Lonely Hearts Killers vs. Blasphemous Hollywood Phonies

When opera-composer-turned-one-time-filmmaker Leonard Kastle dramatized the serial murder crime spree of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, he deliberately avoided Hollywood glitz & glamor. The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, a low-fi genre picture meant to capture the full grime & absurdity of his subjects’ tabloid-ready crimes without glorification. He explained “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Before Kastle’s movie and since, there have been roughly a dozen crime thrillers about so-called “Lonely Hearts Killers,” murderers & thieves who lured their victims through romantic personal ads in the newspapers. Fernandez & Beck in particular have only received the movie treatment in two subsequent productions, however: a 90s Mexican crime drama titled Deep Crimson and 2006’s Hollywood-produced Lonely Hearts. It’s in that latter title that we got a glimpse of exactly the kind of movie Kastle didn’t want to make, a phony game of 1940s dress-up packed with “beautiful shots of beautiful people.” The Honeymoon Killers deliberately set out to be the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Lonely Heats carelessly stumbled into being the anti-Honeymoon Killers, bringing the whole phony Hollywood enterprise full circle.

The first glaring Hollywoodization of true-life grime in Lonely Heats is the casting of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck. A large part of public fascination over the killers’ tabloid-documented trial was how much objectively better-looking Fernandez was than his lover/partner in crime. Martha Beck was a plain, ordinary woman who had intensely latched onto a very handsome (and eventually violent) man. Her caked-on makeup, over-plucked eyebrows, and low-fashion attire afford her the appearance of a John Waters character as she’s played by Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers. In Lonely Hearts, she’s played by Selma Hayek, one of the most exquisitely beautiful movie stars around. Jared Leto co-stars as Fernandez, equally miscast in the way his forever-young baby face struggles to convey the rugged, old-fashioned masculinity the role requires. When they attempt to age up Leto with a bald cap (in scenes where Raymond isn’t wearing his signature toupee) it plays as an unintentional joke. Leto looks as if he’s guest-hosting SNL, which I doubt was the intended effect in this drama about women & children-murdering grifters. In the casting alone, Lonely Heats undoes everything Kastle envisioned for The Honeymoon Killers, but it does so by having no particular vision at all. It’s likely no one had Kastle’s film in mind during the making of Lonely Heats; they were just naturally blasphemous to his ideals by deferring to Hollywood’s default mode of filming beautiful people playing dress-up.

After the casting of its leads, the second most baffling (and unintentionally blasphemous) decision Lonely Heats makes is in its choice of POV. Whereas Kastle’s film morally challenges the audience by making Fernandez & Beck the protagonists, Lonely Heats frames the story around the (presumably fictional) cops who are tracking them down. James Gandolfini provides convenient exposition for the film as a police force old-timer who burdens the proceedings with verbose noir narration so overly-familiar it borders on parody. John Travolta contrasts him as a loose-cannon partner with a troubled past & an apparent death wish, distracting from Fernandez & Beck’s exploits by wasting screentime on his own past romantic tragedy & his current troubled relationship (with a too-good-for-this-shit Laura Dern). Through this police procedural device, the movie allows itself to play very fast & very loose with the truth of the case that inspired its narrative, but then drop in flatly-stated facts about Martha Beck’s childhood sexual assault that Kastle didn’t dare touch in his own version of the story. The details of the individual crimes are familiarly paralleled in each film: bodies stuffed in clothing trunks, women struck in the skull with hammers, Fernandez & Beck posing as brother & sister to lessen suspicion in their grifts. Lonely Heats just distorts those details through a phony Hollywood POV and often tempers their impact by depicting cops uncovering victims after-the-fact. Where The Honeymoon Killers will show a victim atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub for a campy comedic effect, Lonely Hearts will counter that deliberately un-sexy image with a perfectly posed naked female body found in a bathtub filled with her own blood, looking more like a fashion shoot than a suicide. Where Honeymoon Killers will show Fernandez & Beck teaming up to drown a child in a basement sink, Lonely Heats will only show cops discovering evidence of that crime in horror, long after the event. The details are largely the same (they both depict the same true-life crime spree after all), but the methodologies are philosophically opposed – if not only because Lonely Hearts seems to have no specific philosophy at all.

Of course, there’s an entertainment value built into phony Hollywood glamor. For all of Lonely Heart’s efforts to beautiful Fernandez & Beck’s crimes and shift the moral ambiguity of audience empathy by framing their story through the cops hunting them down, the film still does not skimp on sex or bloodshed, something it treats with the same casual decorative ease as its 1940s big band music & dress-up costuming. Lonely Hearts even occasionally achieves some of The Honeymoon Killers’s off-putting absurdist camp in its more lurid details, such as in a scene where a blood-spattered, bald cap wearing Leto masturbates for Hayek’s amusement. As always, Hayek herself is a joy to watch and is clearly having fun with the material. The “beautiful shots of beautiful people” ethos Kastle detested is difficult to despise too vehemently when it involves Hayek chewing scenery in 1940s femme fatale couture. The pleasures of Lonely Hearts are mild & unexceptional, though, requiring a willingness on the audience’s behalf to settle for an outrageous tabloid saga being reduced to a generic crime picture & an old-fashioned game of Hollywood dress-up. If you want the full scope of Fernandez & Beck’s violence & absurdity, watch The Honeymoon Killers. If you want beautiful shots of beautiful people playing cops & robbers in a low-rent version of old-fashioned Hollywood glamor, Lonely Hearts is your destined-for-cable-broadcasts alternative.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”

In the opening scene to the critical & commercial bomb Waterworld, we’re introduced to Kevin Costner’s dystopia-navigating action hero by learning two unique facts about him: 1) he has gills that allow him to breathe underwater and 2) he drinks his own piss. This is such an off-putting introduction to someone who’s supposed to be coded as a heroic badass that the audience has very little wiggle room to ever get entirely past it; critic Nathan Rabin even refers to Costner’s protagonist as a “pee-drinking man-fish” for the entirety of his My Year of Flops review of the film. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, is even more grotesque in the way it tears down Luke Skywalker in his own introduction, despite him being the de facto hero of the series going as far back as A New Hope four decades ago. An aged, surly Luke Skywalker drinks something much, much worse than his own piss in one of his earliest moments onscreen in The Last Jedi. When offered the lightsaber Rey extends to him in the final aerial shot of the film’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, Luke casually tosses the sacred thing over his shoulder and over the side of a cliff, flippantly disregarding the emotional payoff of the lore J.J. Abrams built up for Johnson to deliver on. The rest of the canon goes over the cliff with it, with pre-established dichotomies of Good & Evil, boundaries on the limits of the space-magic practice of The Force, and even basic questions of tone & intent being burnt to the ground so that new seeds can sprout from the ashes. Luke’s disgusting beverage of choice and general apathy for the history & lore of the Jedi is emblematic of The Last Jedi’s willingness to let traditional Star Wars themes & narrative threads die so the series can begin anew. It’s an often awkward, even outright goofy kind of blasphemy, but it’s a necessary evil for moving the franchise forward instead of merely echoing the past.

Ill-conceived holiday specials. made-for-TV Ewok movies, and near-universally loathed prequels aside, The Last Jedi is the first proper Star Wars film that’s not about stopping the construction or deployment of the planet-destroying spaceship The Death Star. You’d think that the same fans who blasted Abrams’s The Force Awakens for supposedly copycatting (or, in my opinion, improving through revision) the first film in the series, A New Hope, would appreciate that Rian Johnson has steered Star Wars away from telling that same tired story yet again. That has not been the case. There has been a wide gulf between critic & audience scores on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic in how The Last Jedi is being received. Many disgruntled superfans of the series are stressing out over the way Johnson has jumbled & set aflame their *shudder* fan theories, which extend from speculation on everything from what the film’s title might mean to who Rey, the new hero of the franchise, might be sired by to what purpose Porgs, adorable toy-selling space-chickens, might serve in the larger scope of Star Wars lore. Johnson is not only dismissive of these extratextual extrapolations on where the series is going; he also completely dismisses the many far, faraway places the series has already been. It’s difficult to tell that from the film’s basic plot, though, even if it is Death Star-free. The Last Jedi is a fairly by-the-books Star Wars story bifurcated between Rey & Luke debating whether the practice of Jedi space-magic is worth reviving (much to Kylo Ren’s watching-from-afar chagrin) and The Resistance’s numbers dwindling in the meantime as they flee from the crushing space-Nazi fascism of the First Order (despite the efforts of familiar faces like Poe, Finn, Leia, BB-8, Laura Dern, etc.). I don’t believe most of The Last Jedi’s divisiveness is a response to the film’s narrative choices (though I wouldn’t put it past the series’ die-hard fans to complain about anything), but rather a question of tone & respect for series-spanning lore.

