Bonus Features: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.

Crazy in Alabama (1999)

In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).

If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.

Now and Then (1995)

This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.

Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.

Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.

The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Schizopolis (1996) Goes Hollywood: Full Frontal (2002)

When Steven Soderbergh filmed the largely improvised, aggressively irreverent Schizopolis in the mid-90s, he seemed to be deliberately disrupting the flow of his career. After a few consecutive big budget duds failed in wide release, the director returned to the themes & means of his popular debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with the intent of burning them to the ground & shaking himself out of a creative rut. Soderbergh’s one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern never felt as drastic as when he filmed Schizopolis, which was seemingly made with an audience of one in mind: Steven Soderbergh. The trick worked. The next stretch of the director’s career brought on a string of mainstream successes that made him a formidable creative force within the Hollywood system, instead of a one hit wonder in the 90s indie cinema boom he helped spark. Even success has a kind of complacency to it that begs disruption, however, and early in the 00s Soderbergh returned to the cerebral irreverence of Schizopolis to shake himself out of the comfort of Hollywood System filmmaking.

Following on the heels of major financial successes Traffic & Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood-insider comedy Full Frontal returned to the low-fi absurdism & disjointed structure Soderbergh gleefully turned into a Looney Tunes farce in Schizopolis. Full Frontal is a little less aggressive in its sense of silliness than that 90s work, but is just as prone to jarring non sequiturs, unexplained shifts in form & reality, and playful experimentation with improv. Shot in less than a month on intentionally low quality digital video, the film was called out by contemporary critics for being confusing & visually amateurish, as if those effects weren’t deliberate. For at least the second time in his career, Soderbergh was consciously working in low-fi, anarchic modes of expression to break away from a creative comfort zone that threatened to dull his output. The only difference, really, was that Schizopolis featured mostly non-professional actors (including Soderbergh himself & his real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley), running amok in the Baton Rouge suburbs, while Full Frontal heavily relies on a vapid Los Angeles movie industry playground for its own hijinks, including public persona-subverting turns from Major Movie Stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, David Duchovny, etc.

Full Frontal vaguely tackes the shape of many 00s indies with large casts. A collection group of characters weave in & out of each other’s lives in a loose, everything-is-connected narrative over the course of a single day. Actors, producers, public relations drones, playwrights, and every other brand of LA industry type you can imagine entangle and drift apart in various combinations in the day leading up to a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Occasionally, Julia Roberts poking fun at her America’s Sweetheart™ persona or Catherine Keener asking nonsensical, stream of conscious questions to her employees in layoff interviews will steal the show, but the movie is ultimately more concerned with form than it is with performance. Jarring shifts in visual quality & location of setting will intentionally disorient the audience, especially as (borrowing a page from Sex, Lies, and Videotape) the audio drifts out of sync from the image presented, to a dissociative effect. Sex is blurred & obscured from the camera. Movie within a movie layering & voice-over interviews deliberately confuse what’s “real” within the narrative. Character introductions are presented in headshots before the opening credits (which are actually credits for a non-existent movie Rendezvous) as if they were a playbill in motion. Much like Schizopolis, Full Frontal feels like a filmmaker playing with the basic tools of his craft to reach for freshly innovative effects he could not achieve in the more well-behaved works that preceded it.

There are plenty visual & thematic details connecting Full Frontal & Schizopolis if you intentionally keep an eye out for them. Catherine Keener’s slow-motion romantic breakup with David Hyde Pierce certainly echoes the domestic fallings out between Soderbergh & Bentley’s various doppelgängers in the earlier work. The reality-breaking interview tangents, the drab office place settings (including scenes set in workplace men’s rooms), and Soderbergh’s choice to appear in front of the camera (this time with a blurred-out face, as if he were an episode of Cops) are just a few blatant connectors that run as parallels between the two films. What’s more important is the way the films use an improv-style spontenaity to make the audience feel as if anything could happen. In Full Frontal, a nameless neighbor is shown performing simple domestic chores in a full Dracula costume; an unnamed man crawls across a hotel hallway on all fours in his underwear, unacknowledged; an actor with a Hitler mustache sings the theme song to Cops in a makeup mirror (there’s that show again). This spontenaity revitalizes Soderbergh as a filmmaker, a creator. Instead of shaking up the romantic ennuii of Baton Rouge suburbanites, it disrupts the business-as-usual mundanity of Hollywood’s sycophantic starfuckers & namedroppers, but the intent remains the same even in the transported setting. Unfortunately, these films also share the burden of being overlooked & undervalued for the deftly absurd ways they reshaped & untidied Soderbergh’s career as it evolved into Hollywood-insider status. They’re two of his best films, yet somehow two of his least loved.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its romantic doppelgänger crisis to the similar themes of Anomalisa (2015), and last week’s look at how it violently subverted the director’s hit debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-Brandon Ledet

