Woodshock (2017)

If you celebrate Mardi Gras correctly, it tends to require a lot of drinking, walking, and dancing in the New Orleans sunshine, which usually means you arrive home exhausted in the early afternoon without much else to do for the rest of the day. It was in this fragile state that I decided to finally catch up with the low-key psychedelic thriller Woodshock, since I had surmised from the film’s advertising & reputation that it would likely be a calm, soothing watch. Indeed, Woodshock does rely on the stillness & calmness of a mechanized slideshow to establish its calming, psychedelic mood. The film also obsesses over the low-energy imagery of redwood forests, spend-all-day-in-your-underwear depression, and barely-busy marijuana dispensaries as it slowly creeps up on something resembling a psychological thriller plot. I can’t exactly say that it’s a wholly successful film or even an overall enjoyable one, but I can confirm that if you’ve had a loud, busy day reveling in the oppressive North Caribbean heat, this film’s gentle, floral mood is the perfect cannaboid tonic for your physical & mental aches. It was serviceable as post-Carnival comfort food for me, anyway. In that refractory mental state, I couldn’t have handled much more stimulation than what it glacially delivered, even though I likely would have been a lot more impatient with it on any other day of the year.

Kirsten Dunst generously donates her time as the film’s lead, a weed dispensary employee stuck in a haze of grief after the loss of her mother. Torn between her blue-collar logging worker boyfriend and her need to recover from a recent tragedy in privacy, our sullen protagonist mostly just drifts through the frame in her underwear while staring at trees or the ceiling. This insular crisis is disrupted by an even bigger problem when her gloomy daydreaming leads to the accidental sale of poison-laced joints (meant for an assisted suicide patient) to an unwitting stoner. Haunted by her mistake, she rolls several poison joints for her own consumption in what proves to be a failed suicide attempt. Instead of dying from a monster high, Dunst’s flailing protagonist finds herself violently hallucinating and committing increasingly dangerous acts while blacked out under the laced devil weed. Unfortunately, her hallucinatory descent into violence & madness doesn’t begin until about an hour into the film’s obnoxiously padded 100-minute runtime and doesn’t amount to much thematically. As an experiment in double-exposure photography and a gentle exploration of floral wallpaper psychedelia, though, it can be occasionally rewarding. It also helps that the final shot is almost stunning enough to trick you into thinking you’ve watched something substantial, when you’ve actually just been scrolling through a depressive stoner’s well-curated Instagram profile for two hours.

I was frequently impressed with Woodshock’s soft-psych visual aesthetic. The everyday majesty of the film’s impossibly tall trees, prismatic light, and tragic bedroom gloom makes filmmaking feel like a natural fit for directors Kate & Laura Mulleavy’s shared background as fashion designers. The bummer is that the movie these images serve is wholly uninterested in searching for something clear, novel, or substantial to say. I’ve seen too many movies recently that explore similar thematic territory in a more fulfilling narrative, while remaining just as visually interesting. I didn’t care for the Instagram gloom exploration of A Ghost Story either, but it felt more committed to its reflections on the haze of grief. The Lynne Ramsay psych thriller Morvern Callar was just as reliant on striking imagery & a well curated soundtrack to loosely construct its narrative, but did so with a scrappy, cranked-to-11 gusto that Woodshock never manages to convey. Most significantly, the ayahuasca-themed drama Icaros: A Vision is incredibly deft at the way it mixes grief, hallucination, and calming meditation into a clear, satisfying story that puts Woodshock to shame. The only thing I can say Woodshock does that I’ve never seen before is reverently film plastic sacks of weed as if they were the holiest of Nature’s gifts to humanity. Pot is never half as interesting as stoners believe it to be, though, and the tension of whether or not a character will smoke a poisoned joint often comes across as silly at best, when it really needs to sell pure, devastating drama to make the movie work.

No one needs me to tell them that Woodshock is underwhelming as a whole. It’s already one of A24’s worst-received releases to date, destined to be quietly forgotten by time. All I can report is that the Mulleavy sisters do have a worthwhile cinematic eye that will likely pay off in better movies down the line and that if you’re looking for a soothing, post-party cool down after an exhausting round of day-drinking, it’ll do in a pinch. Just don’t watch it if you’ve got enough mental energy to be distracted by your phone or any other available stimulation. It can only hold your attention if you’re entirely drained of your capacity to wander off or look away.

-Brandon Ledet

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Space all come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.

Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.

-Brandon Ledet

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (1969)

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When Russ Meyer voluntarily adopted the “X” rating for his first “hard sex” picture (read: softcore porn) Vixen!, he thought the distinction would serve as great free press. In a lot of ways he wasn’t wrong. Vixen! turned a huge, multi-million dollar profit for Meyer & opened a lot of doors to successes he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Unfortunately, not all of the attention of being the first American-made, X-rated release brought Vixen! was positive, though. A lot of moral policing followed the film across the country, resulting in, among other complications, arrests of projectionists & audience members at multiple screenings in the Deep South. In response, Meyer opened his next “hard sex” picture with the following rant:

“IN THE FACE OF RECENT EVENTS, SOME OF WHICH THREATEN OUR VERY EXISTENCE, THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO CONCENTRATE THEIR PUNY EFFORTS IN AREAS WHERE NO CONCERN IS NEEDED. THEY CALL LOVE EVIL . . . THE HUMAN BODY OBSCENE . . . WHERE THEY CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN BEAUTIFUL. OUR LAKES AND RIVERS FILL SLOWLY WITH DEATH. THE AIR WE BREATHE STRANGLES THE MIGHTY OAK. LITTLE BY LITTLE WE CAN SEE HUMAN COMPASSION AND LOVE GROWING LESS. AND STILL THERE ARE THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR TOY BANNERS OF PROTEST. THEY ATTEMPT TO THINK FOR THE REST OF US. DICTATE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE. THEY, THE STRONG AND PURE OF HEART, MUST PROTECT THOSE OF US WHO “THEY” HAVE DECIDED ARE WEAK. WE DO NOT QUESTION THEIR RIGHT TO PROTEST. BUT LET THEIR DECISIONS BE FOR THEMSELVES, FOR NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANOTHER. THINK ABOUT IT!”

