Movie of the Month: Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).

Boomer: Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a complex movie. I saw it as part of the same “Women on the Verge” film programming block at the Alamo Drafthouse last summer that also showcased An Unmarried Woman, on back to back weekends, no less. The film is largely based on the real recollections of notable 1950s model Anne St. Marie from recordings made by director Jerry Schatzberg; this was his film directing debut after having largely worked as a fashion photographer, and he made tape recordings of his conversations with St. Marie in her declining years. These tapes form the backbone of the narrative of Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway, in what I think is the finest performance of her career), with Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus) standing in as a fictional version of Schatzberg himself. This structure, even if unknown to the audience, lends the film a sense of verisimilitude, even in the moments in which Lou’s recollections are self-contradictory or self-aggrandizing and lacking in any kind of internal inspection.

In additional to great performances from Primus and Dunaway, Roy Scheider also gives a stunningly brutal edge to Mark, playing against type (like me, you probably grew up with Scheider as tough-but-fair Chief Brody in Jaws or as the paternal lead Captain Bridger on seaQuest DSV) as an abusive, hypocritical asshole. Or is he? Lou’s memories are so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s impossible to know for sure what he really did or didn’t do (although, yeah, he probably was a jerk, because everyone is in this movie, to some extent).

Britnee, what did you think of this approach to storytelling? It’s not exactly Rashomon, since we’re not seeing the same events from multiple characters’ points of view; it’s one truly unwell woman’s conflicting recollections about her life as she tries to make sense out of all the misfortunes that have befallen her, both her fault and her own, and her conscious and unconscious attempts to make her own mistakes fit a framework of existence in which everything bad happened to her and outside of her power, and all the good things in her life were the result of her actions. To me, it’s mesmerizing in its lack of self awareness while still making me very sympathetic toward Lou. How do you feel?

Britnee: At first, I was really confused as to what the film was trying to do. Was Lou lying purposefully? Were any of her recollections real? It wasn’t until I was a good half hour or so into the film that I realized the confusion I was feeling was exactly what Lou was feeling. Dunaway does such a wonderful job of making Lou’s character likable, so that her potentially false memories come off as being innocent rather than malicious. The back and forth between Lou’s flashbacks and reality made me feel like I was a peeping tom in the window of her mind. Often, spending time in Lou’s mind became super uncomfortable (especially in her memories of abuse), but those moments really helped me understand her character and sympathize with her. Her not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality is truly terrifying, and I couldn’t help but feel for her.

Films about the fashion industry always tear at my heart. Watching women being objectified and tossed out like trash once they’re of a certain age (usually 30 years old) is difficult. On a lighter note, watching films like Puzzle and comparing it to today shows how much the world of fashion and modeling has progressed. Models of all ages and sizes are gracing the covers of major fashion magazines and runway shows now. The industry still promotes some ridiculous standards for women to live up to, but it does seem to be getting better. One of the saddest scenes in Puzzle was when Lou’s was hired for a shoot as her modeling career was coming to a close. She puts on a red Lucille Ball wig and is glowing with excitement to show off her new look when a younger model arrives, completely ignoring her. To make things worse, one of the women working on the shoot makes a rather patronizing statement about her new look at the same time. She was getting kicked while she was down, and you could see it all over her face.

The fashion world was so cruel to Lou, and the saddest part is that she had no true friends or family to fall back on for support. At first, it seems like Aaron is the only one in the world that is concerned about Lou, but in the end, he uses her just like everyone else. She has so much faith and admiration for him, so watching him exploit her mental illness during the interview made me so angry. Brandon, did you feel the same way about Aaron?

Brandon: It’s important to note that Lou interacts with two entirely different versions of Aaron, reflected in two entirely different timelines. I do believe that Aaron exploited Lou and worsened her mental condition through his own greedy actions, but I’m not so sure that his taped interviews with her were the worst of that exploitation. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that any interview was recorded in the first place. Boomer mentioned that the film was based off a real-life set of interviews the director recorded with a fashion model he once collaborated with, but that information is extratextual. Within the reality of the film, confidently saying that anything that materializes onscreen actually “happened” is a bold claim. Lou might be, through no fault of her own, the least reliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. It’s not that she’s actively lying to make herself appear more important or morally superior through historical revision, either; it’s that she’s so mentally fraught that her memories and real-time perception cannot be trusted – least of all by herself. It’s difficult to say whether the older, contemporary Aaron is actually visiting her in the recorded interviews framing device. Not only is Aaron much gentler & kinder in those exchanges than he is in earlier memories, but Lou also interrupts one of her exchanges with him to mentally project herself on the beach outside the window, interacting with an entirely different character in lipsync. We see the world through her shattered-glass eyes, so I don’t know that we can even trust that she’s talking to Aaron in those exchanges at all. She could as easily be just talking to a wall and playing her arrhythmic castanets to no one.

If he does exist as represented onscreen, I suppose Aaron exploiting his former crush and collaborator’s mental breakdown for filmmaking fodder is a little cruel, but his intentions mostly appear to be noble. He’s at least recording her story in her words, offering a creative platform for an artist whose industry has abandoned her as she’s gotten too old and too “difficult” to turn them a profit. It’s the younger Aaron, the one who more likely exists, who really came across as a villain to me. I think of Puzzle of a Downfall Child as one of the Driven Mad By The Patriarchy mental-breakdown dramas (which are generally excellent as one-woman acting showcases, proven true by Dunaway here). As with the protagonists of films like A Woman Under the Influence, Persona, safe., The Nun, The Love Witch, and countless others, Lou is a broken person who’s lost her sense of reality and sense of self trying to live up to patriarchal standards by becoming The Ideal Woman. Whether or not she was biologically predisposed to having dysfunctional mental health, the cruelty & exploitation that defines her life as a woman in the modern world is what sends her over the edge. Even when she’s still a young schoolgirl, all anyone wants from her is sex & profit, a systemic objectification that continues throughout her adult life. As her only close friend, Aaron was in a unique position to be the one person in her life who could help her, to be the one person concerned for her well-being instead of pushing her to satisfy his own desires. Instead, he pressures her into (ultimately nonconsensual) sex through the guise of artistically collaborating as photographer & model. It’s the most devastating betrayal of a film that’s overflowing with selfish cruelty in nearly every scene.

What I’m having a difficult time reconciling here is how those two versions of Aaron (the framing-device interviewer & the in-memories photographer) overlap, and what Schatzberg is saying about himself in the process. CC, do you read a lot of guilt & remorse in the director’s depictions of his own real-life relationship with Anne St. Marie here or do you think the project was more driven by his pity for her, blind to how he came across onscreen through the avatar of Aaron?

CC: I honestly feel uncomfortable trying to parse out the director’s intent here. This is a film that directly grapples with how people present their own image, clearly establishing that we cannot be trusted to present ourselves truthfully. If nothing else, that alone makes any attempt to guess Schaztberg’s intent a maddening puzzle with no possible satisfying answer. We can all at least agree that Aaron does bad things and it’s not flattering; supposing anything more than that would be pure speculation.

No matter what he intended with his minor self-portrait or his more elaborate depiction of a woman in crisis, Schatzberg is at least in good company. I find it fascinating that so many male directors of the 1970s were fixated on this topic. Much like Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence, Altman in 3 Women, Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Polansky in Repulsion, Schatzberg toes a thin line between empathy and exploitation in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. These are all sympathetic portraits with a shared critical eye for how women are ritually broken down by their place in society. As Ebert described when he called movies “a machine that generates empathy,” they put you in the mind of a type of woman who rarely gets to center her own story. They’re also excellent actors’ showcases for women who are unlikely to find such substantial roles elsewhere, most significantly Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. That’s why it’s disappointing that they’re so often filtered through the directorial male ego. It also may be part of the reason I consistently find this genre deeply upsetting and unenjoyable, even if the films are well made.

