Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast: Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle

Welcome to Episode #106 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, CC & Brandon tackle Kenneth Anger’s decades-spanning short film series “The Magick Lantern Cycle– from Fireworks (1947) to Lucifer Rising (1972).   Expect occultist rituals, leather bondage regalia, LSD freak-outs, and good old-fashioned homoeroticism. Enjoy!

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-CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

The Future (2011)

One thing I noticed while drafting a potential Best Films of the 2010s list in recent weeks is how little the twee aesthetic means to me at this point in time. As a budding film nerd (and pretentious college campus twerp) in the 2000s, twee was the exact modernized introduction to the capital-c Cinema sensibilities of the French New Wave that I needed in my life. I even still appreciate the aesthetic to this day (if not only for nostalgia’s sake), but it’s now something I can apparently live without. Twee heavy-hitters like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry released excellent films in the 2010s that doubled down on the visual fussiness & whimsical melancholy that made them famous in the previous decade. Smaller pictures from new voices like Girl Asleep & I Lost My Body even strived to push the sensibility into fresh, exciting directions. Yet, I can’t find a place for the twee aesthetic on my list of my favorite films of the 2010s. There just wasn’t anything especially urgent or resonant about its presence on the pop culture landscape that decade. The closest any title comes to touching on that end of precious cinematic melancholy that I’d consider best-of-the-decade material is Miranda July’s sophomore feature, The Future. And even that film feels more like a post-twee cultural autopsy more than it does like a genuine twee specimen.

If the heart-on-sleeve earnestness, despondent whimsy, and pastel-tinted visual fussiness of July’s debut Me and You and Everyone We Know operates as a genuine entry in the twee canon, her follow-up feels like a breakthrough to a post-twee world. With nearly a decade’s worth of retrospect behind it, The Future now plays like the official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years. Curiously, it’s also a breakthrough that seems to be lost on most viewers, who apparently see the move as more of the same held over from July’s debut. It’s fascinating to see on Letterboxd that a lot of people view The Future purely as self-absorbed hipster quirk, when that’s the exact subject the film coldly picks apart in a despondent autopsy. There’s something about July in particular that sets off more cynical audiences’ Bullshit Detectors before she’s even allowed to get her point across, which is a total shame, since she taps into private, internal triumphs & crises no one else thinks to put onscreen. In general, I don’t think the (loosely defined) twee genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just under its meticulously curated surface, and Miranda July is maybe the most undervalued dabbler in despair to be dismissed in that way.

The biggest roadblock that July’s skeptics struggle with in The Future is its choice of narrator: a cat. What could be cutesier than a talking housecat narrating the story of a young couple’s struggle with mid-30s ennui? Except, the execution isn’t cute at all. The cat is ill and lonely in captivity at a “kill shelter,” waiting for the couple (played by Hamish Linklater & July herself) to adopt it before it’s euthanization day arrives. That rescue mission never comes to fruition, though, as the couple becomes so absorbed in their own increasingly meaningless bullshit that they forget about the promise they made to that pitiful beast. Likewise, a magical realist interaction with The Moon where a character stops time to delay an imminent break-up argument and converses with the celestial body in that frozen moment sounds like saccharine whimsy in the abstract. In practice, it’s a devastating illustration of how a moment of heartbreak can leave you feeling as if you’re struck in time. There is no magic in this world, and as soon as the ruse of being able to pause time to prevent hurt is lifted, it’s revealed that weeks have gone by without you. The world has moved on; you are not its center. In the twee era of mildly magical romances like Amélie & The Science of Sleep, these characters’ love for each other might have broken through the restrictions of physics & time to save the proverbial cat. In The Future, magic is dead, and all hope is lost. All we can do is bide our time until we are old enough to die – preferably with company we can stomach.

If your mid-30s sounds like too early in a lifespan to give up & wait for death, don’t worry; the movie’s willing to make fun of that premature panic too. Faced with the responsibility of adopting an ill housecat, our central couple—a work-from-home tech support dweeb and an overqualified children’s dance instructor—trigger their shared mid-life crisis at least a decade too early. Their first-act freak-out that life is essentially over at 35 and everything to follow is “loose change” is eventually treated as a naïve oversimplification and, essentially, a bratty temper tantrum. As long as you live to old age instead of perishing prematurely, there’s plenty of time to live after your youth shrivels up. Too much, even. The realization they suffer here is more that their options & freedoms are becoming severely more limited as they settle into the grooves of adulthood. Feeling that they have been “gearing up to do something incredible for the last fifteen years,” they suddenly realize that nothing incredible is ever likely to happen. They’re doomed to be mundane, unspecial, and purposeless until they die (a very long time from now): the same curse that afflicts the overwhelming majority of humanity. Any attempts to shake off their limiting responsibilities as budding adults to instead pursue “Fulfilling Experiences” only alienate them further from the one comfort they have in this meaningless, increasingly isolating world: each other. Magical escapes from their mundane doom become less fulfilling with time, operating more as distractions than life-changing epiphanies. Few of us will ever amount to much or affect any large-scale change in the world, which is the exact tragic realization that gradually dawns on this couple on the verge of dissolution.