Mirror Mirror (2012)

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How many times do you allow a filmmaker to burn you before you stop coming back for more? Usually I’d allow a fairly long leash in these situations, but I have a feeling Tarsem Singh is about to really test my patience. Singh’s first feature, The Cell, is a fairly decent thriller that’s stuck with me over the years due to its intense, dream-logic visuals (a knack the director undoubtedly picked up from his music video/advertisement days). It was The Cell‘s follow-up, The Fall, that affords him so much patience form me as an audience. Easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen in a theater, The Fall is a fantastic, visually overwhelming movie about the very nature of storytelling as an artform, a work that nearly outdoes the great Terry Gilliam at his own game. I can’t say enough hyperbolically great thing about The Fall, which makes it all the more confusing why not any one of the three Tarsem Singh features that have followed have piqued my interest. Somehow, each follow-up looked even blander than the last and I didn’t want to ruin the high note The Fall left me soaring on.

I recently ruined all that goodwill by checking in on Tarsem Singh’s most high profile work to date. When considered in the abstract, a big budget retelling of a classic Grimms’ tale would be a perfect follow-up to the grandiose fantasy dreamscape of The Fall, but Singh does so little to justify that optimism here. I’m honestly not convinced that he hasn’t been murdered & replaced by an imposter, possibly some kind of artificial intelligence from the future or an ancient human-impersonating monster. Mirror Mirror is Tarsem operating in the world of fairy tales (Snow White, for those somehow unaware), but it’s a dull, passionless work that could’ve been handled by any number of journeymen with a Hollywood-sized checkbook. Indeed, there are echoes of the film’s contemporaries like Maleficent and Snow White & The Huntsmen at work in Mirror Mirror, but I’d argue that even those far-from-prestigious comparison points far outshine this lifeless exercise. They’re at least occasionally fun. Even this film’s out-of-nowhere Bollywood song & dance ending was somehow more painful than delightful.

I’m not sure how closely Mirror Mirror follows the original Grimms’ tale, but I am sure that I don’t care to investigate. In this version (subversion?) Snow White carries a sword and saves her own ass from peril, which is presented as a big whoop, but instead bores to the point of cruelty. If I’m remembering correctly, I’ve seen a swordfighting, swashbuckling Snow White onscreen before on the impossibly cheesy ABC show Once Upon a Time and even they did a better a job of keeping my eyes open than this drag. I guess the film gets certain brownie points for at least attempting to subvert the damsel in distress dynamic of many (bastardized) fairy tales, but it does so with such a half-hearted non-effort that it’s hard to drum up any genuine enthusiasm for the content.

The true story of this film is the long list of suffering actors practically checking their watches as the running time slowly bleeds out. Nathan Lane looks especially pained in his boredom and, despite thanklessly giving the same endless charm he brought to his roles in The Social Network & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,  Armie Hammer does little to lighten the mood. The most embarrassing turn of all comes from Julia Roberts, however, who fully commits to her role as the evil queen/witch, but fails miserably. Roberts toothlessly gums the scenery when the movie demands that she devour it. An over the top villain might’ve saved Mirror Mirror from total devastation but Roberts simply isn’t up for it & watching her try is admittedly a little pathetic.

I guess if I were to say one nice thing about Mirror Mirror I could point to its lavish costumes, which likely deserved the Academy Award they took home in 2013. As the costuming in The Fall was similarly striking, this one detail could maybe serve as a glimmer of hope that Tarsem Singh has at least one more decent movie buried deep within him somewhere, depending on how closely you want to look. Costume design is only one small piece in the larger, complex filmmaking puzzle, though, and I doubt the other Singh films I’m going to catch up with despite myself are going to fare much better, brilliant costume design or no. There honestly isn’t much hope left out there.

-Brandon Ledet