To his credit, Schatzberg did collaborate with a female writing partner, Carol Eastman, who earned sole credit for the movie’s completed screenplay. It was Eastman who chose to base the final product off interviews Schatzberg conducted with friend & model Anne St. Marie, who he claims he never had a sexual affair with in real life. As such, the depictions of Lou, Aaron, and every other character onscreen is just as much a creation of her voice as anyone else’s. Boomer, how do you think this collaboration with Eastman distinguishes Puzzle of a Downfall Child from other examples of its genre where the male director wrote the screenplay on their own? Is it important at all that a woman co-write this film? What might have been lost if it were written entirely by a man?

Boomer: That’s a great question. I mentioned before that this film and An Unmarried Woman were part of the same Alamo Drafthouse specialty series, which took its name, “Women Under the Influence: Life, Love, and Madness in the ’70s,” from the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, the first film in the showcase. The fourth and final film was the seldom-seen Play it as it Lays, based on Joan Didion’s novel and directed by her husband; they, too, shared writing credit. Jazmyne Moreno, whom I mentioned before as the host of Austin Film Society Cinema’s screening of On the Silver Globe and who is the current host and programmer of AFS’s Lates Series, was the (co-)programmer for these, and I respect her judgment a lot; she’s an amazing person and I’ve never been let down by any of her programs (her introduction for Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place and a screening of Friday Foster way back in March 2017 are particular highlights of my Austin filmgoing experiences). We’re coming to these films with nearly 50 years of cultural criticism in the interim, and all of the touchstones of women-driven empathy machines of the era that you noted are well chosen, because you’re right: there is an issue of cultural distance via time that separates us from what were groundbreaking films at the time but which are not entirely without an element of exploitation with regards to the women at the core of the film. But just because Hans Robert Jauss is dead doesn’t mean he was wrong: every text has a different face for each reader, and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I share your discomfort with trying to parse Schatzberg’s authorial intent, but I have to admit that I’m equally vexed by trying to suss out what Eastman’s intention was, not least of all because I would be projecting my male reading onto her female authorship, which this discussion has made me acutely aware of. I can’t make claims about her intentions with any authority, so I hope it will suffice it to say that my personal head canon is that she either (a) liked Schatzberg and wanted to lovingly take the piss a little by making his author avatar a bit of a dirtbag, or (b) she was subversively using the medium of the screenplay to take potshots at him behind his back. I hope it’s the former, but the latter is also of interest. Either way, even though Schatzberg was close to the film’s original inspirational personality, I still find it doubtful that the film would have been as sensitive to Lou had Eastman and her pen not been there to ensure that there was a woman’s voice in the creative room. Brandon mentioned the way that Lou was the victim of systemic objectification from a young age; it’s easy to imagine a film without Eastman’s influence playing Lou’s pubescent “seduction” only as it was first shown, a kind of mutual attraction, affection, and teasing, and not as it really was upon later revisitation, a clear-cut case of a man taking advantage of a much younger woman. We can never be sure, but I’m glad we don’t have to know.

We’ve talked a lot about issues related to the fashion industry and systemic sexism and all of its accompanying moral evils. What I remembered most about this movie after spending a year apart from it before this rewatch was Dunaway’s performance, which may be the highlight of her career. Contemporary reviews were mixed; the New York Times cited ” a character of such lovely, tentative lucidity that to be with her is, as it should be, worth a whole movie,” while Variety stated she “first garners wholesome pity, but the plot development soon banishes her to bathos and finally boredom.” Britnee, what did you think? Were there any other performances in the film that stood out to you?

Britnee: Dunaway’s performance in Puzzle was definitely one of her best. Her best performance to me will always be her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, which is a film I quote at least once a week. Puzzle is a close second though. Dunaway really has a way of having characters take over her completely, just like when a ghost uses a human body as a vessel. Interestingly enough, her role in both films is based on an actual person, as is her star-making role in Bonnie & Clyde. Maybe biopics are her jam?

I really enjoyed the scenes of the film that were set at Lou’s beach cottage. I would have loved to hangout with her there, sipping coffee or tea while listening to her stories that intertwine fantasy and reality. Her character reminds me of some of my favorite family members and friends whom I visit to get a good story, be it a delusion of grandeur or a memory from many years ago. I just love to listen, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Lou’s character so much.

The only other performance that stood out to me (other than Aaron, which I mentioned earlier) is Mark. As Boomer mentioned, his character in Puzzle is so different from Jaws’s Chief Brody. Years ago, I watched All That Jazz, where Schneider portrays a character loosely based on Bob Fosse, who is a womanizing douchebag. I remember being slightly heartbroken seeing Chief Brody play a “bad” guy, and that feeling resurfaced while watching Mark in Puzzle. If I had not been so familiar with his Jaws character, I don’t think his performance would have been as stand out as it was. Either way, he still wasn’t nearly as interesting as Lou.

I had no idea who Anne St. Marie was prior to watching Puzzle, but I have found myself searching for her modeling photographs and articles about her career since watching the film. Brandon, did Puzzle spark an interest in Anne St. Marie’s career for you?

Brandon: Not really. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive of Anne St. Marie as a historical figure & an artist, but there’s nothing especially unique to her story (as presented in the film) that doesn’t apply to all fashion models everywhere. A straight-forward birth-to-death biopic or even a feature length documentary on her life would most likely struggle to fill the time with something to say, besides just packing the screen with her more notable photographs. Puzzle of a Downfall Child doesn’t have many major events in Anne St. Marie’s life to build a traditional narrative around, which is partly what affords it so much room to explore the more intangible aspects of her life’s story: the ways her mental illness distort her understanding of the world and the ways the fashion industry compounds the mental & emotional toll of The Patriarchy. How much of those themes & tones are specifically true to Anne St. Marie and how much was an artistic fabrication of Schatzberg & Eastman’s is up for debate, but I feel like I’ve already learned more about the type of person Anne St. Marie was through this movie than I could ever gather by reading a factual biography on her life & career.

If I were going to investigate Anne St. Marie’s career any further, I’d most want to see a slideshow or a lookbook of her best outfits & photographs. Fashion is an artform I know embarrassingly little about, but I do find its visual pleasures to be magnificent. Like the opera or the ballet, it’s an artform that I always love to see interpreted through cinema for the inherent visual splendor of its setting, especially when paired with a genre conceit or avant-garde filmmaking techniques: Blood and Black Lace, Phantom Thread, The Neon Demon, etc. Puzzle of a Downfall Child does a great job of utilizing a fashion industry aesthetic for cinematic visual indulgences and thematic explorations of systemic misogyny & mental health crises. Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film. I’d love to see some of Anne St. Marie’s work just to appreciate the visual pleasures of her artform, but I feel like abandoning the birth-to-death biopic template that sticks to factual bullet points about the subject made for a better story & a better film.

CC, can you think of any notable fashion industry artists—whether model, designer, or photographer—where that would not be true? Is there anyone who has worked in fashion who you’d rather see a factual biopic about their life than a poetic cinematic interpretation like Puzzle of a Downfall Child, or would that loose interpretation always be the preferable approach?

CC: I also tend to prefer this interpretive, expressive style of filmmaking over the traditional biopic. If I wanted to dig into a straightforward biography on a historical figure’s life, I’d just read their Wikipedia page. Even the most factually accurate biopics never really get to the core essence of their subjects the way these more artistic interpretations do. You can never truly capture a person’s inner life on film, but movies like Puzzle of a Downfall Child at least edgecloser to that ideal than a straightforward biopic ever could. Besides, just providing the facts of their life isn’t really all that interesting, so this way is much more entertaining.

There are a few fashion figures I’d like to see receive this treatment. The first that comes to mind is the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only does Schiaparelli have an interesting biographical background as someone who fled her childhood as the daughter of nobility and academics (and the tedious suitors therein) to marry a fortune teller in London and start her own career as an designer (and eventually a single mother); she also just had an approach to fashion that might make for a great movie artistically. Interpreting fashion as a graphic artform and not just a utilitarian necessity of life, Schiaparelli worked closely with Surrealists like Salvador Dali & Man Ray. I’m no filmmaker so I can’t speculate exactly how one would interpret her life & work for the screen, but I imagine the clash of couture fashion & Surrealism alone would give you a lot to work with.

