Lagniappe Podcast: Shirley (2020)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the revisionist-history biopic Shirley (2020) and the three powerful women at its core: director Josephine Decker, actor Elizabeth Moss and, of course, author Shirley Jackson.

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– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

After becoming accustomed to Josephine Decker’s aggressive, immersive subjectivity that sinks her films’ POV deep into the psyches of her fraught protagonists (in the films Madeline’s Madeline, Flames, and Butter on the Latch). I thought I knew what to expect from the still-burgeoning filmmaker. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, her sophomore feature, mostly lives up to the pattern established in her other works. It shifts the gendered lens of her typical protagonists to a masculine POV, but otherwise her usual character-subjective sensory-immersion techniques remain. The extremity of the sexuality & violence depicted in the film feels way more intense than her usual impulses, however, as evidenced by the Kanopy streaming platform warning me of the film’s “graphic” & “offensive” content before the movie began. Thou Wast Mild & Lovely finds Josephine Decker taking her psychological horror show to the farm in what’s essentially her version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her Spider-Baby, her Mudhoney. The visual & tonal aggression that overwhelms the screen is undeniably unique to Decker, but the ultimate destination of the narrative it serves is the closest she’s come to making an outright genre film. Butter on the Latch may vaguely recall the aesthetics & rhythms of The Blair Witch Project and there are plenty of unraveling-women-detached-from-reality horror stories that precede Madeline’s Madeline, but neither film match the feral-family horror extremity & familiarity exploited here, especially in its concluding minutes.

Joe “Mr. Mumblecore” Swanberg stars as a hired hand who spends an unbearably tense summer working for a mean-drunk farmer (the always-welcome Robert Lonsgstreet) and his dangerously horny daughter (Sophie Traub). The archetype of the sex-starved farmer’s daughter who lures visiting men into inciting her father’s vengeful wrath is so old-hat that it’s often the subject of bawdy schoolyard jokes. Decker, of course, finds a unique spin on the cliché by filtering it through her typical method of sensory-immersion psychological freak-outs. The most terrifying aspect of Thou Wast Mild & Lovely is the way Decker alternates between sexual menace & genuine eroticism. On one level, the hired farm hand & love-starved farmer’s daughter dynamic plays out exactly the way you’d expect: with the pair using wrestling as foreplay, hiding their attraction & interactions from the father figure like teenagers sneaking away from a schoolmarm, and with the daughter conspicuously displaying private parts of her body as if it were an absent-minded mistake. On a deeper level, the farm hand’s fascination with her goes far beyond visually-stimulated sexual attraction, almost as if he were hypnotized by a witch. One glance at her body and he feels the need to rush off to masturbate in a “private” corner. When visited by his jealous young wife, he still can’t keep his eyes off the farmer’s daughter, transfixed. Meanwhile, her father watches intently as a mean-drunk voyeur, threatening to retaliate against their taboo sexual tryst with horrific violence. Eventually he follows through on that threat, but even when the film devolves into a genre film climax the intense eroticism remains, which only heightens the terror.

I may be overselling the horror genre payoffs to be found in Thou Wast Mild & Lovely. An average horror devotee unfamiliar with Decker’s larger catalog would likely be frustrated in waiting for the film’s last-minute shift to extreme Texas Chainsaw Massacre domesticity. Before these final minutes, the most horror-faithful indulgences on display are in quick flashes of gore-soaked nightmare imagery that torment the farm hand as he struggles to sleep through the night. His attraction to the farmer’s daughter is near-supernatural and the father’s drunkenly brutish behavior (a far cry from Longstreet’s more tender behavior in projects like Septien & Jules of Light and Dark) is consistently alarming, but those conflicts don’t cross the line into outright horror until the final minutes. It’s a testament to Josephine Decker’s ability to generate nightmarish tension & anxiety in audiences that all it takes is a couple last-minute events to tip her usual schtick fully into the horror spectrum. Her most interesting impulse is in that genre context is in Swanberg’s vulnerability as the figurative Final Girl. He’s helpless to the oversexed rural freaks that house him, unable to maintain any personal space or boundaries while under their employ, effectively making him a damsel in distress. Mostly, though, what’s interesting here is how the slight hint of genre filmmaking influences Decker’s usual mode, not the other way around. Swanberg’s portrayal of a man fraying under the pressure of animalistic lust & an aggressive environment is not unfamiliar to Decker’s typical works, but the extreme violence that release the pressure does feel unique for her. Decker’s craft is as arresting & unnerving as always here, so it should be no surprise that the film is nonstop psycho-sexual terror. The shocking thing is how easily that tone can be tipped into the direction of horror convention.

-Brandon Ledet.