If the title of this film suggests that it’s attempting to predict the actual future, I’d say July was fairly successful. Its varied themes of Climate Change defeatism, post-Obama disillusionment, the pressure to turn self-gratifying art projects to public displays, and the isolating effect of social media obsession all feel accurate to how the 2010s played out in the long run – give or take a flip phone to smartphone upgrade. Extratextually, the film also felt like a prescient death knell for the twee sensibility’s importance on the pop culture landscape. The aesthetic’s ghost continued on in twee-as-fuck films to follow like Moonrise Kingdom, God Help The Girl, and even my beloved Paddington 2, but July had already given it a proper burial in The Future. It’s a film that will alienate many a cynical grump who stumbles across it by accident – if not as soon as its cat-narrated intro, then at least by the time July is doing an interpretive dance about vulnerability to a Beach House track. Still, for those more in tune with the heart-on-sleeve melancholy of the twee sensibility (or its equally ill-defined “mumblecore” aftershock), it really does feel like the end of an era in wide-eyed wonder & hope for what’s to come. It’s a shame that it’s taken July so long to follow up this soul-crushing bummer with a third feature, as I’m very curious to find out what adulthood milestone is going to break my heart next.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #23 of The Swampflix Podcast: Stand-up Crimedy & Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

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Welcome to Episode #23 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our twenty-third episode, James & Brandon discuss three films in which stand-up comedians find themselves in over their heads in crime thriller plots: Mickey One (1965), Magic (1978), and The King of Comedy (1982). Also, Brandon makes James watch the satirical mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Ever since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 left theaters and was release on DVD, Potter fans all over the world were overcome with a deep sadness as the film signified the end of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling created an entire wizarding world through her best selling novels, which would eventually become blockbuster hits, and as each film was released, the universe she created kept growing and growing.  When the news of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, all was good in the world. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Rowling would choose to gift fans with more of the fantastic world she created by writing the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. I mean, how on earth could she just stop writing about the Potter universe and all of its glory?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the better-known books the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry use in their studies. The textbook was written by Newt Scamander, a famous Magizoologist (an individual who studies magical creatures). The textbook contains information that Scamander gathered from studying a vast amount of magical creatures from all over the world. The film follows Scamander on his journey to the United States in 1926, as he is performing research for what will soon become an invaluable vault of information for all witches and wizards. Scamander is perhaps the most compassionate individual in the wizarding world, as he has dedicated his life to trying to understand all magical creatures during a time when they were outlawed and unappreciated. Scamander arrives in the United States by way of New York City with a briefcase filled with magical creatures. His goal with visiting the US is to release a Thunderbird name Frank to his home in Arizona. Of course, a briefcase full of magical creatures would become quite difficult to maintain for Scamander and majority of them eventually escape and run the busy streets of NYC.

The first beast to slither its way out of the briefcase is a Niffler, a small platypus-like creature that is drawn to any and all things shiny. As Scamander is attempting to catch the escaped Niffler in a large city bank (full of shiny coins), he meets a “No-Maj” (non-magic folk, aka “Muggle”) named Jacob Kowalkski. Kowalski is at the bank attempting to get a loan to open up his dream bakery. It doesn’t take long for Kowalski to get mixed up in the wizarding world, which is pretty much unknown to all No-Majs. The two become a duo comparable to Batman and Robin, and it’s one of the best bromances in cinema history.

As Scamander attempts to locate all of his escaped beasts, he runs into trouble with The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MCUSA), and everything becomes a total shit show. The film’s female lead, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, works for the MCUSA. She comes off as a total pain in the ass at the film’s beginning because she rats out Scamander to the MCUSA, but she quickly becomes an extremely likeable character. Tina has achieved role model status with me. She’s a powerful, intelligent witch who is out to do the right thing. It just takes her a little bit to find out what the right thing really is. Tina’s sister, Queenie Goldstein, is quite the opposite of Tina. Queenie is full of giggles and smiles, has sunny blonde hair, and sports a bright pink coat for most of the movie, while Tina is more on the serious side. I remember cringing a little bit when Queenie first makes her appearance because I assumed she was going to be the ditzy-blonde-girl type of character, but that’s not the case at all. Queenie is simply sweet and optimistic, and she is responsible for saving the day just as much as the rest of the crew. All in all, the leading ladies in Fantastic Beasts are totally impressive, but of course, I would expect nothing less from the mind of Rowling.