I could also imagine an interesting movie based on Schiaparelli’s mentor Paul Poiret. In fact, most of the names that immediately come to mind for movie treatments are designers, not models. That’s likely because designers are already afforded their own voice creatively in a way models aren’t, so I already somewhat know what they have to offer. One of Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s more striking choices is in offering a voice to a type of fashion industry figure who’s usually denied that outlet, apparently repressing it to the point of inflicting insanity.

Lagniappe

CC: For a film about fashion I found most of the clothing to be pretty lackluster in this. The make-up was on-point, though.

Britnee: One very minor scene in Puzzle that stuck with me was when Lou and Aaron were eating hot dogs in Central Park. Watching Faye Dunaway eating sloppy street hot dog made me laugh for a good bit.

Boomer: It wasn’t until Brandon pointed it out that I realized that yes, this is very much like a giallo film. No wonder I loved it so much.

Brandon: It’s appalling how little effort has gone into properly distributing this film on physical media. You can catch restored 35mm screenings at film festivals or scattered repertory venues, but it’s never seen official VHS or DVD distribution in the US (oddly, it has been afforded that respect in France). Luckily, that lack of proper stewardship does leave the movie open to more . . . questionable modes of distribution, which is why you can watch Puzzle of a Downfall Child in shockingly high quality on YouTube right now. A proper Criterion Blu-ray release for the film feels both necessary and inevitable, but for now take what you can get:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Knife+Heart (2019)

Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies-set giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?

It’s 1979, Paris. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) makes “blue movies,” better known as gay pornography, along with her best friend Archie (Nicolas Maury), cameraman François (Bertrand Mandico) and her lover of ten years, Loïs (Kate Moran), although that relationship has recently come to an end. Tragedy strikes when one of her actors, the insatiable “Karl” (Bastien Waultier), is stabbed to death by a man in a terrifying full face mask after a night out cruising. As a result, Anne is interviewed by Inspector Morcini (Yann Collette); back in the studio, she retitles their current production to Homocidal and recreates this interaction with Archie in her place and heroin addict Thierry (Félix Maritaud, of BPM and Sauvage) and José (Noé Hernández) in the roles of the police. Anne recruits a new actor, Nans (Khaled Alouach), who is noted for his twin-like resemblance (not his twink-like resemblance, although that could also apply) to a former star of hers named Fouad, which is fortunate; after Thierry is also murdered, most of the actors fear returning to set. In her personal life, Anne spends her days drinking straight from the bottle of whisky that she keeps on herself at all times and stalking Loïs around nightclubs when she isn’t too drunk to move. After a third murder, Anne traces the clues to a forest that, according to folklore, is used for faith healing via grackle—as with most gialli, it only makes marginally more sense in context—where she finds a small cemetery and the grave of Guy (Jonathan Genet), and the answer to the identity and motivations of the killer.

The only negative thing that I can say about Knife+Heart is that the fact that it now exists means that I may now never finish my own giallo script (titled Profundo Giallo, naturally, because I am a NERD), which features many of the same narrative beats, although for the sake of future copyrights I should note that Gonzalez and I were both drawing from the same well of archetypical giallo ideas. Still, it may end up being difficult to prove that we independently came to the idea of having a queer character (Loïs here, Oliver in PG) whose relationship with a primary protagonist ended poorly discover a vital clue while reviewing grainy footage. Really, we’re just both putting the same twist on the standard giallo trope that I call “Obscured Clues,” which was the most frequently recurring narrative element in Argento’s Canon; that is, a character witnesses something that they do not initially realize is a clue and then struggle to recall its importance.

Knife+Heart is a neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus. It’s surely no coincidence that the film is set in 1979, on the eve of what we would come to know as the AIDS epidemic; the establishment of the era, represented by the police department and their dismissive treatment of the killings of Anne’s actors, is largely unconcerned with a series of tragedies that befall society’s “undesirables.” This is made more manifest by the way that the pretty young things are killed: in cruising bars and by-the-hour hotels, in alleys with needles in their arms, etc. I could honestly live the rest of my life in happiness without ever seeing another AIDS allegory film, but this one manages to weave subtlety into this tapestry, which makes for a better narrative overall. That this can happen in a movie that also features an actor campily full-on humping a typewriter in one of Homocidal’s scenes speaks to a strong directorial vision.

Anne is no doubt destined to be a divisive character; in his review for MovieJawn, Anthony Glassman writes that Paradis’s character “metamorphoses from a drunken psychopath into a driven and caring mother figure,” and although I was fully within Anne’s headspace, horrible person though she is at times, I can’t really disagree. Repeatedly, we see that she is incapable of accepting that her relationship with Loïs has come to an end, and we realize that this love is far from healthy, given both Anne’s obsession and Loïs’s inconsistency as she verbally spurns Anne over and over again while also leading her on and admitting that she still loves her. That this leads Anne to stalk Loïs around a nightclub saturated with over-the-top radiant lighting and finally confront (and assault) her makes Anne despicable but no less sympathetic. The film almost dares you to try and hate Anne, but if you’ve a queer person who has ever had your heart broken to the point that you drink yourself into a stupor on a nightly basis and wake up in strange places, then you understand every drive that Anne has, even if her actions are occasionally unforgivable.

This is best epitomized in one of the most underrated scenes in the film (I’ve seen no mention of it in any other reviews that I have read), in which Anne attends an art performance at a lesbian bar where the two participants are a woman in lingerie and another woman in a bear suit. The human character begs for the bear’s love, and the bear attempts to refuse, claiming that to love the woman is to destroy her, but the woman doesn’t care. To love is to be devoured; to love is to devour. As the bear demonstrates its love for the woman, its claws leaving theatrical trails of stage blood all over her body, the woman begs for this destruction, demands to be completely destroyed, and the bear can do nothing but oblige, its love is so all-consuming that neither of them can stop. It’s so fucking powerful and real. To love is to die; love is to kill. Love is to consume and be consumed until there is nothing left but char and ash and fragments that say to every passerby: “A fire was here, and it destroyed all that it touched, but in those moments of destruction, each thing touched was brighter than the sun.”

I could go on and on about this movie for about 10,000 more words, but not without spoiling anything (the Golden Mouth is a delight!). This is a delightfully and unabashedly queer movie, and the world has never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Belizaire the Cajun (1986).

Britnee: My family has been living along Bayou Lafourche since the Acadian Expulsion (1755-1763), which was a time during the Seven Years’ War when the British forced the Acadians out of what is now modern day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Isle. They were put on nasty old ships and landed in Southern Louisiana. Some of my relatives were even born on those migrant ships! Of course, there’s so much to Acadian Expulsion that I’m not mentioning here, but I don’t want this to turn into a history paper. As the Acadian’s settled in Southern Louisiana, they became known as the Cajuns. Cajun life was and still is so much different than any other culture in the United States. Unfortunately, there aren’t many films that offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be Cajun. The only film that I believe does an exceptional job of grasping the essence of Cajun life is 1986’s Belizaire the Cajun. The film’s director, Glen Pitre, is from Down the Bayou (Cut Off to be exact), and his ancestral background is similar to mine. He has a true understanding of the Cajun way of life, and it shines through every second of Belizaire.

I’m so glad that I got to share this film with the Swampflix crew because it’s such an important film for folks from Down the Bayou. I used to rent it from my local library when I was a kid, and all my family talked about it like it was the best movie on Earth. Watching it recently made me realize that Cajuns have really never changed. We are still in tune with nature, and nothing in the world means more to us than our family, friends, and faith. Also, I hate wearing shoes more than anything, so it was nice to see the majority of the cast shoe-less and walking around without a care in the world.