Star Wars has always had a jokey flippancy built into its DNA (just look to fan-favorite Han Solo for examples); its humor is a defense mechanism meant to forgive or ease its more off-putting sci-fi nerdery. The Last Jedi is an outlier in that dynamic only in the way it alters the series’ sense of humor for modern sensibilities. The jokes in George Lucas’s original trilogy were geared for the Baby Boomer generation, the same kids who would have grown up on the space opera radio serials (and subsequent televisions shows) Star Wars regenerated nostalgia for. It’s a comedy style that’s only grown corny with time, drifting further away from modern sensibilities with each new trilogy cycle. The Last Jedi ditches the Baby Boomer humor to appeal to Millennials who have grown up on Simpsons snark & Adult Swim anti-humor. The film opens with a prank call. Luke Skywalker dismissively refers to lightsabers as “laser swords.” The toy-selling cuteness of the space-chicken Porgs is a constant visual gag, with even a few of the critters being prepared as meals and generally treated as unwanted pests. The open secret, though, is that Star Wars has always been awkwardly goofy, full of absurdist creatures worthy of derisive laughter, and loose with consistent logic in its space-wizardry. It’s only become normalized over time through decades-long cultural exposure. As gross as Luke Skywalker’s beverage of choice is in this film, it’s no goofier or out of step with the series at large than a Frank Oz-voiced Yoda puppet or a space-tavern full of bipedal sea creatures playing jizz music. Rian Johnson’s film is being torn apart by life-long fans of Star Wars for making a series they’ve grown up mythologizing feel nerdily weird & awkward again: something it’s always been, but they were once too young to see. Old-timers are likely feeling alienated by the modern humor that shapes its tone, but I’m totally okay with abandoning past devotees of the franchise to make the environment more hospitable for new ones.

Brushing aside the more hateful, inflammatory complaints about women & PoC being afforded the blockbuster spotlight for once, most negative reactions to The Last Jedi are totally understandable. It’s not difficult to see how a film about literally burning sacred texts & starting from scratch could alienate some old-timers. Honestly, I’m not even sure the film’s absurdist Millennial humor & blasphemous revision of the Jedi as a religious practice/force for Good are 100% successful myself. I was much more emotionally moved by the sincere mythmaking & familiar, but consistent craft of The Force Awakens than I was impressed with the flippant absurdity of The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi may have been eccentric enough to alienate lore-serious Star Wars nerds, but it still doesn’t quite reach the over-the-top lunacy of something like Okja or Fury Road. There are moments when I could swear Brigsby Bear’s Kyle Mooney secretly directed the picture under a pseudonym, even though the evidence is stacked against me, but it’s ultimately too long & too well-behaved to satisfy as an absurdist masterpiece. Instead, the absurdism comes in flashes, just flavoring the original space opera recipe enough to establish a freshly goofy tone as a replacement for the staler goofy one it started with. Indignation over blasphemy to the lore of the Jedi and The Force is slightly more justified than resisting the film’s updated sense of humor, but when the now-established rules of space-wizardry were first introduced in the original franchise they likely seem just as absurd & arbitrary. In a way, dedicated fans deserve to be trolled for thinking that they’ve firmly grasped the rules & trajectory of the franchise enough that they can map out the exact stories of future installments based only on titles, advertisements, and interview clips.

Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer “figure out” the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with a concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one, and yes, even if it forced me to equate Luke Skywalker to a pee-drinking man-fish.

-Brandon Ledet

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Roger Corman production Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is a delightful watch for all kinds of gleefully unhinged, Looney Tunes-type touches. Its cartoon energy isn’t entirely what makes it memorable, though. There’s a misshapen, decidedly unprofessional quality to the few scenes in the film where The Ramones, playing themselves, are asked to deliver a few lines of seemingly manageable dialogue, but can’t appear to be human while the cameras are pointed at them. I find that non-compliance with traditional screen presence to be something beyond punk, a strange ramshackle de-evolution that’s part exploitation pic fascination and part real world inebriation. Produced & directed by music industry weirdo Lou Adler (who also had a hand in Rocky Horror and some Cheech & Chong projects), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains somehow sustains the slovenly rock n’ roller energy from those Ramones scenes for the length of an entire feature. Better yet, the movie marries that misshapen, Ramones-style presence to a decidedly feminist diatribe against the way mediocre men who are gatekeepers to both punk & pop culture at large, deliberately keeping young women from having a voice in the counterculture landscape. It’s a fascinating film in that way and I’m baffled it doesn’t have a larger cultural footprint because of it.

Unemployed, broke, and mourning the recent loss of a key family member, three teenage girls do the only thing young, working class nobodies can do in a small industrial town: channel their angst into a punk band. Going through the punk ritual of drastically changing their physical appearances and the names they go by, the three-piece musical act, The Stains of the film’s title, luck themselves into an opening slot on a touring gig with two bands packed with macho assholes: a has-been glam rock nostalgia act and an up-and-coming crew of British punks. Like a rough-around-the-edges version of The Runaways, The Stains find themselves to be incredibly popular almost immediately with young women across the country who are desperate for a voice of their own in the punk angst subculture. The problem is that this fame & notoriety hits them before they’re ready as a band and as people. Mocked & exploited by record industry execs, TV news anchors, and the men they initially supported on tour, The Stains watch as the genuine anger they funneled into their songs (especially “I’m a Waste of Time”) & personal sense of style (a sex-positive spin on new wave fashion) is commodified and destroyed as a flash-in-the-pan novelty before they are even afforded enough time to find themselves as a band. It’s a somewhat tragic story where the enemy to the group isn’t fame itself, but the opportunistic, misogynist assholes who keep their grip locked tight on the keys to the pop culture kingdom.

What’s most immediately striking about The Fabulous Stains is its punk authenticity, which is not an easy spirit to capture on film. The Stains, who only had a few practices before they risked taking their show on the road, sound genuinely unpracticed, like The Raincoats by way of The Shaggs. Their punk rock rivals are a lousy lot of Brits mostly composed of ex-members of The Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook) and The Clash (Paul Simonon), who wrote their own songs for the film. That kind of credibility extends into the shit hole dive bars the movie’s central tour crashes through like a slow-moving trainwreck, as it mirrors the exact small town-trolling American tour that broke up The Sex Pistols a few years before the film was made. What’s important about that authenticity​ is that it sets up a grounded, believable scenario where The Stains, mediocre talents at best, would be able to resonate with so many young women across the country​. A strong D.I.Y. punk ethos means that everyone is afforded a voice & equal opportunity. A lack of traditional musical talent can be easily overcome by a sneering, passionate attitude, as long as you can knock over the gatekeeping cretins who try to block your path.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains suffered just as much misogynist motherfuckery in the real world as the titular band did in its fictional one. The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, reported sexist mistreatment during the production at the hands of Adler, the crew, and others. That clash of feminist ideology being filtered through a machismo-driven film industry lead to an extended period of post-production & editing room studio notes tinkering where Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understood. That stasis at least afforded the movie an insane filmed-after-the-fact epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music Video Television and somehow both enhances the film’s themes & rapidly ages the babyfaced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It didn’t help the film’s financial chances, though, since it was ultimately a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition.

