instead of outright sexiness, something that had made his past work so interesting. Ebert pounded out the entire script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in just six weeks, but by doing so he had managed to tap into something truly special in its loopiness & in its hateful take on Los Angeles as a scene, even poking fun at then-recent tragedies like the Sharon Tate/Charles Manson murders. And because Meyer made sure none of the actors knew that the film was intended to be a comedy, a lot of the campy charm from his past work rolled over to this change in direction in a humorously sinister way.

After revisiting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the dozenth time or so, it’s hard to imagine what the rest of the director’s catalog has to offer me, as I’ve never ventured further into the back end of his career before. As Meyer put it, the ultimate Russ Meyer film had already been made. Where was there left for the director to go but down, down, down? I guess I’ll find out soon in future titles like Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, with peak Meyer perfection now surely in the rearview.

-Brandon Ledet

Casting By (2013)



One of the most disingenuous things about the way we talk about cinema is the idea of the auteur. Directors have so much input on so many aspects of each production that it’s tempting (or at least convenient) to discuss a film’s merits based on the work of a single person, when it really takes hundreds of contributors to complete a picture. Films are one of the most collaborative forms of art our there, requiring the blood, sweat, and tears of a wide range of people to achieve success. There are many roles in film production that don’t get their proper due, but according to the documentary Casting By the most egregiously overlooked position of all is that of the casting director.

Casting By follows the history of the casting director credit in the film industry by focusing on the career of Marion Dougherty, a legend within the field. Among countless other household names, Dougherty can be credited for at least partially helping to launch the careers of Warren Beatty, James Dean, Robert Duvall, John Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk, James Caan, John Travolta, Gene Wilder, Glenn Close, and the list rolls on infinitely. Due to the endless list of celebrities who owe at the very least a kind word or two about Dougherty for helping get their foot in the door, Casting By is packed to the gills with great little Hollywood anecdotes about an industry that’s known for refusing to change its ways (including an especially raw one from Richard Donner that had me on the verge of tears) & a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dougherty not only has an immense talent for spotting potential stars in the raw, but she also stubbornly refuses to accept the roles women & people of color are relegated to in Hollywood’s margins. Casting By is not a particularly flashy documentary in any formal way, but it is one that serves the noble purpose of preserving an often overlooked legacy on film.

One of Casting By‘s strongest stances is a call for an Academy Award category to honor the work of the casting director & it makes a pretty strong case. There’s even a quote from Marty Scorsese, who has worked closely with Marion Dougherty many times in the past, early in the film that claims that casting is more than 90% of making a movie. It’s hard to argue with that point, especially when the film delves into the early days of studio contracts when on-retainer actors would play parts whether they were right for them or not, just because they were there. Dougherty came up through the time of New Hollywood, helping to define what it was exactly that a casting director does. She would help steer directors & studios into finding the right actor for the job, instead of the more traditional typecasting of actors based on physical appearance alone.

It’s a shame that there still isn’t a casting director Oscar to this day & Dougherty hasn’t at the very least been awarded an honorary Acadamy Award herself. Although Marion Dougherty has struggled for decades to earn the respect that casting directors deserve & to break up the boys club of film production in general, she has received few accolades for her work. It’s only right that Casting By serves as a document of her legacy, laying out in plain, simple words just how important she has been to the shape & climate of American film & just how vital the role of casting director that she pioneered is to the motion picture landscape.

-Brandon Ledet