The main character, Belizaire (Armand Assante), is such a likeable guy. He’s a goofball with a big heart, and you can’t help but root for him. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Belizaire? Would you want him to be in your inner circle or would you stay as far away from him as possible?

Brandon: The most immediately pleasing aspect of this movie for me was the tagline that accompanied its 25th Anniversary re-release. The posters and trailers for that 2011 reissue all boast that Belizaire the Cajun is “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!,” which is an amusing claim, but a bold one. I couldn’t shake this question from my head while watching the film, thanks to that marketing, and now I’m hung up on it all over again thanks to Britnee’s prompt: Is Belizaire cool? Sure, he’s likeable and we want him to succeed as the titular hero of the picture, but is he cool? Thankfully, the answer is yes . . . mostly.

The only obstacles that hold Belizaire back from being 100% cool are a result of the film’s rural 19th Century setting. We’re introduced to him in the opening scene at his nerdiest: negotiating with a priest about how many prayers he’s assigned to say as penance for the day’s confession of sins, bargaining to lower the number to loosen up some free time. This may be the lapsed Catholic in me talking, but I would not personally rate Christian Humor anywhere near the leather jackets & switchblades end of the cool scale, even if religious faith comes standard with his community & era. What’s even less cool is Belizaire’s persistence in pursuing his love interest: a married woman who has shot him down hundreds of times without him ever taking the hint. I don’t want to hold this fictional 19th Century courtship up to a 2010s standard, but there’s something severely uncool about Belizaire continually stirring up shit in an already volatile marriage out of boredom & lust, especially since the woman who repeatedly rejects him expresses fear that her husband will physically retaliate against the both of them whether or not their flirtations are consummated.

Pretty much everything else about Belizaire is cool as fuck, though. He’s a bearded apothecary herbalist who looks like he stepped off the front cover of a paperback romance novel. He plays accordion in the most popular band at the local fais do-do. He’s extemely loyal to his community, to the point where he’ll stand trial for crimes he did not commit just to buy his innocently accused friends some time to escape. His active resistance against the invading, wealthy Anglophones who aim to evict his people from Louisiana mostly involves good-natured pranks & Old Hollywood swashbuckling – to the point where he’s swinging Tarzan-style from his own execution noose to save innocent lives from danger. I’m not sure the movie that contains him is something I’d call “cool” on its own merits; its production style largely feels reminiscent of cheap TV costume dramas like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. However, anyone in any era would feel safer & cooler having a Belizaire in their inner circle.

If we accept that Belizaire is cool, then the only remaining question raised by that tagline is whether or not the world knows about him. Belizaire the Cajun cannot be “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!” if it never truly reached the outside world. Britnee has indicated that the film has a special place in the heart of folks Down the Bayou, but I have less of a sense of whether it truly resonated elsewhere. I know it experienced some financial backing & signal boosting from celebrities (Robert Redford & Robert Duvall) and film festivals (Sundance & Cannes), but that’s about all I know. CC, do you get the sense that Belizaire the Cajun reached enough people to “teach the world” anything? Is this film’s legacy more detectable as a global educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture or as a rare glimpse of local representation on the big screen?

CC: I did some very informal polling and very light research so I can say with absolute[ly no] authority that while Belizaire the Cajun certainly had an impact on the Cajun French community that still lived “down the bayou” and participated in the filmmaking process, I don’t think it had a lasting cultural impact outside of Louisiana. It’s still fondly remembered by the folks of Cote Blanche and, based on Britnee’s love for the film, is still being passed down to the next generation of proud Cajuns. However, other than a few passing remarks in (mostly local) publications citing it as part of the Cajun cultural wave that “swamped” America in the 1980s (along with Zydeco music and the food of Paul Prudhomme), it seems to have mostly faded from the public consciousness after 1990. Even in contemporary reviews that were not particularly kind to Belizaire, the traditional Zydeco and Cajun music of Michael Doucet was always given a positive nod. In fact, the only awards attention this film received in the United States was a nomination for the 1987 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Cajun food and music were essential to the sudden national interest in the regions culture in the 1980s. Belizaire the Cajun seemed to be an attempt to add filmmaking to that gumbo, but the Cajun Cinema concept never really took off the way it did in other art forms.

Even if the rest of the world didn’t “get” Belizaire, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Glen Pitre began his career making documentaries and “Gumbo Westerns” in Cajun French, filmed on location, with local volunteers as his cast and crew. It was For Us By Us situation. Belizaire was an ambitious and risky attempt to transcend his niche as a foreign-language filmmaker working in America. Even with the guidance and mentorship of the Sundance Institute, Pitre didn’t “go Hollywood;” he continued to rely on his community to help him create a film that would both celebrate their culture as it was and introduce it to the rest of the country. Belizaire definitely falls into the category of celebration of cultural representation more so than educational tool.

One of the national newspaper reviews I read in preparation for my response was confused about a major conflict between the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns. To them it seemed very abrupt, like the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns had lived side by side and all of a sudden the Americans turned on the Cajuns. Why exactly did the Anglo-Americans seemed so intent on taking the Cajun land? Did they hate them for being Catholic? Were they greedy for land? Were they just plain evil? The answer seemed pretty straightforward to me as someone who’s lived here and knows the history, so I suspect outside reviewers were only confused because they lacked proper context. Boomer, was the motivation for the conflict confusing to you, as a fellow local? Did the movie do a good enough job explaining the larger clash between the Cajuns and the Anglo-Americans before getting into the specifics of Belizaire’s own personal conflicts?

Boomer: Although I grew up in Louisiana and took the Louisiana History class that I assume everybody did when they were in eighth grade, that course’s coverage of Cajun history was pretty underdeveloped. Even with regards to this film that taught “the world,” when I called my local video store, it was still only available on VHS, from Key Video of all companies, essentially locking it away in a format that only we diehards could access, like some kind of arcane knowledge. I don’t really think that any more information than what’s provided is needed to understand the film, since anyone living in 2019 who paid attention to any history class at any point in their lives with a textbook that wasn’t written by Rupert Murdoch knows that the narrative of Western history is invade, kill, and overtake, endlessly, as far as our species has maintained records. That contemporary reviews seemed to need more context than this really only highlights how recently any awareness of historical atrocities has penetrated the mainstream. That being said, it’s not terribly surprising that they may have been confused, as I was, by the focus on anti-Cajun vigilantism in a vacuum. Halfway through the film, when we see Matt’s family’s plantation–and black people onscreen–for the first time, I asked myself what year this was again (1854) and immediately thought “Those are slaves.” It may be that the film critics who came before us thought it was unusual that this went completely unremarked upon when the film’s sympathies lie so firmly with the displaced Cajuns that there’s none to spare for anyone else suffering under Anglos.

I found myself charmed by this one in a way I wasn’t expecting. I loved that Belizaire was essentially a larger-than-life mythical figure who wanders around the swampside doling out folk wisdom and folk medicine at the same time, pulling a reverse Moses (“Let my people stay”) with the local government on behalf of his fellows in diaspora, performing a Samsonian labor by using his ball and chain to break out of jail, and his Messianic archetypicality is solidified when he spends the film’s finale being (not quite) executed between two real criminals, one of whom even accepts his shenanigans. All that’s missing is the cry of “Give us Barabbas!” Britnee, do you see these themes as well, or am I only in a Biblical mood because, as of the time of this writing, it’s Easter weekend?

Britnee: I think you’re on to something with this Biblical connection. Belizaire is a traiteur, which is essentially a faith healer. Traiteurs use their gifts from God to perform miracles and can cure just about anything with prayer and a little help from Mother Nature. My granny actually used to bring my dad and his siblings to one when they were kids! Belizaire is basically Swamp Jesus. Other than performing “miracles,” some of his other Christ-like qualities include his willingness to sacrifice his life to bring peace to his community and his attempts to use reasoning to avoid violence (for the most part). Also, he has the look of Jesus down to a T with his long brown locks, facial hair, loose fitting clothes, and dirty bare feet. It’s obvious that Pitre had Jesus in mind when creating Belizaire’s character.