No matter how poorly The Fabulous Stains‘s production & distribution was handled, it did eventually make it into the right hands when it found a second life airing on television (just like Citizen Kane!). Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill cite the film as a major inspiration for their formation, which makes total sense, given the way the film is reverent of female punks inspiring other women to join the scene (which was essentially Bikini Kill’s entire ethos) and the way feminist dialogue made its way though the bullshit sex politics of the film industry to include lines like, “These girls made themselves,” “It was an old man in a young girls’ world,” and “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shit hole gets me, because I don’t put out.” The Fabulous Stains is far from a perfect, pristinely intact work (for that version of the same story I highly recommend We Are the Best!), but a large part of its power & charm is in its imperfection. It’s an authentically punk, fiercely feminist work that’s compromised production oddly mirrors the fictional band it profiles in its ramshackle story of a subculture scene & media landscape that wanted nothing to do with them or their entire gender in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Certain Women (2016)

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There’s a growing cult following for writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s work that I don’t yet fully understand, as I’ve only seen a couple of her pictures to date. As with the Michelle Williams canine drama Wendy & Lucy, perhaps Reichardt’s most well-known film, the recent release Certain Women didn’t quite hit me with the full, emotionally devastating force it has with some critics. For me, Reichardt’s work has the impact of an encroaching tide, not a crashing tidal wave. I leave her films quietly sad, subtly moved, but not rocked to my core. Certain Women finds Reichardt telling three separate stories in a loosely connected anthology, each vignette beginning & ending on an open, ominous note like the movie equivalent of distant, lightningless thunder. I understand how certain audiences can latch onto this less-is-more approach to storytelling and easily sink into Reichardt’s quiet, but confident filmmaking style, but I can never get past feeling like an appreciative observer, casually peeking into an uncovered windows as I stroll by unchanged, but intrigued.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie I would typically wait to watch until it reached a convenient at-home state of availability. There’s no visual poetry or genre thrill to Certain Women that’s especially enhanced by watching it large, loud, and with a crowd. I mostly turned up at the theater for this title because of the talent promised in the cast. Besides the consistently rewarding Reichardt alum Michelle Williams, Certain Women also boasts featured performances from Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, two immensely talented & eternally undervalued actors I respect deeply. A great, front & center performance from Dern is always worth cherishing, considering the surprising rarity of her lead roles, but I have to admit Stewart’s inclusion is what really perked my ears in this case. Stewart has a quiet, measured presence in her dramatic roles I imagined would be a perfect fit for Reichardt’s own dedication to discipline & subtlety, an expectation that payed off nicely. Their pairing here makes for an all-too-appropriate director-actor team-up and, although I’ll readily admit I’m a much bigger fan of Stewart’s, I’d love to see them continue to work together on future projects just because their wavelengths are already so in sync.

Williams plays a contractor attempting to secure a delicate businesses deal for precious sandstone building materials she desires for her own home. Dern is a lawyer frustrated with an increasingly unhinged client who won’t accept the finality of a failed workman’s comp claim. Stewart, who is admittedly in the second bill slot in her segment, plays a young lawyer & night class teacher who becomes the unrequited target for flirtation from a lonely horse rancher. Each segment has stray themes and details that make them feel connected in a significant way: a shared character, a clear dichotomy between blue collar workers & their wealthy employers, the way men can undercut a woman’s authority without even noticing, etc. It’s really Reichardt’s understated gaze at desolate Midwestern expanse & small town relationships that makes the film function as a single unit, though. The routine of horses feeding, the dim lighting of strip malls & late night diners, a title credits scroll over a slow moving train; there’s a quiet frustration in Certain Women‘s imagery that links its individual parts together more than any of its overarching narratives strive to.

Kelly Reichardt guides this film with a confident command. As the writer, director, and editor, she holds a godlike control over the production that results in a work unmistakably her own, yet confoundingly light on stylistic flourish. Much like Todd Solondz’s recent anthology-style film Wiener-Dog, Certain Women finds a director delivering exactly what they’re known for, except dissected & presented in isolated pieces, almost like a career retrospective or an artist’s manifesto. A major difference, though, is that Reichardt’s work intentionally avoids grand, sweeping statements, so it’s all too easy to overlook the immensity of what’s covered in the film. Certain Women doesn’t aim for the earnest lyricism of an American Honey. It’s a very different portrait of Nowhere America, one deliberately dulled by an almost absent score & a filter of digital grain.

Personally, I usually look for a little visual poetry and cinematic escapism in my movies. Reichardt’s filmmaking style is a little outside my comfort zone, to put it mildly. I do think she has a great way of framing disciplined & meaningful performances from her actors, though. Williams, Dern, and Stewart all convey an impressive range of humanity here (along with Lily Gladstone, who is devastatingly effective as the horse rancher) without calling attention to themselves in a way a more obnoxious drama would invite. There’s a lot I admire in Reichardt’s work, but it’s the stage & environment she sets for her actors that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve yet to wholly fall in love with one of her films, but the dramatic performances they deliver consistently make the effort worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and the Erosion of the Female POV in Alexander Payne’s Filmography

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July’s Movie of the Month, the 1996 abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was the debut feature from blistering satirist Alexander Payne. Since this initial work of relentlessly bleak humor, Payne has consistently delivered soul-crippling dramedies that typically fall somewhere between Todd Solondz & Noah Baumbach in their meticulous indulgence in human despair. What’s been less consistent, however, is the way Payne has dealt with the prominence of his female characters. Citizen Ruth dealt with a homeless addict who unwittingly finds herself the center of a national debate on abortion rights. Although Ruth, played with heartbreaking sincerity & total lack of vanity by a top-of-her-game Laura Dern, navigates a world where her legal & bodily struggles are dominated by a vast network of uncaring men, she is still the center of her own story. Citizen Ruth is the only top-billed Laura Dern performance where her protagonist actually commands the film’s POV. It also happens to be the only film from Alexander Payne that centers entirely on a woman’s POV, a perspective he’s been seemingly drifting further away from ever since.

Alexander Payne’s last three films have all included interesting, complex roles for female characters, but they’re roles that mostly color & complicate the lives of the writer-director’s male protagonists. Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska are all about men, usually middle-aged, in a moment of personal crisis. Payne-penned women merely swirl around them. The closest Payne has gotten to repeating the female-centered POV of Citizen Ruth was in his follow-up to that initial work (and his best film to date, in my opinion), Election. The 1999 MTV-produced dark comedy Election doesn’t exactly have a female protagonist, but does its best to split its POV 50/50 along the gender binary among four equally interesting characters. It’s also acidically critical of adult male power dynamics in how they deal with the women under their influence, another aspect of Payne’s early work you aren’t going to see echoed in films like Sideways.

Election derives its title from its fictional high school presidential election in which young, A-type personality Tracy Flick (played as a hilariously uptight go-getter by Reese Witherspoon) is roadblocked by bitter middle-aged teacher Jim McAllister (a full-schlep Matthew Broderick), who is annoyed to the point of cruelty by her youthful promise & his own personal failures. I remembered from watching this film as a teen that  both of these characters were dismally selfish & abusive, but it plays very differently returning to it as an adult. Tracy Flick can be annoying, sure, as many high school goody two-shoes can, but she in no way matches the grown man evil of Jim McAllister. The film begins with McAllister blaming the underage Flick for ruining the life & career of a colleague, an adult man & an unlikely father figure, who she had an affair with. This pattern repeats itself later in the film when McAllister himself has an affair & again blames the woman for the transgression. The worst you could say about Flick is that she’s demanding & self-serving (to the point where she treats Jesus like an employee in her bedtime prayers), but there’s an element of class politics in that demeanor. Flick comes from a poor, single-parent family & works hard, militantly hard, to free herself from that economic restraint, looking down on the kids who have it easier & don’t have to try as hard with as much daily persistence to succeed. McAllister, who has settled for a mediocre life in a loveless marriage, getting small thrills from participating in high school extracurriculars & beating off to high school-themed porn in his basement, hates the promise Flick works so hard to secure for her future & seeks to nip it in the bud when he hits his spiritual low point. It’s a far worse impulse than anything you could say about Flick’s naked, admittedly abrasive ambition.