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens in this way, with that full rant scrolling in ALL CAPS on top of a frantic montage of pornographic & industrial imagery, announcing that Russ Meyer’s id was back in full swing. In a lot of ways, Vixen! felt like a toned-down Meyer trying to reshape his bizarrely straight-laced perversions into a  marketable commodity, his weirdo tendencies only showing at the fringes. Cherry ditches that pretense & lets Meyer’s freak flag fly. Here, the chaotic montage work of Mondo Topless meets the soap opera, soft crime machinations of Common Law Cabin to reveal a new, fully-realized Meyer aesthetic that would soon reach its full potential in the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Not wasting any time in unleashing its madness upon its victims . . . I mean audience, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens with no less than three separate introductions. After the contextless, anti-censorship rant transcribed above, the film’s second opening rails against the “Evil of Marijuana” that “caresses all it comes in contact with.” Adopting some of Europe in the Raw‘s xenophobia (now directed at Mexico) & the industrial narration/pin-ups-in-motion formula of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, the film immediately launches into a second rant, this time against recreational marijuana use. The narrator flatly intones, “Pity the poor potheads, innocent victims subjugating their own free will at the mercy of the pusher, the real predator. Scant sympathy can be given to the parasites who would profit from the weaknesses & fragilities of the ill-informed.” Unfortunately, the film that follows is not exactly Meyer’s version of Reefer Madness. In fact, it has very little to do with marijuana at all. The best I can guess of what he was trying to accomplish there was in saying that just because he was willing to cash in on hippie counter-culture & “free love”, he in no way condoned the drugs that accompanied the scene. That’s Meyer in a nutshell. He’s willing to rail against censorship in one breath, but then chastise the youth for their recreational drugs in the next. To him, an unnatural, fetishistic obsession with gigantic breasts is wholesome & American. Marijuana? Not so much. That egotistical moralizing about What is Right & What’s Not often provides some of Meyer’s most fascinating work. For instance, the director’s new-found love of boobs-touching-boobs lesbian scenes wasn’t nearly as interesting when it was introduced in Vixen! as it is when paired in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! with lines like “I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.” Meyer’s films work best when you can see his own self-contradicting moral core battling itself on the screen.

If you’re wondering why I’ve only touched on the film’s introductions so far, without even mentioning its central narrative, it’s because they’re relentless. Reportedly, actress Linda Ashton (who played the titular Cherry) stormed off set mid-production, leaving Meyer with a half-completed picture. Perhaps this is what saved Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! from Vixen!‘s made-for-TV-esque mediocrity. After a third introduction sequence (keep in mind this film is only 70 min long) that features a  psych rock theme song, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! finally launches into action, telling an absurdly thin story about Harry, a corrupt, drug smuggling sheriff at the Mexican border, who’s ordered by his higher ups to take out a mysterious whistle-blower/assassin named Apache. Oh yeah, and he’s involved with a red hot nurse named Cherry. And other beautiful women are around also, including a prostitute named Raquel. And these women like to have sex. Some people die. It’s all very loose, as Meyer filled in the gaps of his half-finished scraps with his infamous sign & landscape montages, a naked mystic character named Soul (who recalls Haji’s distinctly similar role in Good Morning . . . And Goodbye!), and levels of sex & violence previously untouched in Meyer’s oeuvre. It’s a beautiful mess.

There are very few innovations brought to the table in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. It’s the first Meyer film to graphically suggest fellatio (which is pretty racy for him), the first to feature full-frontal male nudity, and the first to feature a black actress in the raw (a nice change of pace after the racist rants of Vixen!). Instead, Cherry is more remarkable for the way it brings all of Meyer’s old-hat tropes together for a single, incomprehensible picture. The lesbianism & food-fellation of Vixen! (this time it’s a celery stalk, not a dead fish) are back. Reaching further in the past, the violence of Meyer’s black & white roughies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! return here in full color this time in the form of decapitations & bloody gunfights. Also present are the strange back & forth cuts between the sexual & the innocuous, this time mixing the image of the titular Cherry & Raquel making love with Harry fighting Apache over possession of a rifle. There’s also the aforementioned industrial montages, naked frolicking, Wild Gals of the Naked West‘s cowboys & Indians cosplay, and misguided, far-reaching statements about women like a closing monologue that calls them “bi-products of our society, pretty toys to play with, superficial in their make-up, but so necessary to our way of life.” It’s all there.

At the time of its release, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! was the most Meyerest Meyer picture, a huge improvement upon the largely personality-free Vixen!. It’s a distinction that would be immediately surpassed in his next picture, but it still made for an interesting slice of over-sexed chaos nonetheless. It ended up being a blessing that Meyer had to piece together a half-completed picture in the editing room. I doubt the film would be nearly as fascinating if it were filmed as originally planned.

-Brandon Ledet