Something that I wanted to touch on with Belizaire is the murder mystery that’s thrown in the latter half of the film. I think it’s incorporated well and doesn’t disturb the film’s flow, but it’s still pretty surprising as the beginning of the film is more of a historical drama/love story. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the whodunit within Belizaire? Did you like how the film was a mix of genres or was it too much for one movie?

Brandon: Based on the opening text scrawl that quickly explains the historical context for Cajuns (once again) being evicted from their lands and the film’s first-act depictions of that very conflict, I did not at all expect this to turn into a murder mystery. I suppose the more expected route would be for Belizaire and his romantic rival to gradually come to an understanding that unites the two opposed communities and saves the Cajuns from being pushed into Texas, tidily resolving the conflict forever. That more traditional plot would have ensured that this film would be a VHS-era classroom standard throughout Louisiana, an educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture that doesn’t vilify Anglos in the process. Instead, we suffer through a shockingly violent whipping, a subsequent murder seemingly committed in retaliation, and a death-row criminal trial where the accused repeatedly escapes imprisonment to prove his innocence and expose the true killer. I don’t know that the murder-mystery plot was my favorite aspect of Belizaire the Cajun, mostly because it’s clear who the killer is long before their identity is revealed. I do love that the film was able to surprise me with that genre shift, though, since I felt like I already could see the pattern it was going to follow ten minutes into its story only to be proven very, very wrong. It also helped the picture feel like a legitimate Hollywood production on a scale far above its locally-funded indie cinema budget, especially in moments where Belizaire is allowed to attempt some swashbuckling stunts (punching his rivals, jumping off of buildings, swinging Tarzan-style from his own noose, etc.). It’s the aspect of the film that most makes it feel like a major motion picture instead of a classroom teaching tool and, thus, it’s the one that most subverted my expectations.

As strange as the introduction of a murder mystery halfway into the film feels from a narrative structure standpoint, the resolution to that mystery is almost even more unexpected. Belizaire reveals the true killer to his community and their oppressors from the vantage point of his own execution platform the very minute he’s meant to be hanged. It’s a lengthy, dialogue-heavy climax that plays directly into Cajun superstitions about gris-gris in a fascinating way, while also working hard to tidy up every disparate subplot in a single maneuver. CC, was the execution sequence a satisfying conclusion to this story for you? What did you think of the tactic of allowing Belizaire to hold court for a lengthy period of time as a climax to this picture?

CC: That third act, woof. I think that climactic scene took way, way, waaaaay too long to play out. Belizaire insists on executing his entire last will and testament at his actual execution. The scene grows comically and exasperatingly long as he hands out each and every bottle of medicine, bundle of herbs, and pinch of dirt he can conjure up before building to his big finale. Then, at his own hanging, in front of each and every gathered individual of the community, after giving each person a gift, after they begin to chant that they love him and don’t want him to go, he starts to build the case that perhaps he was not the murderer after all. His method for circumventing his own death is a rather neat trick, but one that should have been achieved in half the time.

Boomer, the only major facet of the film we haven’t discussed so far is the music, even though that seems to be its most enduring legacy outside Louisiana. Does that longevity surprise you? Did the music stand out to you as exceptional?

Boomer: I watched this with my best friend, and every few minutes, I would turn to her and say something along the lines of “I’m surprisingly charmed by this, Kat.” As has been mentioned, although I had never seen this movie and don’t remember ever even hearing about it, the title Belizaire the Cajun immediately transported me to elementary school movie days based on its name alone. Kat and I got into a discussion and, although I have always thought that I just don’t like period pieces, we came to an agreement that period pieces were fine-to-great, as long as they weren’t cheaply made (this is the difference between something like Barry Lyndon or The Favourite and every lousy western you’ve ever sat through). I watched this on an original domestic 1987 Key Video VHS release (my dear beloved Vestron handled the international release, operating out of West Germany) rented from the wonderful people at Vulcan Video, and the grain of the video combined with the lack of any immediately recognizable actors put me in the mindset of a rainy day recess, and I was pretty resistant to what seemed like a bargain basement period drama at first, until I gave myself over to it and was carried away. All of this is to say that, to be honest, the music didn’t leave much of an impression on me, unfortunately. I was more captivated by the bizarre nature of the story and the twists. I remember zydeco music, to be sure, especially during the scene at the dance, but even then I was more invested in some of the minor but impressive aspects that made sense (like the fact that the dance starts during daylight, which it would have to, as pre-electricity night travel was dangerous even before the Anglos started their little vigilante bands) and the fun little moments from the minor characters (“I’ve only got two rules: the drunks stay outside, and the drinks stay outside”). The only other times that I noticed the music were when it felt out of place; the jaunty jig that plays during one of Belizaire’s escapes really breaks the mood. There were moments when the sound editing really struck me, like the ambient animal noises of the bayou and bayou-adjacent in many of the night scenes, but the music just didn’t stand out to me.

Another little moment of verisimilitude worth pointing out in conclusion: my best friend recently finished law school at LSU, and when Willoughby is being told off by Rebecca, there is a moment where she tells him that he’s not in Mississippi anymore and that, per Louisiana law, she will inherit half of Old Perry’s property. Kat turned to me and said that this was true and had always been true, and that the French had been pretty progressive with regards to the inheritance and property rights of daughters. So score one for Louisiana for once.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It amuses me to no end that we are releasing this conversation during the madness surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, considering how much of that conflict also revolves around estates, the relative rights of bastard children, and last minute legitimizations of heretofore unrecognized heirs.

CC: I really liked the scene where Belizaire negotiates with the brother-in-law of the man he supposedly murdered to get an increasing number of his farm goods in exchange for a false confession that he has no intention of delivering. It’s a classic Br’er Rabbit-type con.

Brandon: The sound quality on the 25th anniversary DVD wasn’t exactly impeccable, so we ended up watching most of this film with the subtitles switched on for clarity. I highly recommend the experience. For some reason, the captions translated the Cajun French phrasings into English instead of merely transcribing them as-is, which means that while you’re watching Belizaire solve a murder mystery you also get to learn a little French as lagniappe.

Britnee: A large number of Cajuns from Down the Bayou are very hostile towards immigrants and refugees. There’s even a huge billboard in Cut Off with a photo of a victim of a car accident from over 20 years ago that says something like, “My son was killed by an illegal immigrant” (the car that hit the victim was driven by an undocumented shipyard worker). I’ve always hated driving along the beautiful bayou side and seeing that ignorant eyesore. Re-watching the reenactments of violence against the displaced Cajuns in Belizaire just added to my confusion of anti-immigrant sentiment Down the Bayou. I’ve had countless arguments with my elder family members about the similarities between modern day refuges and our own ancestors, and I always get the same response: “It’s not the same.” Perhaps it’s time for them to give Belizaire another watch.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

SHAZAM! (2019)

Look, up in the sky! It’s Zachary Levi, and he’s buff as hell! And we’re all calling him “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel,” for reasons that were complicated for a long time and are even more complex now. Great!

SHAZAM! is a whole hell of a lot of fun, a modern day kid’s wish fulfillment film that harkens back to a time when it was still possible for such a thing to be dark, vulgar, and tongue-in-cheek. This is a movie in which 14-year-olds are bullied for being different, catastrophic car accidents are presented in brutal detail and have life-altering consequences, kids are interested in strip clubs despite the preponderance of internet porn, giant demon monsters bite adult heads off and capture children, and one of the first things that two underage teenage boys elect to do upon realizing that one of them appears to be an adult is buy beer. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of sentiment here as well, though it manages to avoid being cloying for the most part, and even I was surprised at how much it was able to manipulate my emotions – I mean “move me” – in its emotional moments. It has a lot of heart, is what I’m saying, but manages to avoid getting treacly by balancing its emotionality with good jokes and the occasional supernatural murder.