Payne pits Flick & McAllister against each other in a larger narrative involving a charming idiot jock & his lesbian slacker sister (who share narration duties with the main characters), a structure that recalls the political satire vs. character study narrative arc of Citizen Ruth. This 50/50 gender split is the closest Payne’s ever come to returning to the female POV of his debut, which isn’t exactly a mark against his films’ overall quality, but does point to an interesting shift in the way he’s written stories since his early stirrings in the 90s. The only time I’ve become actively annoyed with the masculine-centered POV in a Payne film is in the middle-aged ennui of Sideways, but that was mostly a matter of personal taste. Still, I’d gladly welcome a Payne project that returned to the feminine POV of his first two films, It looks like his next project, Downsizing, will at least be a return to the 50/50 split of his sophomore work, a film that might divide its attentions between characters portrayed by Sideways‘s Paul Giamatti & Election‘s Reese Witherspoon. It could be a start, but still wouldn’t be a full return to the perspective established in Citizen Ruth. Hell, as long as Payne’s bringing back old collaborators, he might as well write another starring role for Citizen Ruth‘s Laura Dern. The world desperately needs more of her top-bill performances & Payne himself could use an excuse to write another work from a woman’s perspective, a creative starting point he seems to be drifting further away from with each project.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy, and last week’s comparison of Laura Dern’s performance with her other top-billed roles.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangely Imperfect Trinity of Top-Billed Laura Dern Performances

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When we were discussing July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s mid-90s abortion comedy debut Citizen Ruth, I noted how rare of a treat it was to see Laura Dern receive top bill in a film, any film. I didn’t realize at the time exactly how rare that treat was. Although the child of two well-renowned, actors, Laura Dern has only starred top bill in three theatrically released feature films. That’s less than one film a decade in a professional career that spans back all the way to 1973. I’ve always thought of Dern as an enigmatic, striking screen presence capable of stealing any film she stars in, from Jurassic Park to her various David Lynch collaborations to her odd childhood appearance in the Cher melodrama Mask. It seems so strange to me, then, that the actor would be afforded so few opportunities to anchor a film with that idiosyncratic, attention-commanding presence. Even stranger still is the bizarrely imperfect set of roles that make up her top billing trinity. Dern commits herself whole-heartedly & with great humility to each lead role she’s allowed, but the nature & number of those roles suggest that she’s working in an industry that’s unsure what to do with that sense of commitment.

I’d say, far and away, the best performance in Dern’s top billing trinity is the one we’ve already discussed extensively here in Citizen Ruth. A homeless, pregnant addict who cares more about huffing household chemicals for a cheap high than engaging with the political debate that surrounds her unborn fetus, Ruth is one hell of a protagonist, a deeply damaged character that pushes past anti-hero into something much more disturbing. As I said before, the character she most closely resembles in my pop culture data bank is Stranger with Candy‘s hellishly cruel protagonist Jerri Blank, an undeniably bad person whose corrupt moral center is in far worse shape than a simple explanation of chemical dependency. In Citizen Ruth, Dern is charged with embodying a Jerri Blank archetype worthy of an audience’s sympathy. It’s no small task. On the one hand Ruth is a victim of an imperfect economic system, one reduced to a political talking point in an abortion rights debate she wants nothing to do with in the first place. On the other hand, she’s an aggressively air-headed subhuman willing to lie, cheat, steal, and gut punch children as much as needed to achieve her never-ending, immediate goal of huffing herself high. Alexander Payne constructs a dangerously dark line of humor in Ruth’s troubled character & Dern finds a way to make the blistering mess of a human being somehow, improbably endearing. It’s incredible how much joy you get watching Ruth pull off her (absurdly modest) heist of the century at the film’s conclusion, especially considering the morbid circumstances that lead to that moment & the grim implications of that character’s most logical future. Dern deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a heist of her own with the audience’s sympathies in that role & it stands as an easy choice for her best top bill performance to date.

Dern’s very first top bill performance predates Citizen Ruth by a five year gap, but her titular characters in both films share a surprising number of similarities. 1991’s Rambling Rose was an early high point in Dern’s career in terms of accolades, but maybe defines a low point in the context of artistic adventurousness. Filmed after her early David Lynch collaborations Blue Velvet & Wild at Heart, but years before her peak moment of popularity in Jurassic Park, Rambling Rose finds Dern starring top bill in some blatant, uninspired Oscar bait. She almost landed that Oscar, too. The film marks the first time a mother & daughter were nominated for a single work (her mother Diane Ladd stars opposite of her as the film’s matriarch) and at just the age of 24 Dern was one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Leading Actress Academy Award. In the film she plays even younger, depicting a teenage girl in the Depression-era South who’s taken in by a charitable family attempting to save her from forced prostitution. In essence, Rambling Rose is a watered-down version of the Brooke Shields shock drama Pretty Baby. However, by casting an adult Dern as its underage sex worker (who never actually does any sex work) and reducing her dangerously vulnerable place in the world to a source of melodrama & light humor, the film makes its teenage-prostitute-in-peril story all the stranger. Rambling Rose portrays a long gone South where kids innocently play Cowboys & Indians and “Girls don’t want sex; girls want love” in an overly saccharine way that leaves no doubt that the film believes its own bullshit, all while hilariously mistackling hefty topics like budding teenage sociopathy & forced hysterectomies as a “cure” for an “overactive” libido. It’s a singularly strange, uncomfortable work, one that’s more than a little amusing in its ineptitude.

The strange thing here is how little Dern is given to do. Diane Ladd chews scenery as an anachronistically progressive matriarch that allows her to appear noble at every possible turn. Robert Duvall stars as the paterfamilias, known simply as “Daddy”(*shudder*), who is similarly, hilariously noble in his thwarting of the young, misguided Rose’s various sexual advances. I particularly enjoyed Duvall’s Southern drawl delivery of the line, “Put that damn tit back in your dress! Replace that tit.” A young Lukas Haas lights up the screen as a proto-Norman Bates preteen creep, one that convinces Rose to allow him to get her off with his little boy hand, a moment he emotionlessly accompanies with the line “Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating experience of my life.” Yuck. The boy hungers for Rose. Rose hungers for his father, a sexual desire that’s communicated largely through body language & intense eye-fucking (before she moves on to find beaus outside of Daddy’s home). She isn’t afforded much room to do anything else. Laura Dern is amusing & dorkily sexy in her titular role as Rose, but she isn’t given much to do outside indulging in some unsure, girlish lip-biting, delivering the film’s only on-screen orgasm, and proudly disrupting an entire town’s routine by parading in a flagrantly feminine strut while wearing a skin-tight flapper costume. Although Rose is much sweeter than the violently selfish Ruth, she’s got a similarly hedonistic view on life, a one-track mind that supplants Ruth’s quest for huffing spray paint with a quest for sex, something I have a hard time believing she doesn’t enjoy no matter how much moralizing the film does in lines like, “Sex ain’t nothing but a mosquito bite.” Rose is, of course, much sweeter than Ruth, but she’s just as humorously air-headed, as typified by her assertion, “I am only a human girl person!” Both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose use this (to put it generously) naiveté to their narrative advantage, constructing scenarios where Dern’s protagonists have little to no say over their own bodies & personal freedoms in a world full of men & political pundits looking to manipulate her to their own will. The difference is that Rambling Rose makes the mistake of telling its story through the men’s POV. Citizen Ruth actually centers its conflict on Ruth’s POV as she’s caught in the middle of others’ meddling, and it’s a much better film for that choice (among so many others).