There are a lot of things to pay attention to in Fantastic Beasts because everything is a piece of a giant puzzle that will reach completion once the 5th film in the series is released. That’s right, there will be five Fantastic Beast films! And I’m here for that. The cast of Fantastic Beasts reminds me a lot of the cast of the Harry Potter films. Their camaraderie really comes across in their acting, and there’s just good vibes all around. The film’s director, David Yates, also directed the last four Harry Potter films, and he’s known for being a pleasure to work with. This is cinema that’s made with so much passion and love, and I cannot wait to see the next four!

-Britnee Lombas

Hardware (1990)

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In last year’s fascinating film industry documentary Lost Soul, director Richard Stanley is made out to be something of a madman auteur. Over the course of the film Stanley watches his first major Hollywood production crumble both from behind the camera and as a masked extra snuck back onset after being unceremoniously removed from the project for his supposed ineptitude & lack of mental stability. It’s unclear whether or not Stanley’s very particular vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau would’ve been any more successful than the madhouse delivered after hothead actors Val Kilmer & Marlon Brando hijacked & derailed the production. It’s certainly true that Stanley did have a specific vision, though, and it was one steeped in his upbringing bent on his mother’s fascination with both anthropology & the occult. I can’t speak for the finalized version of The Island of Dr. Moreau eventually directed by John Frankenheimer, but looking through the documents of the film’s production throughout Lost Soul, I couldn’t help but be spooked by what was happening onset, as if I were witnessing a real life account of black magic gone horribly wrong, a verifiable case of a malicious curse backfiring.

I mention all this because it feels like it was a window into understanding the power of Richard Stanley’s debut feature, Hardware. Existing galaxies outside the typical live action comic book adaptation as we currently understand it, Hardware is far less interested in telling a story than it is in exploring its own Luddite philosophy as a source for horror. This is a film born of the same late 80s technophobia that made the rise of industrial rock & noise music such an era-specific success. Its plot is thin. The characters’ motivations can be unclear. However, this is undeniably powerful filmmaking that can chill & shatter your bones if you allow yourself to lock onto its wavelength. I can’t explain how, but Hardware seemingly casts a spell on its audience, a sentiment I mean quite literally.

If you’re going into Hardware expecting the black cinemagic I just promised you’re likely to be confused for at least the first fifteen minutes. In its opening jaunt of uneven worldbuilding the film feels like a dirt cheap amalgamation of Mad Max & The Terminator (and a boring one at that). Dylan McDermott stars as some kind of futuristic hardware scavenger that combs the desert either in search of roboparts or a site for the first Burning Man festival. I’m not entirely sure. He ends up returning to his longtime, distant girlfriend, having moved on somewhat emotionally, forming a newfound domesticity with their shared bestie/80s sidekick, Shades. Shades trips out on meditation & future-drugs as the couple attempt to rekindle their relationship (by boning). If you can’t tell by my flippant attitude, none of this matters in the least.

What is important is what happens after Dylan McDermott hits the road, somewhat romantically spurned. While smoking legal future-weed, his kinda-girlfriend works on her found object sculpture art and, after including a scavenged piece of robotics brought to her as a gift before the ceremonial boning, she mistakenly gives birth to an evil arachnid droid with a helmet in the shape of a human scull & a thirst for more, more, more blood & gore. This is when Richard Stanley’s evil spell takes hold. The onslaught of roboviolence that dominates the final 2/3rds of Hardware is a chilling glimpse into Cronenberg’s America. Hardware‘s basics are very simple: a damsel in distress is trapped by a scary monster (robot) and any attempt to rescue her leads to more bloodshed. As trashy & campy as these genre films can be, however, Stanley manages to make them uniquely terrifying & unnerving. Hardware is both exactly just like every other creature feature I’ve ever seen before & not at all like any of them. I don’t know what to say about the film’s particular brand of horror other than it subliminally dialed into a part of my mind I prefer to leave locked up & hidden away. Stanley’s debut feature is both a schlocky horror trifle & an unholy incantation that puts the ugliest aspects of modernity to disturbing, downright evil use.