Butter on the Latch (2013)

Josephine Decker’s critical notoriety skyrocketed in 2018 thanks to her two most recent features: the form-breaking documentary Flames and, more notably, the anxiety-fueled nightmare drama Madeline’s Madeleine. However, the director has been steadily working for at least a decade as an actor, an editor, a performance artist, a documentarian, and a below the radar auteur – frequently reduced to her role as a collaborator of mumblecore mainstay Joe Swanberg in critical discussion. It would be tempting, then, to assume that her notoriety breakthrough last year was a result of some great escalation in ambition or craft in her filmmaking technique, as is often the case with embattled mumblecore veterans who later make the leap to critical darlings. One viewing of Decker’s 2013 narrative feature debut Butter on the Latch will dispel that assumption in just 70 brief, nerve-racking minutes of full-on auteurist onslaught. All the basic building blocks of Madeline’s Madeline were already present in Decker’s debut five years ago; they were just contained to a more restrictive, boxed-in narrative so that their full value is not as readily apparent. I was even surprised to find that restriction often leads to more effective results, especially in terms of eeriness & character definition, even if Decker’s 2018 releases are technically more impressive in terms of pure narrative ambition. Her audacity & editing room mastery have always been in plain sight on the screen; it just took us half a decade to notice.

The tones & methods of Madleine’s Madeline are immediately apparent in Butter on the Latch, as the film opens with a young woman tearing through NYC in a frantic state – the audience immersed in her POV through visual & auditory-overloaded details. Decker’s vulnerably earnest depictions of performance art (a medium often parodically targeted in sketch comedy mockery) that commands so much of the runtime in Madeline’s Madeline is also the first introduction we have as an audience in Butter on the Latch—confronted with an uncomfortable, surreal image of NYC theatre. Most of Butter on the Latch is anchored to an entirely different kind of artistic performance, however: Balkan folk music. Harshly jumping from the concrete modernity of NYC to the woodland location of the East European Folk Life Center in CA, Butter on the Latch is most distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in its immersion in Nature. The Balkan folk music camp where most of the narrative is spent provides a pervasive deluge of percussive chants & instrumentation similar to what’s offered in the more recent film; the story is also framed through the fraught mental state of a frantically unraveling protagonist similar to Madeline’s Madeline’s. It’s mostly the thick-wooded greenery of the surroundings that alters the texture & atmosphere in a substantial way. The idyllic Nature getaway setting of Butter on the Latch recalls a more reality-fractured Blair Witch Project (but less straightforward-horror) or a more energetically surreal Woodshock (but less fashionable). I can only name one or two titles that fall within a stone’s throw of Butter on the Latch’s peculiar Natural menace esthetic, Felt & Queen of Earth, and they’re both remarkable works that were released years after Decker’s debut.

Besides its Natural setting, Butter on the Latch is distinguishable from Madeline’s Madeline in the restrictions of its narrative scope. Instead of going for broke in its detours from reality & immersions in an individual character’s perception, Butter on the Latch disorients its audience in much more concentrated, careful jabs. The film functions almost like a 2010s update to Persona, with two friendly-on-the-surface women becoming increasingly volatile in their unraveling friendship & entangling identities. Two friends reunite outside their NYC arts scene stomping grounds, using the Balkan folk music camp as a kind of restorative spiritual retreat. A fractured editing style purposefully confuses the crises that distinguish them from each other: a recent romantic breakup, black-out alcoholism episodes, an apparent drugging & sexual assault, an unraveling internal state, etc. We follow the story though just one character’s POV, but the divisions between them become so blurred, despite being the central source of conflict, that they might as well be one self-hating mess. Along with this blending of personae, the stakes of the central relationship exponentially escalate from jocular discussion of romance & sex to violent hallucinations of emotional outbursts & physical brutality. This mode of conflict isn’t all that different from the three-way maternal war of emotional outbursts & weaponized art in Madeline’s Madeline. The main difference it that the narrative is slightly more contained & restricted, so that the characters locked in subliminal battle are better defined as distinct personalities (paradoxically so, given the gradual melding of their personae).

The main thing I’ve learned from the few Josephine Decker pictures I’ve seen is that her credit as an editor is just as important as her seat in the director’s chair. Describing the tones & aesthetics of Butter on the Latch or Madeline’s Madeline can only convey so much of the experience of seeing them projected; the defining quality of these pictures are the minute to minute rhythms of Decker’s volatile editing style. Butter on the Latch speeds up, slows down, turns itself inside out, and explodes in poetic, unpredictable jolts in more interesting ways that any plot or imagery summation could ever capture. Her debut goes in & out of consciousness in strange, terrifying locales along with its protagonist, making a day (or 70min) in her head feel like a nauseating nightmare. It’s a skill in pacing & sensory immersion I was shocked to see already so well developed in her debut feature.