The most recent entry in Dern’s top billing trilogy provided her a character much more active in her own destiny. The question of what that destiny is or what it means is largely up for interpretation, though, as David Lynch’s Inland Empire is an entirely incomprehensible work of deliberate art house obfuscation, a complex puzzle in which there is no possible answer to be found. To date, Inland Empire is Lynch’s latest & most incomprehensible work (a very crowded field on that latter point). It’s also the ugliest movie I’ve ever endured, a confusing experiment in standard definition photography that recalls the flip phone videos from last year’s documentary Amy, except stretched to feature length. In her third collaboration with the increasingly stylistically hostile director, Laura Dern plays a wealthy, confident actress that more closely resembles her personal life than her lead roles typically do. That’s about the only thing that resembles reality in this deliberate mess of Lynchian self-parody, a three hour (and some change) long masochistic trudge through Mathew Barney-esque art gallery nonsense. At times I enjoyed trying to wrap my head around its sprawling, yet insular narrative experimentation, but another part of me kept praying for David Yow’s shotgun-wielding psychopath from Southbound to crash the scene & yell “Quit being so fucking mysterious!” I like a little genre film formula mixed in with my art house abstraction & Inland Empire feels very little need to meet me halfway on that expectation of entertainment value.

I don’t mean to make the film sound like it’s entirely unhinged from any semblance of an A-B narrative. There is a central story at work here in which Dern’s successful actress protagonist is cast in a “remake” of a fictional film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, that was never completed because the original cast was murdered. At first this premise sounds like it’s setting up Lynch’s version of a Maps to the Stars style Hollywood satire, one riffing on a famed “cursed” script like Don Quixote or Confederacy of Dunces. The truth, of course, is much stranger than that as Dern’s troubled actress experiences a Persona-esque psychological break where she becomes unstuck in time & reality, alternating between her “real” life as a wealthy actress & the movie-within-the-movie role as an impoverished sex worker/adulteress in an art house narrative swirl that somehow lands between Slaughterhouse FiveThe Last Action Hero. Hardcore Lynch fans often list Inland Empire as one of the best films of the 2000s & Dern’s lead role as the artistic high point of her career. Although I find the film structurally fascinating, it’s hard for me to match the enthusiasm there. Between all of the film’s sex worker dance parties, pet monkeys, and humanoid rabbit sitcoms, I feel like Dern’s performance is mostly lost in the chaos & Lynch’s vision is similarly lost up its own ass. You could argue that Dern is afforded a wide range here, playing both a gussied up movie star & a violently discarded sex worker, but I think she knows a similar range in both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose and those films both have the added benefit of not looking like they were filmed on the unwashed backup cam of a used SUV.

There are a few narrative similarities you can draw across all three of Laura Dern’s top bill performances. For starters, all three works cast her protagonists as hopelessly stuck in a world dominated & controlled by men, whether it be the national politics of abortion rights, the Old South, or the Hollywood industry gossip machine. Oddly enough, all three roles also include an uncompleted pregnancy in their narratives, a coincidental, but telling detail that reveals a lot about the vulnerable kinds of lead roles Dern typically lands. Much like a lot of details in Lynch’s Inland Empire, Dern’s portrayal of a top-of-the-world actor is unfortunately detached from reality. Dern has had much more success headlining projects on television (an environment that’s a lot less hostile to women in general), including several made-for-TV movies and the well-regarded HBO series Enlightened. In cinema, it seems the industry is less sure what to do with her. By no stretch is her career at all flailing. In fact, she’s slated to appear in Episode VIII of Star Wars next year and has been consistently working as a lead actor for decades. It’s just weird to me how few roles in that time span have been top-billed and how the three that have aren’t quite sure what to do with her Shelley Duvall style of offbeat, dorky femininity. If you need any proof that Laura Dern should be headlining more feature films, you needn’t look any further than her devastating & humorous turn in Citizen Ruth. The deeply flawed Rambling Rose & Inland Empire do little but support that idea by proving she can remain charming & competent in even the most confounding productions. As a trio, Dern’s top billed performances typify a career that Hollywood could be serving far better in the way in the way it utilizes her talents. Dern is too capable of a performer to be so often cast as a supporting player. I’d love to see more roles for her where her name is perched at the very top of the movie poster. She’s earned that slot many times over.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Obvious Child (2014), and the Trajectory of the Modern Abortion Comedy

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July’s Movie of the Month, writer-director  Alexander Payne’s debut feature film Citizen Ruth, is a pitch black comedy about a woman pressured to have (or not to have) an abortion by political activists who care far less about her right to choose (or her unborn fetus’s right to life) than they do about scoring political points in the mass media. Payne intentionally chose the abortion rights debate as the moral crisis centerpiece of his film because he knew it was a hot button topic that would elicit strong reactions from his audience, one he could use to discuss the way a person’s humanity is stripped once they’re exploited as an issue instead of treated as an individual. This approach to abortion as a plot device in comedy is fairly typical. Movies that utilize abortion as a thematic focal point will often derive all of their dramatic weight from the decision about whether or not to have the procedure in this way, leaving the romance & humor of their narratives to separately function as relief from what is generally portrayed as a traumatic, life-changing experience. From classic examples like Fast Times at Ridgemont High & Dirty Dancing to recent comedies like Juno, Knocked Up, and Leslye Headland’s (sadly underappreciated) Bachelorette, abortion is almost always portrayed in cinema, even in comedy, as A Big Deal,  A Life-Changing Event, An Insurmountable Trauma. Citizen Ruth‘s major variation on that standard, besides its excruciatingly frank & honest discussion, is that it points the finger back at the political pundits that make abortion such a huge ordeal in the first place for the (fictional) woman who endures their grandstanding manipulation & exploitation.

The only comedy I’ve ever seen that casually engages with abortion as a normal, everyday subject instead of a life-altering crisis is 2014’s unconventional romcom Obvious Child. When we included Obvious Child on our Top Films of 2014 list, we praised it for “approaching a sensitive subject from a sincere & deeply empathetic place” and declared that it “deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Or at least one of the best in recent memory.” In the film Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one night stand with a nice Midwestern boy who she knows essentially nothing about. Unlike all of the other abortion titles cited here, this film’s central crisis isn’t whether or not to have the abortion (a decision that’s made quickly & decisively), but how to negotiate its impact on the would-be mother’s social & familial circles, a question that’s complicated when she finds herself falling in love with the would-be father. Obvious Child may be the only abortion comedy to date where its central procedure is presented as not a big deal, just another aspect of a complicated, nuanced life, which is in itself a sort of political statement (though not one as loud or as pointed as Citizen Ruth‘s). The film borrows a little bit of Citizen Ruth‘s blunt honesty & dark humor, but in its protagonist’s particular story arc a terminated pregnancy is presented as a solution to a problem instead of the source of one. It’s a refreshing change from the bleak  norm of cinematic moralizing & browbeating typical to the abortion comedy, one both Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child manage to criticize in their own respective ways: either by examining the intent of that browbeating or by sidestepping it entirely.

The major differences between what Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child accomplish might boil down to a question of genre. Alexander Payne’s 1996 political provocation is a true blue dark comedy, committing itself to Todd Solondz levels of inhuman cruelty & utter despair. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is a genre-faithful romantic comedy that just happens to center on a topic that the play-it-safe romcom formula usually won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Laura Dern & Jenny Slate’s respective protagonists in these two works aren’t all that different from one another and the the movies’ sources for humor start from a similarly bleak place. However, the severity of their circumstances are drastically dissimilar. Both Dern’s Ruth & Slate’s Donna begin their respective journeys as depressed addicts. Ruth is a homeless woman addicted to huffing household chemicals & Donna is a much more typical heartbroken alcoholic type trying to deal with the fallout of a recent breakup. Donna has a support system of caring friends & family who coach her through her unwanted pregnancy while Ruth is hopelessly alone in the world & thus vulnerable to anyone looking to exploit her for political gain. The father of Donna’s fetus is a genuinely nice guy the audience roots for her to date while Ruth’s baby’s father is an abusive monster the film thankfully avoids much contact with, except when Ruth gloriously jeers him with the John Waters-esque insult, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” from the window of a passing car. Even the reason for the two women’s delayed abortions is tonally telling: Ruth’s is delayed due to a national debate that supersedes her right to choose, while Donna is simply too early along in her pregnancy for the procedure.