A lot of Hardware is difficult to decipher as either a cliche or a trendsetter. The film’s monochromatic desertscape isn’t an exactly unique vision of the future, which tricks a modern audience into thinking it’s got the film figured out before it really gets rolling. All I know is that once you’re locked in that surveillance state fish tank apartment with that robotic spider monster the results are transcendent. If it weren’t for the trashiness of everything that surrounds that central quest for robosurvival, the film could almost match the fear of the unknowable mastered in John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s not too shabby for a debut filmmaker the industry tossed off as disorganized & mentally unstable. Richard Stanley has very few feature films attached to his name, but with Hardware alone he deserves to be recognized as a powerful, destructive force. I enjoyed laughing at the film’s sillier flourishes just as much as I did being terrorized by its technological paranoia. This is well calibrated schlock and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it.

-Brandon Ledet

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

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Acclaimed, visionary animator Hayao Miyazaki recently announced that he’ll be returning from what has been a very brief “retirement” to work on a 3D-animation short film, which is exciting news for rabid fans of Studio Ghibli & innovative visual craft of all kinds. Not being especially well-versed in Ghibli’s or Miyazaki’s history, I didn’t realize that this decision was a case of history repeating itself. Miyazaki had “retired”several times before in the past, once doubling back on his resolve to return to the director’s chair (does that idiom translate to animation?) to helm the somewhat troubled production of 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not Miyazaki was brought in as a pinch-hitter/afterthought on a project that apparently needed a strong guiding hand, Howl’s Moving Castle was well worth the animation giant’s time & efforts. It’s not the most mindblowing or heartwarming film among the few Ghibli titles I’ve seen but it is a singularly magical experience that the world is better off for being enriched with (with its context as a pacifist take on the war in Iraq being especially fascinating). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Miyazaki in the few works I’ve seen from him it’s that the world is all too lucky to have him & we should all be grateful for each precious gift he delivers on his own time.

I call Howl’s Moving Castle magical because it’s a film that values the folklore of magic, wizards, and witches over the more human realm of physical labor & constant war. A lover’s quarrel between The Wicked Witch of the Waste(land) & a frivolous, vain wizard named Howl claims the health & well-being of an innocent passerby, a young hat shop clerk whose meeting of Howl in passing enraged the jealous, possessive witch. This jealousy inspires the wicked witch to cast a spell that ages the hat shop girl horribly, so that she loses her precious youth & beauty to an old, withered body that upends her life. Determined to win back her cursed youth, the girl moves into Howl’s castle, which is indeed a moving, walking, transitive structure that would serve as event the most casual of steam punk’s wet dream. What she discovers is that he wizard is in a perpetual state of adolescence, in desperate need of someone to care for his body & home, and prone to teen angst temper tantrums that result in him summoning “the spirits of darkness” when he’s bummed & exclaiming things like “I see no point in living if I cant be beautiful!” Howl is in no shape to deal with the crushing realities of a hard-fought war & ends up needing the help & emotional support of the cursed hat shop girl just as much as she needs him.

What feels so right about the approach to magic in Howl’s Moving Castle is just how fluid everything feels in the details. The rules of the curse seem to change from scene to scene as the girl’s age fluctuates depending on her mood. Enemies who initially appear to be pure evil soon reveal themselves to be hurt, vulnerable souls in need of repair. Physical spaces (especially the titular castle) & people’s bodies (especially the wizard’s) change constantly, directly reflecting the ebb & flow of a universe that can be hopelessly cruel or endlessly wonderful depending on the tides of fate in life’s current direction. The only thing that seemingly doesn’t change is the way the film values magic & fluidity over the concrete, destructive concerns of governments & war.

Appropriately enough, it’s that exact value system that makes Miyazaki & other folks at Ghibli feel like such a gift & a blessing. They’re constantly exploring new ideas & techniques within their craft, but their general spirit is deeply rooted in an old world magic & tradition that feels both authentic & endlessly endearing. It’s a testament to how powerful the the studio’s output is that I was greatly impressed by Howl’s Moving Castle, but still hung up on the Ghibli flim about racoon testicles that I had just watched a few days before. Every Miyazaki work is worthy of attention & adoration to some degree and Howl’s Moving Castle was no exception to that rule. It wasn’t the most spectacular, wonderful, magical animated feature I’d ever seen or anything like that,but I still felt like I was lucky to have seen the film, which feels like par for the course for Miyazaki & his peers. May his retirement never be permanent & may the studio never officially close its doors. May our luck never run out.

-Brandon Ledet