In 1974, Thad Sivana is en route with his cruel and demanding father (John Glover, who looks amazing for 74) and bullying older brother to his grandfather’s house for Christmas when his Magic 8-Ball toy flashes a series of glyphs and he is transported to the Rock of Eternity, a realm from which all magic flows. He meets the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who tells of the council of wizards who safeguard magic, of which he is the last living remnant, and of the Seven Deadly Sins, trapped on the Rock in statue form. He offers the boy a chance to accept his power and take his place as the champion of magic, but Thad is more drawn to a magical object, which whispers to him. Shazam tells him that he has failed the test and transports him back to his father’s car, whereupon he freaks out and attempts to get “back” by jumping out of the moving car, causing an accident.

In the present, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old foster kid who has run from dozens of homes in the eleven years since his mother lost him at a carnival. After the foster system catches up with him after his most recent escape, he is placed with Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans), former foster kids themselves who run their own home now. Their eldest is Mary (Grace Fulton), who is soon to finish high school and about to start college, followed by Freddie (IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer), the same age as Billy, a disabled nerd obsessed with superheroes, which, lest we forget, exist in this world. There’s also the overweight Pedro (Jovan Armand), whose “goal is to get swole,” preteen Eugene (Ian Chen), whose schtick is being obsessed with video games, and the youngest, Darla (Faithe Herman), a sweet elementary-aged girl whose greatest desire is to show Billy the affection that he so desperately needs and get that same love in return (she also steals every scene that she’s in). Meanwhile and elsewhere, the now adult Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has an entire facility of psychologists and scientists working on the phenomenon of “mass hallucinations” by tracking down and interviewing others who were brought to the Rock of Eternity and failed to pass the test. Finding his way in, he unleashes the Sins from their captivity and becomes their magical champion.

Billy is prepared to take off again pretty much immediately, but as he’s attempting to disappear after his first day of school, he helps Freddie fight off two bullies (Carson MacCormac and Evan Marsh) who first assault him and then mock him for being motherless. Escaping, he too finds himself at the Rock of Eternity, where the now-dying Shazam chooses Billy as his champion, allowing him to turn into a magically-powered adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he speaks the word “Shazam!” But as long as those powers exist, the Sins won’t rest … .

After all the origin stories that we’re all so sick of, one comes along that absolutely works. The obvious (and at this point  this observation is well-worn) influence is from Tom Hanks’s 1988 wish-fulfillment fantasy flick Big, which we’ll just assume that everyone has seen. The comparison almost makes itself, especially since that film, like this one, has some narrative elements that normally wouldn’t fly today in this world of sanitized children’s films – can you imagine a wide release like Return to Oz, Secret of NIMH, The Goonies, or even The NeverEnding Story coming out in theaters next week without there being a significant parental backlash? I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie that had both a teenage protagonist and a man’s head getting bitten off? But there’s also some Journey of Natty Gann thrown in there to pluck at the heartstrings, plus some imagery that could basically have been taken from The Gate thrown in for good measure. Also, Jackass.

I won’t get into what the Shazam power is or what mythological archetypes his powers are drawn from (that’s what Wikipedia is for), and this took a nice and unexpected (though in retrospect properly foreshadowed) turn toward the end that I don’t want to spoil since it genuinely took me by surprise, so I’ll be brief. This movie is genuine. It’s true to itself and has a genuine warmth that helps glaze over some of the iffier narrative choices, taking a film that verges on melodrama at points and pulls it back from that edge with a firm hand. There’s become such a delineation between “media for kids” and “media for adults” that we’re so unaccustomed to a film that is squarely in the realm of entertainment for the whole family that we’re not sure how to access it and interact with it, but this is one of those films. Kids will love it. Adults will also love it, even if they are as cynical as I am and started cringing as soon as Freddie claimed to know Shazam and immediately foresaw exactly where that plot line was headed. But all of that was balanced out by the joy of watching two kids, one of them in the body of a superpowered adult, performing Johnny Knoxville style stunts to test his limits. When almost every scene is a real gem, even something as rote for a superhero movie as stopping a mugging in a park, it encourages forgiveness of some of the more obvious story choices. This one is going to stick around.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Local Legends (2013)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Local Legends (2013).

Brandon: Last summer, I became unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Even after reviewing a dozen or so Motern movies for Swampflix, I found myself compelled but unable to fully communicate the value of Farley’s novelty songs and horror-comedy parodies to anyone who had the misfortune of listening to me babble offline. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that consistently populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies & Dr. Demento-style novelty songs around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a vast wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching or listening to, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley is accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting recommendation, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).

It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production & novelty songwriting through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.

The only thing that complicates my love for this self-portrait of an outsider artist its blatant debt to known sexual abuser Woody Allen. As this is one of his select few productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct Local Legends himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, verbally acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that has aged horrifically in the last six years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes in-dialogue references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. This high-brow aesthetic is amusing in contrast to Farley’s aggressively unpretentious novelty songs about poop & microbudget rubber-monster horror comedies, but it’s still a cringey impulse all the same. I like to think of Local Legends as the perfect Matt Farley introduction because it encapsulates so much of his peculiar personality & day-to-day amateur art production, but recommending someone watch it means asking them to think about Woody Allen, which spoils the mood at best, potentially triggers the viewer at worst.

So, Boomer, were you able to look past Local Legends’s Woody Allenisms enough to get a feel for Matt Farley as his own distinct, persona? How effective of an introduction (if not an outright infomercial) was this film to the Motern Media empire for you as a previously uninitiated viewer?

Boomer: I had never heard of Farley before watching this gem, but I found the unpretentious absence of pomp and utter lack of any kind of self-deception in his compartmentalization of his art charming and refreshing. When the first season of Star Trek: Discovery premiered a while back and I signed up for CBS All Access in order to watch it (if you think I wouldn’t pay $10 a month for Star Trek, you don’t know me), my roommate grew temporarily (thankfully) obsessed with The Bold & the Beautiful, and when I couldn’t figure out why, he explained that he was attracted to art that felt like he could have made it, and the overall cheapness of the early seasons of that soap opera made him feel better about his level of cinematic skill. Local Legends is much the same: it feels like a movie that a group of friends could have made, because it is exactly that. At first, I was a little turned off by this, as the early scenes of Farley’s non-comedic stand-up were accompanied by sparse laughter and painful silences, and I wasn’t certain if this was supposed to represent that Farley thought he was a great comedian and that he simply didn’t have the budget to project his own image of himself. Once the film starts moving along and you realize that the “legends” in the title is self-deprecating and not self-aggrandizing, it’s a more pleasant experience. It wasn’t until he’s singing the name “Theodora” repeatedly that I really got my first belly laugh, but from that point on, it was chuckles aplenty. That was the moment that I felt like I really understood Farley, both as a creator and as a persona, and perhaps as both.

I really loved Local Legends. As an introduction to Farley’s overall body of work, I assume that it gives one a pretty clear picture of his other films; I particularly liked the use of footage from Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! and the explanations of how each person in Farley’s life played a role in his productions, and what that role was. You also get a pretty clear picture of Farley, down to his habit of walking around town while listening to Red Sox games and even occasionally raising his hands in order to let the blood that’s pooled there drain back into his body, which is so specifically odd that I have to believe Farley the person shares this trait with Farley the character. My favorite scenes were those between him and his bandmate Tom in their practice space, discussing the way that Millhouse’s showcase went from museum to bar to home basement, laughing at the absurdity of it all but recognizing the familiarity and inevitability of this devolution (Millhouse himself is a great character, with his clipart promo flyers and indestructible optimism).