I don’t mean to compare the two films’ disparate dramatic situations to claim that only one holds any significant weight and the other is a breeze. Donna has also suffered. She begins Obvious Child as a rejected lover unceremoniously dumped in a dive bar men’s room and suffers monetary dilemmas similar to (but not nearly as drastic as) the economic desperation that drives the plot of Citizen Ruth. I just mean to illustrate that Obvious Child stands as a tonal shift for the heavy-handed place abortion usually occupies in the modern comedy. Citizen Ruth represents an early moment of cinematic clarity where abortion is debated openly & honestly instead of being shamefully & superficially used as a plot device (or as shock value in throwaway gags, like in John Waters’s cult classic Polyester), as is typical for movies brave enough to approach it at all, including a lot of movies I greatly enjoy. Obvious Child latches onto that honesty & runs so much further with it, however, showing what it’s typically like for a woman (with a decent support network & a “livable” wage) to have an abortion & subsequently move on with her life. Donna & Ruth both start from a place of heartbreak & end on a note of open-ended success, but Donna’s journey is sadly funny in a much sweeter way, finding humor in details like sleeping with someone because they farted in your face or having to schedule an abortion on Valentine’s Day. The stakes are much lower than Citizen Ruth‘s life or death descent into poverty & addiction and, although it’s amazing that Payne was able to find humor in such a dark place, it’s much more encouraging that Obvious Child could move the conversation along while downplaying the abortion debate’s necessary emotional impact on a story.

The trajectory I’m detailing here is the same kind of effect as a Hollywood production passing homosexual romance off as no big deal instead of only portraying it as an inevitable tragedy where at least one of the characters involved dies & there’s no possible happy ending, as has been the Big Studio standard for decades. Citizen Ruth starts a frank & open conversation about abortion most comedies would typically exploit for dramatic or shock value beats. Obvious Child was yet another game changer that makes that need for a debate feel almost entirely insignificant in a modern context. It presents abortion as a normal, everyday thing people go through, opening the door for cinema to move on & let the debate die forever. Together, they help define the heights & boundaries of the abortion comedy as it stands today as well as the inevitable trajectory for a more honest, open-minded future (assuming that last bit’s not just wishful thinking on my part). We’re lucky to have them both.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Citizen Ruth (1996)

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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 Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Alli watch Citizen Ruth (1996).

Boomer: Citizen Ruth is twenty years old this year, but the topics that it tackles and the way that it approaches those ideas is both frank and depressing. Reproductive rights and agency over one’s body are, sadly and frustratingly, still topics that the public sphere considers to be up for debate, just as they were in 1996. The film tells the story of Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an homeless drug addict and frequent tenant of the local jail, who has had four different children taken from her by the state because of her overall unfitness to care for herself, let alone a child. After she extorts some cash from her brother (who has custody of two of her four kids), she buys a can of patio sealant and huffs it in an alley, where she is discovered in a daze by local police. At her hearing, she learns that she is pregnant for the fourth time; the state has chosen to pursue felony indictment of Ruth for her endangerment of the fetus. A kind judge suggests to Ruth that an “accident” could reduce this charge to a misdemeanor, but she is convinced otherwise when a group of anti-abortion crusaders led by Gail Stoney (Mary Kay Place) spends the night in the same cell. The Stoney family, including patriarch Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and teenaged daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) take Ruth into their home. Ruth takes the first opportunity that she can to get high, ending in an altercation that leads Pro-Lifer Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) to offer her home to Ruth as well, but she turns out to be a mole for the Pro-Choice movement, along with her domestic partner Rachel (Kelly Preston). Soon, both sides of the debate are raging against the other over the future of Ruth’s unborn child, represented by Pro-Life champion Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) and Pro-Choice queen Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hedren).

Director Alexander Payne has said that this film is less about reproductive rights vis-à-vis abortion than it is about fanaticism, and that this particular fight was chosen simply because it was the most openly divisive political fight of the time. Although I certainly understand that point, it’s impossible to divorce the concept of fanaticism from the topic of the debate at hand, and the lens through which each side is viewed is telling in the way that men are the central point in many ways, despite this ostensibly being a women’s issue (as it is in the real world). There’s a great moment close to the end of the film that shows that the Pro-Lifers have tracked down and recruited Ruth’s own mother in an attempt to sway Ruth to their side, complete with a bullhorn-enhanced argument between the two women that reveals Ruth provided sexual favors to (at least) one of her mother’s suitors while underage, speaking volumes about the home situation from which Ruth and women like her are birthed, ultimately pointing the finger back at men and their attitudes about sex, entitlement, and gendered power politics. Male needs are prioritized over women, from Norm growing increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s long bath time, delaying his dinner, to his wife’s fawning over their son while all but ignoring their daughter. Even among the doe-eyed moon-worshipping loons who populate the Pro-Choice side of the debate, the arguments women present to Ruth fail to sway her like the offer of money… that comes from a man.

There’s also some discussion of class as well, albeit more subtly. Just look at the overall dreary aesthetic of the world Ruth lives in, from the flophouse where she has sex with her ex (in the opening of the film, creating a rhetorical space in which Ruth is taken advantage of, to be bookended at the end by the argument with her mother) to the dilapidated house where her brother lives. As the war for Baby Tanya first begins, Ruth is raised from homelessness into the modest (in that the-frillier-the-doilies-the-closer-to-God/”we homeschool our children because of evolution” way) home of the Stoneys and then into the gorgeous farmhouse that Diane and Rachel share. Neither of these factions understands Ruth’s life and world outside of their shallow conceptions of how she must live, and as a result fail to appreciate the gravity of her situation in any way except how she can be used to benefit their respective causes.

What did you think, Britnee? I felt a lot of sympathy for Ruth even though she was, frankly, a horrible person. Did you feel the same way? And do you think that was because of Dern’s nuance or the representation of the world Ruth lived in?

Britnee: As my grandmother would say, “Pauvre Ruth!” I felt sorry for her since the film’s opening scene, where she’s having emotionless sex with her horrible boyfriend before he throws a television at her. Just when I think this girl’s life can’t get any worse, she turns out to be a homeless addict who has a terrible, insensitive family. And to top it all off, she has 3 children she’s lost custody to. Can this girl catch a break? Ruth comes off as a really awful person, but there’s much to be taken into consideration before making any harsh judgement about her. Let’s start with the relationship she has with the only two family members of Ruth’s we’re introduced to: her brother and her mother. In the beginning of the film, she goes to her brother, who is raising two of her children, for help after being kicked out of her boyfriend’s garbage apartment. Her brother is annoyed and angry to find that his sister showed up at his home asking for shelter, so he sends her off with $15. Then, we’re introduced to her mother at the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice battle at the end of the film. As Boomer previously stated, we get a pretty clear picture of Ruth’s upbringing after she is accused of performing sexual activities with her mother’s boyfriends. It’s no wonder she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape from her unfortunate reality. She didn’t choose her lifestyle; it was forced upon her.

Ruth is essentially treated as an object and not a human being throughout this entire film. When she finds out she’s pregnant while in prison, the judge handling her case suggests she have an abortion to avoid being imprisoned. Then when she’s “rescued” by a group of Pro-Lifers, they do everything they can to make sure she goes through with her pregnancy. She’s then “rescued” from the pro-lifers by the Pro-Choicers, and they do everything to persuade her to have an abortion. The pro-lifers and the Pro-Choicers go as far as to persuade her with money to either keep or get rid of her child. Both groups use her to support their cause, and it was so hard to watch this happen. How is Ruth supposed to better herself when everyone around her is trying to use and control her? Ruth lives in a world that has failed her, and I think that’s why I feel so much sympathy for her.

Brandon, how did you feel about Ruth’s choice in the end of the film, when she jacks the money from the Pro-Choice group and escapes the rally? Was this a sign that she was in control of herself or was this just Ruth being a bad person?