Just the fact that I spent so much of this review comparing Butter on the Latch to her most recent work lets me know that Decker’s merits as a cinematic voice are so singular that discussing individual releases from her feels like blurting out an incomplete thought. I probably shouldn’t have even reviewed this film until I had also watched its follow-up, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely­­, but I did find dialing the clock back to her start illuminating all the same. Butter on the Latch is so confident & slyly sinister that it made me appreciate Decker’s 2018 releases even more in comparative retrospect. Her work’s potency & clarity in vision only becomes more apparent the deeper you sink into her catalog; 2018 just happened the year most of us took notice.

-Brandon Ledet

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

Flames (2018)

“I love you, but I think you’re a really terrible person.”

One of the reasons the documentary & the essay film are becoming one of the most exciting forms of cinematic expression in recent years is they’re accepting the blurred line between reality & crafted narrative as a feature instead of a bug. Recent titles like Faces Places, Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine are entirely unconcerned with distinguishing documented truth from the manipulated fictions necessary to tell a linear story, which has opened the medium up to a looser, more exciting kind of creativity. Usually, though, the question of what’s reality & what’s manipulated fiction only has an effect on the film as a finished product, not on its subjects as real-life people. The incredible, heartbreaking, fascinating thing about the recent documentary Flames is how that dynamic is dangerously flipped around. A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of reality being manipulated to change the course of the documentary, the film forces its own narrative gray area on the real-life relationship of its subjects, changing their fundamental dynamic in a way that cannot be measured or reversed. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but also deeply fucked up.

Artists Josephine Decker & Jeffrey Throwell attempt to document the entirety of their romantic life together, from start to end. This mission statement and a commitment to raw honesty make the project a kind of imitate exhibitionism. Snippets of their days drifting through political protests, basketball games, relay races, and other public events are frequently interrupted by much more private activities like unglamorous, unsimulated sex and crying alone in bed. The full sexy, goofy, passionate, combative, overwhelming spectrum of young love is on full display as the couple enjoys the early honeymoon period of their romance. The editing matches the energy of that excitement with rapid-fire interjections of detail-obsessed imagery, all culminating in an impulsive getaway to series of islands in the Indian Ocean. What’s interesting about the film, structurally, is that it continues to document their relationship long after the heated breakup that concludes that trip. Even though their romance technically only lasts eight months, the film documents a full five-year process of letting go & detangling. The broken condom & marriage proposal crises of their earliest stages give way to slower, more melancholy montages of two intensely linked people gradually drifting into separate spheres. The relationship isn’t truly over until early fights are relitigated for closure in therapy & editing room sessions that try to make sense of exactly what happened between them, the result of which is the movie itself. Unsurprisingly, the very act of bringing the remove of an art project collaboration into such an intimate exchange is significant to their ruin, as the camera’s presence raises issues of trust & obscured motives that are an absurd, immeasurable strain on an already nerve-racking experience. The movie doesn’t end until both artists are so sick of each other that they can’t stand to spend another minute collaborating on the doomed thing that keeps them tethered together, long after the exciting sweetness of that early love has soured.

Questions of what’s genuine and what’s performance aside, Flames is intoxicating as a pure sensory experience. The cameras are a hodgepodge of affordable digital technology, but the disparate images they capture of swimming dolphins, raw egg, unembarrassed sex, under-the-cover sock puppetry, and galactic air plane cabins amount to an impact that far outweighs those means. The images’ juxtaposition has a cumulative spiritual effect I haven’t seen accomplished on the screen since 20th Century Women, but I’m sure there are more forgiving Terence Mallick fans who catch that feeling far more often. The overall tone is one of menace & decay, though, even when the relationship is supposedly going well. One sequence in particular that details the world’s most horrific strip poker game had me crawling out of my skin more than any recent horror film I can name. Flames’s emotional honesty is a self-deprecating one. This is a film that knows its own existence had a negative, almost evil impact on a real-life experience and that no documentation of spontaneous beauty or tragic humor could ever make up for the emotional chaos it’s caused. I’m excited about the mixture of documented truth & performative fictions in the current state of the documentary as an art form, but Flames serves as a harrowing warning of how that dynamic can cause real world damage in a subject. Even more so than documenting the full life of a romance from fresh passion to embittered rot, the film is fascinating as an indictment of its own existence as a doomed thing that should have been abandoned in its earliest stages. In a strange turnaround of our usual dynamic, the impetus isn’t on the audience to determine how we are being manipulated, but on the filmmakers to unpack how they’ve manipulated themselves.

-Brandon Ledet