Overall, this is a pretty optimistic movie, and strangely uplifting in its way. I certainly felt effervescent upon completion. The Woody Allen references struck me as odd, since it’s not as if the allegations against him aren’t exactly new (as with Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, and others, concerns crop up and are well-publicized, then they recede beneath the waves as the news cycle moves on, only to reappear years later to the apparent sudden surprise of the internet, a pretty ample demonstration of our society’s pathologically—even criminally—short attention span), but it’s not really a surprise as I’ve often found that—and this isn’t intended as an insult to Farley personally—that straight white men find it easier to separate the art and the artist than people who’ve experienced marginalization in their lives. That said, I wasn’t terribly happy with the way that Abby was presented as “crazy.” As an appellation, this is so often applied to women for absolutely no reason other than behavioral double standards. Although she did ultimately demonstrate that she had a couple of screws loose, her immediate demonization for no other reason than that she misrepresented the extent of her Billy Joel collection seemed like gatekeeping gone awry, which made me side against Farley, at least at first, which may be the reason it took me longer than normal to warm up to him as a protagonist. CC, what did you think of the character of Abby? Was she deserving of the scorn she received? Does her comparison against Genevieve feel weird to you?

CC: Abby’s characterization bothered me as well. I recently saw her same overly-clingy girlfriend type included as a character on the Hulu show Pen15 and I didn’t care for the trope there either. It’s time for the stalker-ish, emotionally manipulative, “crazy bitch” stereotype to die completely (unless we’re talking about outliers like Isabelle Huppert’s role in Greta, since at least she has nuance and motive outside her relationship to a male character). I also think cultural gatekeeping and derogatory humor hinging on another person’s inability to appreciate “good” culture (which are inherently rooted in misogyny and cultural & racial chauvinism) need to end. Abby represents both of these things.

Farley portrays Abby’s intense version of attention as suffocating. At the same time, he’s releasing movies and music about himself, so he seems to crave attention. Those two impulses are self-contradictory. I don’t know why her character was included in the film in the first place, since her presence is not especially important to the plot other than for him to complain about her clinginess. If Local Legends is a parody of movie tropes and character types, it would have been better off to either poke fun at the trope instead of participating in it or to just remove Abby from the picture entirely.

I think I need to note, for transparency’s sake, that I have felt a lot of angst and anxiety writing this response. It makes me deeply uncomfortable writing anything remotely critical about Matt Farley’s work (even if my criticisms are also directed towards a larger cultural milieu) knowing that he will definitely read this, as evidenced by his admission in Local Legends that he routinely Googles himself daily, if not hourly.

Britnee, does the knowledge that Matt Farley is for sure going to read this conversation change how you respond to and write about his films?

Britnee: The fact that Matt Farley will read our conversation does linger in the back of my mind as I’m getting ready to write about my thoughts on Local Legends, but that doesn’t make me feel weird or uneasy about discussing this film in the Swampflix world. The internet is a pretty intense place to exist as a public figure and Farley really puts himself out there, so I’m certain that he’s already come across lots of praise for his work while suffering his fair share of harsh critiques as well. He honestly seems like the kind of guy who thrives on those negative comments about his art and uses them as inspiration to make even more films and songs. I’m feeling pretty chill about him creeping on our conversation at this point, even if it’s not all positive.

I remember Brandon recommending Farley’s films in a “What Have You Been Watching Lately?” segment on an old episode of The Swampflix Podcast. Even though I had no idea who or what he was talking about, his enthusiasm while discussing Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! was enough for me to add the film to my movie watchlist (and yet I still haven’t seen it yet). When I realized that Local Legends was a film about Farley’s art projects, I was interested to see what he was all about. It was not at all what I expected. I was expecting rowdy guys with long hair and rock band t-shirts (sort of like Jackass without all the stunts), and I was so wrong. The cast of Local Legends is pretty much a group of average white suburban guys doing pretty basic, ordinary things in the weirdest way possible. For example, Farley walks around his sunny, all-American town while leaving free CDs of his bizarre music in random places on the street for strangers to find. It made me laugh so damn hard. The style of humor in Local Legends is very particular. It pokes fun at the everydayness of life while exuding tons of awkward energy, and I’m totally into it.

I’m still not quite sure if the film was supposed to be a comedy, a true documentary, or a mix of the two. Brandon, did you have a hard time deciphering reality from fiction in Local Legends?

Brandon: Conveniently enough, Matt does frequently point out in real-time the few instances where he has to stretch the truth to fit the means of his budget. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes set in his rent-paying “day” job wiping old men’s butts at a nursing home; Matt informs the audience in-narration that he did not have permission from his employer to film on-site, so the scene was staged in his parents’ basement instead. A major part of the genius of Local Legends is the total lack of vanity in those types of admissions. Of course, this film is more a half-fictionalized reenactment than it is a true documentary, but I do personally believe every anecdote displayed onscreen to be blatantly honest recollections of things that actually happened. In fact, I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends is true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted our reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas last summer, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes, which rings true to his confession in the film that he obsessively Googles himself for amateur reviews of his work. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in Poetry) through the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. The world of amateur art production on display in Local Legends is radically ordinary & relatable in a way you don’t normally see from the more glamorized, curated social media profiles of self-promoting hobbyists like myself & my small-time artist friends. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless the effort of running the site may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s something truly refreshing & inspiring about his transparency in explanations of how he keeps that ship afloat.

As a comedy, Local Legends does filter this radical honesty through a layer of irony & self-deprecation, which can be a little difficult to read if you aren’t familiar with Farley’s very particular brand of humor. I just can’t believe that someone this self-aware doesn’t see the irony in spending every waking hour of his day scheming to make movies & music, then repeating the phrase “I hate artists,” so often that it’s effectively a personal mantra. There’s also a hilarious disconnect between Farley’s aggressive lack of pretension and his demand that people stop still when he enters a party so that he can hold court & talk about himself at length. He wants to be recognized as both a relatable everyman and The World’s Greatest Living Artist, to the point that his milquetoast appearance and his self-obsessed narcissism are both a kind of exaggerated performance. I even read a little irony & self-deprecation in his deplorable treatment of Abby in the picture. I have no doubt that sometime in Matt’s life some girl somewhere (somewhere in New England, at least) really did proclaim to have “all of Billy Joel’s albums” when she only had his Greatest Hits. Instead of the healthy “Who cares?” response most people would have in that situation, it was an encounter that frustrated Farley so much that he held onto it long enough to restage it in a fictionalized movie just to dunk on her one more time. Even within the picture, it’s a frivolous “slight” that he just can’t let go, recounting it over & over again to friends like a lunatic. It’s not something that makes him look cool or superior, not least of all because his snobby gatekeeping in the film involves the most basic-taste shallow cuts imaginable: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, The Beatles etc. When you get to the core of what really bothers Matt about Abby, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s discography; it’s that she’s not especially interested in his own. Abby can’t sit still through a screening of his slasher film Freaky Farley, doesn’t find any value in his novelty songs and, worse yet, dares to have her own artistic ambitions that Farley himself doesn’t understand (costumes that are designed for art gallery display, not to be worn). I totally agree that his characterization of Abby as “crazy” is gross (and uncomfortably participates in a myriad of misogynist tropes), but it culminates as an ironic, comedic bit when Matt defines that craziness to his bandmate Tom as her being obsessed with herself. All Matt Farley wants to talk about in this picture is Matt Farley; truly no one in the world is more self-obsessed. So, I can only read that complaint as a self-deprecating joke.

Beyond its function as a documentary & a comedy, Local Legends is also a straight-up informercial. Farley not only gives publishes his phone number and mailing address in the film for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, but he also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He even builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work to increase his profits (and, thus, make it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity. It’s maybe the only example of shameless commercial cynicism I could think to call admirable, if not outright heroic.