Brandon: As with all joys in this film, that final triumph feels like a mixed bag at best. I experienced a certain pride in that moment, watching Ruth take control of her own life for the first time in the entire film (except for, arguably, the occasions when she huffs spray paint & household chemicals for a cheap high). There’s a general sense that she’s sticking it to the man, getting what’s hers, finally having her day, etc. It’s a very bittersweet victory, though. Ruth is making off like a bandit, but her loot is a measly $15,000. It’s certainly more than the nothing Ruth starts the film with, but she believes it’s an astronomical amount, when it’s not likely to keep her afloat for a full year. It’s especially not enough to invest in real estate, as the self-help cassette she steals inspires her to (if she can ever get her grubby claws on Side 3). Also, consider for a second who exactly she’s stealing the money from in that moment. She’s not ripping off the horrifically self-righteous Pro-Lifers or their equally slimy hippie-dippie counterparts. She’s stealing from the biker, who, in my mind, was the only character in the entire film who ever offered Ruth freedom of choice in the first place (his $15,000 bribe was only meant to diffuse the financial pressure raised by the opposing, Pro-Life side of the argument so that money was not a factor in her choice).

Ruth isn’t really making any grand political statements or personal strides toward autonomy & self-actualization in her midday marauding. She begins & ends the film an addict with a one track mind. There’s a glorious catharsis in her final stride when she openly gets away with her heist of the century because everyone’s so wrapped up in a hot button political issue that they forget to take notice of the human being at the center of it. However, it’s also a bit of a last second gut punch as you realize Ruth’s most likely returning to the world where we found her at the beginning of the film. I’m not sure how much spray paint & patio sealant you can huff for $15,000, but I’m willing to bet it will land her in a coffin.

That balance between emotional devastation and (pitch black) comedy is a major part of what struck me about Citizen Ruth (besides Laura Dern’s career-consistent brilliance, obviously). Ruth’s not a “bad” person, necessarily. She’s just been turned into something of a feral animal by her addiction, making her play onscreen like a hyper-realistic version of Jerri Blank (who is a bad person, I should add) in her more amusing moments. Since I first saw Election writer/director Alexander Payne has always struck me as an outright sadist in his humor, but this movie goes for a very uncomfortable mix of tragedy & comedy that’s extreme even for him. He’s working on some fucked up Todd Solondz vibes here. Watching the first ten minutes or so of Citizen Ruth it’s near impossible to imagine that something so bleak would gradually be reshaped into a comedic mold, but the film pulls off that balance beautifully (and quite cruelly). You can feel it in Ruth’s “triumphant” stroll at the climax. You can feel it when she punches a child in the gut for snitching on her drug abuse. You can even feel it in her drug of choice, which is somehow more pathetic than alcoholism or needle drugs. Payne is a sick bastard for making us smile through the pain here, but he also never makes the protagonist’s horrific circumstances feel unrealistic. There’s genuine pain on display in this film  even when it’s softened with nervous laughter. Nothing ever feels easy or trivialized, which is impressive to say the least.

What do you think of Citizen Ruth‘s tonal clash between character-based humor & emotional terror, Alli? Did you expect that genre play even before the film took you there or did it catch you off-guard?

Alli: I think from the first scene of her having emotionless and unsatisfying sex while the song “When Somebody Loves you” is the soundtrack, I kind of expected there to be a clash of deep sadness and dark ironic humor. I found the scenes like this one, and also the one where she’s crying into a drain, praying to God, to be sort of the real life kind of funny. You know, the kind of funny where you’re having the worst day but if you don’t laugh what can you do? Not necessarily satisfying but still something to laugh at. I don’t think I expected the genuinely funny, satisfying moments at first, and what I really didn’t expect is how sort of bizarrely surreal the humor was going to get. I think some of those surreal moments even kind of treaded into John Waters territory, or at least for me.

For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is after she’s just been “rescued” by this Pro-Choice couple the Pro-Life crowd comes to demand Ruth back. And they go out to look at the moon, and they start singing to the “moon mother” in unison, and have that three way hug with Laura Dern’s head comically smashed in the middle. It just feels like the exact kind of irreverent over the top situation that John Waters would construct.  Just the idea of a part rescue part kidnap by a fanatical group brings to mind Cecil B Demented, which was released in 2000, four years later, so maybe it was an influence on that. There’s also the clash between the perfect suburban family and the reject weirdo class, which is a huge theme in a lot of John Waters’ films. You have the naive Gail saying things like, “We’re all sinners but that doesn’t mean you can go around smelling drugs!” contrasted with one of my favorite Ruth lines in the movie, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” I would have a hard time believing that he didn’t write this movie if it weren’t for the dark, emotional terror.

There’s also this very Eraserhead moment, where Ruth is just a fish out of water at their dinner table, and there’s these tiny chickens that they’re all eating. And the only thing I could think was, “You just cut them up like regular chickens.” The fact that Laura Dern was in two David Lynch movies before this makes me feel like that was no accident.

What do you think, Boomer? Does this movies humor stand on its own? Or do you think it wears it’s influences a little too on its sleeves?

Boomer:It’s important to bear in mind that this was Alexander Payne’s first film. As a writer (like all of us here), we all start out on our journeys as scribes by paying deference to the creators who inspired us, merging our own voices with those of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. For me personally, I think that Citizen Ruth stands out as truly original in its voice in spite of any inspiration Payne may have taken from other sources, with a clear through line that makes the poetic statement that we are all products of the lives that we are brought into without permission.

On a bit of an existential note, none of us have any agency in our creation. We’re all born without a choice, which is reflected in the way that baby Tanya is no more than a MacGuffin onto which various parties project their personal moral concepts and failings. Ruth, likewise, was born into a world in which she was treated as a sexual object long before she had the emotional capacity to make decisions about consent. Everything about her life that followed was the result of her mother’s unnamed boyfriend using her, just as both factions of the abortion debate use her. Even when she is presented with the illusion of agency when she is taken to a clinic where she demands an abortion and is instead forced to watch propaganda, she’s trapped in a world that doesn’t care about her needs or desires as anything other than a means to a political end wrapped in a fiction about morality. On the face of it, this is a narrative about women and the agency they deserve in regards to their bodies, but on a higher level it’s about how all of our lives are circumscribed by an indifferent society and the personal agendas of people we should be able to trust.

I often find myself thinking about Tanya. What would her life have been like? Even with $15K, it’s not as if Ruth is all that likely to escape the cycle in which society and her own vices have trapped her; would Tanya have escaped that cycle, or would she, too, have been caught in it? Although I would never want to see Citizen Tanya (and Ruth’s miscarriage means that this sequel could never happen), I am curious about who she would have become, whether her life would have been better than her mother’s or not. Would she know about her prenatal past as a talking point for myopic worshipers of God and the moon? What hypothetical future do you see for Tanya, Britnee?

Britnee: It’s interesting how I didn’t really think much about Tanya even though she was so prominent in the film. If Tanya was born and raised by Ruth, her upbringing would have been terrible. Ruth would’ve bought a warehouse packed with patio sealant with that $15K, so that money would not go towards Tanya in any way. Ruth’s brother would definitely not take in another one of Ruth’s children, so Tanya would most likely end up in foster care. Now, foster homes could be the best thing to happen to a child in Tanya’s situation. There are loving families out there that want nothing more than to give children the best life possible, but there are some foster homes that are nothing short of a horror story. There is a chance that Tanya could grow up to be a completed success, even an advocate for children growing up in situations similar to her own. There’s also a chance that she would grow up to huff just as much patio sealant as Ruth and be just as self-destructive. I’ve been trying to think a little more positive lately, so I’m going to say that Tanya would grow up to be a phenomenal social worker that would eventually write a book about her fame as Baby Tanya (with a Danielle Steel-style photograph on the back cover). The book, which would be titled Whatever Happened to Baby Tanya?, would become one of those fantastically terrible made-for-TV Lifetime films. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking.

Something that I’ve been wanting to mention is the choice of casting Laura Dern as Ruth. Dern was in her late twenties when she portrayed the role of Ruth, and I find it interesting that they didn’t choose someone in their early twenties or late teens. Also, at the point of the release of Citizen Ruth, Dern was best known as Dr. Sattler from Jurrasic Park, and it must’ve been so strange for viewers to see Dern in such a different role. The whole thing just didn’t feel right.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dern as Ruth? Would another actress have fit into this role a little better? If so, who would it be?

Brandon: I think I spilled the beans a little prematurely on who I’d love to see in the role of Ruth, were it to be recast. Although logic would tell you to go younger & more reserved, I’d love to see the film go hard in the exact opposite direction and cast Amy Sedaris in the lead role, preferably decked out in her Jerri Blank gear. Citizen Ruth predates Strangers With Candy by just a few years and, to me, boasts an unlikely kinship with the cult comedy series in the ways it finds pitch black humor in the base, animalistic behavior of its hopeless addict antiheroes. If there’s enough room in this world for a second Strangers With Candy movie (and I pray we can all agree there is), one that follows Citizen Ruth‘s exact storyline would be a perfect backdrop for Jerri Blank’s particular brand of finding humor in selfish, subhuman cruelty. There would be plenty of room for Sedaris to go over the top with the role without having to alter a single beat of the story’s current state.

That being said, I wouldn’t change one note of the performance Dern delivers here. Whether she’s a blind horse enthusiast or elbow deep in triceratops droppings, I’ve always found Laura Dern to be a magnetic presence onscreen. Citizen Ruth offers a rare treat in its casting of Dern in a lead role, one she tackles fearlessly as a lovably self-absorbed, violently naïve monster. A lot of actresses at that point in their career would’ve injected too much vanity or empathy into this kind of role, but Dern is content to leave her be as an doomed, ugly soul. I would love to see the Amy Sedaris take on the part, but that mental exercise is transforming the movie into something it’s not, pushing it further into the John Waters territory Alli mentioned earlier. I found Dern’s screen presence to be perfectly suited for the task at hand, as subtly uncomfortable & amusing as that task was.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Dern’s performance as Ruth, Alli? How does this role fit into her career at large?

Alli: I personally really enjoyed Laura Dern in this role, and I actually got really excited when I found out she was the lead in the movie before I even started watching it. I don’t know why, even though I’ve only seen a handful of the movies she’s been in, but I’m sold on something if she’s involved. I knew her as a kid from Jurassic Park and that role is definitely iconic. But recently I just watched Wild At Heart and loved her in that. I really like the way she handles these complex characters in difficult situations. In Wild at Heart, she still plays sort of the naïve youngster, but in a much more positive way than in Citizen Ruth. Both characters make their fair share of bad decisions though. She plays the lovable scamp really well. She manages to bring this almost nervous yet comical in it’s own right energy to these roles. Her acting is pretty charming at the loss of a better description.

I guess given the movies I’ve seen her in I think of her in kind of the Chloë Sevigny category, “the actresses who rock these small, strange movies but can just as easily slide into bigger roles.” She also seems to take sort of daring roles, be it the smart scientist of Jurassic Park (“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”) or a drug addict Ruth seeking an abortion.

Also, superficially, she has one of my favorite interesting faces, so I like that about her as well.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: I didn’t mention this during the conversation, but I thought it was so creepy how Gail Stoney was totally planning on stealing Baby Tanya. There were a few hints in the film that led me to believe that her son’s real mother was a woman in a position similar to Ruth. What a creep!

Brandon: My favorite tonal shift in this film is when it first reshapes itself from a heartbreaking drama into a subtly comedic character study. After Ruth hits rock bottom (literally) and is rescued from her cold jail cell floor, she’s whisked away to the tackiest version of suburbia you’re likely to see outside a Tim Burton film. There’s so many subtly humorous/nightmarish details to focus on in this sequence — the goth teen temper tantrums, the Kafkaesque trip to the anti-abortion clinic, the rabid feminists trying to break their way into the house through the dining room windows, etc. What really cracked me up/kept me up at night, though, were the depictions of suburban food. What words could you even use to describe those images? Horrific blandness? Nightmarish crimes against good taste? Culinary abortions? The film’s intense focus on the horrors of suburban cuisine were both a great snapshot of the aggressively mild nature of the Pro-Lifers who prepared it & the delicately monstrous humor Alex Payne constructs in his debut feature as a whole. There’s a lot of powerful imagery in these kinds of details that you wouldn’t normally experience in a comedy, no matter how dark or political.

Boomer: I’ll second Brandon’s note that the suburban nightmare was a favorite element of mine, although the thing that stood out to me more than the food was the loud airplane flyover that occurs when the family is having their meal outdoors. It perfectly encapsulates a paradoxical sense of both “nowhereness” and “everywhereness” that permeates the film’s mood. It expresses the lack of urbanity, or more accurately the utter suburbanity, of the Stoney lifestyle, and is perhaps the most artful sound choice in the film.

Alli: I didn’t mention this before, because I thought it would have been weird and off topic, but I really feel like this is a movie just asking to be adapted to a musical. I know it would push it more into the goofball comedy spectrum, but I’d really like for there to be a musical number with the staff of a pregnancy crisis center feeding the audience increasingly outrageous fake information. I’d pay money to watch that and a bunch of stereotypically dressed third wave feminists serenading the moon goddess.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
August:
Alli presents Black Moon (1975)
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents The Funhouse (1981)

-The Swampflix Crew

99 Homes (2015)

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fourstar

You’d be forgiven for assuming that an indie drama about forcible evictions during the 2007-2009 U.S. Subprime Morgage Crisis would be a thoroughly bleak affair. And even if you didn’t assume that about 99 Homes, the film sets its pessimistic tone early by opening with the fallout of a suicide. There is a wild card at play here, however, and its name is Michael Shannon. Shannon is notoriously deft at playing hilariously terrifying monsters & his turn as a money-obsessed real estate broker in 99 Homes is certainly not relatable or even remotely likeable, but it is, at times, riotously funny. Shannon is such a darkly amusing joy to watch in 99 Homes that his performance often threatens to turn the film into a black comedy. It’s whenever he’s offscreen, leaving Andrew Garfield’s much-suffering construction worker & single father to pick up the pieces of a broken life left in the evil broker’s wake, that Shannon’s antagonist stops being darkly amusing & just simply feels dark.

The story of 99 Homes is fairly straightforward. Michael Shannon’s real estate broker makes most of his money by evicting people from their homes on behalf of the bank. When Shannon’s monster broker evicts Andrew Garfield’s out-of-work construction dad from his family home, Garfield’s desperate blue collar everyman ends up working for the less-than-legal brute. He works his way up from literally shovelling shit to making ludicrous piles of cash as the evil broker’s right hand man. This, of course, leads to Garfield’s sad dad performing the very same heartless eviction practices that ruined his life in the first place & hiding his newfound source of income from his suspicious mother, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. There’s a devastating amount of empathetic pain in Garfield’s eyes as he explains to people that their homes are now owned by the bank & that they are trespassing on bank property that makes the film at times bleakly arresting. For the most part, though, there aren’t too many surprises in the film’s indie drama formula & it plays out exactly as you’d expect.

It really is Michael Shannon’s performance that makes 99 Homes a memorably visceral experience. Although there is a unignorable consistency to his work as an actor, Shannon brings a terrifying authenticity to the role, something that truly makes you feel bad for laughing, seeing as how this was a real thing that happened to real people very recently. Shannon’s heartless real estate broker is a pitch perfect update to the wicked bankers with the cigar-chomping switched out for e-cigs. (Our next generation of irredeemable villains are vapers. There’s no way around that.) Cop’s call Shannon’s evil broker “boss”. He golfs with politicians in one scene & makes backroom deals to rip off the government with higher-ups at the bank in the next. He brags about how he “made more money during the crash than before” & talks cynically about America as “a nation of the winners by the winners for the winners.” I also particularly liked a moment where he describes houses as boxes that you shouldn’t get emotional about. Instead of saying what matters is what you fill the boxes with, he says it matters how many boxes you have, which is a perfectly succinct summation of his monstrously greedy soul. As with a lot of Shannon’s work, the real estate broker at the center of 99 Homes‘ true-to-life nightmare is deliciously over-the-top in his villainy. Andrew Garfield & Laura Dern are talented actors who hold their own when needed, but Shannon devours so much scenery that there isn’t much left room for them left to stand on. He’s a sight to behold.

-Brandon Ledet