Speaking of Farley’s Corporate Asshole doppelganger, it’s the only element of Local Legends I can recall that could be described as a break in reality. Matt continually shatters the fourth wall in his narration to the audience (which he does out of spite because a screenwriting how-to explicitly advised against it), but something about Corporate Asshole Farley feels like a fantastic outlier in the film’s general relationship with reality. Boomer, what did you make of Farley’s dual role as the businessman version of himself? Is that device justified in the context of the film, even though it is such an in-universe anomaly?

Boomer: I like it. So much of the film’s runtime is centered around an apparent lack of self-awareness: about the repeated pattern of Millhouse’s unrealistic dreams inevitably spiraling into a performance in which there are more participants than spectators and the implication that this is not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last; about the marketability of his and Pete’s collaborations (which I love); about Abby’s clear inability to recognize her failings. We of Swampflix are a pretty savvy bunch, but even I find myself sometimes deciding whether I like something based upon whether or not I think the media in question is “in on it” with regards to a character’s unlikeability or its awareness of how ridiculous it is (see: Syfy’s The Magicians), and it can be a deciding factor for me. Were it not for the presence of Business Asshole Matt, I don’t think we’d be arguing over whether or not Matt Farley is self-aware, since he clearly is, but I for one would definitely have taken a little longer to be certain about that. It also allows for the most truly surreal part of the movie, when the creepy man who always asks Matt for directions and then offers him a ride apparently gets what he wants, as Business Asshole Matt rides off with him into the monochrome sunset. It textualizes the subtext of Matt’s interior monologue, and that really works for me on a comedic level, even though it makes no sense on a realistic one. It’s like the scene in which Matt’s bandmate pulls up and they joke about why there’s a woman in the backseat, and it’s clearly for continuity so that they can have the camera in the front for reverse shots, but it draws attention to itself in a way that I like.

CC, of all the odd characters who populate Matt’s town, who was your favorite? I had a fondness for the creepy man in theory, but I also really liked Soup.

CC: I was also fond of Soup. It was a pleasant surprise to discover late in the film that his name was literal after getting to know him for so long only as Matt’s basketball partner. Anytime you need soup, Soup is there to offer it for you. He has a fridge full of it just ready to go. Be warned, though. Soup is under the impression that soup is a useful thing for everyone on all occasions, when it’s actually very limited. Most people only need it when it’s cold outside or they’re sick, which makes his bottomless soup fridge an absurd service. Soup’s only negative trait was that he tells Matt to stop being so hard on Abby, even encouraging her more stalkerish behavior because Matt should find it flattering.

Millhouse was also very funny in that he is insanely optimistic, to a pathological degree. As the comedy show he is promoting is downgraded from a legitimate venue to his mother’s basement, he just continues on chipperly as if everything’s going great. He’s basically the human version of that “This is fine.” dog from the burning-house comic panel. The only time he loses his cool is when he’s shouting at his mom for doing laundry and not keeping her dog quiet during the basement comedy show. Keep in mind that he’s in his 50s. It’s pathetically funny.

Speaking of the movie’s portrait of a local stand-up comedy scene, it seems like that’s not what Local Legends is really selling as an infomercial. The amateur stand-up community is mostly just the setting, and what Matt is actually selling here is his movies and music. Britnee, which were you more enticed by after seeing the film? Did Local Legends do a better job as a commercial selling Matt Farley’s novelty music or a commercial selling his backyard movies?

Britnee: The film sold me on his music much more than his movies. The part of Local Legends that made me laugh until my face hurt was when where Matt explains his career in novelty songs. I absolutely love silly songs (Weird Al, Tim and Eric, etc.), so his music immediately grabbed my interest. I even wrote down “Look up The Toilet Bowl Cleaners!” in huge letters in my notepad to make sure I wouldn’t forget to delve into the world of Matt Farley poop songs. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners have since completely taken over my morning drives to work. Why just this morning I listened to “I Pooped in Santa’s Lap” as I pulled into the parking garage, and it was just what I needed to start the day off on the right foot.

While listening to The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, I discovered another one of his musical projects, The Singing Animal Lover. Thankfully, The Singing Animal Lover has over 80 songs about animal poop. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more poops songs, I was blessed with poop songs at a whole new level. I just find so much comfort in knowing there’s a neverending supply of silly songs for me to listen to from Matt Farley alone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really connected with the whole Billy Joel situation. In the past, I used to get so annoyed with people who claimed to be superfans of an artist/band, but only had their greatest hits albums. I now know that is such an incredibly dumb way of thinking, but I was once that douchebag.

CC: I know I’ve already compared Millhouse to one meme cartoon, but besides the “This is fine.” dog he also reminds me of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons. Think about it: He lives at home with his mom. He’s overly loyal to his friends. And no matter how much everything is failing around him, he always maintains that “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” attitude.

Brandon: Since we initiated this conversation about a month ago, I’ve had my most surreal interaction with Matt Farley to date. While I was recovering from the sunshiny haze of Mardi Gras this past Ash Wednesday, Matt posted a song about me titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently,” which you can listen to at any time on platforms like YouTube & Spotify. It was truly an honor, albeit a mildly terrifying one that made me briefly question reality in my dazed state. The only way I can think to repay him for the experience is to continue sharing the song in places like this so that the effort will contribute to the fractions of pennies that correlate to his streaming statistics, so that maybe more movies like Local Legends can get made in the future.

Boomer: Originally, I was going to suggest that we call Farley and see if he would write a song for us, but as it turns out, he already wrote one for Brandon, so I’m not sure what else I can contribute, other than to note that I am extremely curious about the yearlong album-a-month project that he did.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991)

Well, here we are again: it’s the continuing adventures of Belial and Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck)! Like its predecessor, Basket Case 3: The Progeny replays the final minutes of the preceding film, as we once again see Duane reattach his unwilling brother to his side following the untimely death of Susan. Unlike Basket Case 2, however, we don’t pick up moments later, but instead it’s been a couple of months. Duane and Belial were once again separated, although less traumatically this time, and Duane has spent the intervening time in a padded cell at Granny Ruth’s (Annie Ross) to ensure that he doesn’t exact any further violence on the small community of “unique individuals.” But there’s a new wrinkle in the tapestry of their lives: Eve, the female counterpart to the monstrous Belial, is pregnant, and Granny Ruth doesn’t feel she has the expertise to provide a safe birthing environment, so it’s time to take this (freak)show on the road! So all of Granny Ruth’s X-Men have to load up on a school bus with blacked out windows to travel from her estate in Staten Island to Georgia, where her physician friend (and perhaps former lover?) Hal (Dan Biggers, of In the Heat of the Night fame) will assist with Eve’s birth. Since Duane can’t be left alone, he’s along for the ride as well, straightjacketed and kept apart from Belial, who hasn’t forgiven him for the events that concluded Basket Case 2. Things seem to be going well, as Granny Ruth is reunited with her multi-armed son Little Hal (Jim O’Doherty), first mentioned in the previous film as the catalyst for Ruth’s interest in and defense of “unique individuals,” and Dr. Hal has an amicable relationship with local law enforcement, as evidenced by his friendly and jovial interactions with Sheriff Griffin (Gil Roper), who even knows about and appreciates the mechanical genius of Little Hal. Duane even has a positive interaction with Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the sheriff’s daughter. It seems like things have finally turned a corner for the Bradley twins.

That is, of course, until the sight of Dr. Hal in his surgical outfit triggers Belial’s memories of the doctors who originally separated him from Duane, and he attacks the doctor in the middle of Eve’s procedure, mortally wounding the doc and complicating the birthing process. And what a birth it is! Thirteen monstrous little baby Belials come out of the fleshy lump that represents Eve’s womb, one after the other on the same umbilical cord like a nauseating, pulsating string of teethed pearls. They are monstrous. Further complicating matters is Duane’s escape from Hal’s estate; he seeks out Opal so that they can run away together but is recognized as one half of the infamous Times Square Freak Twins, leading two deputies to head out to Dr. Hal’s, where they mistake Eve for Belial and ultimately are responsible for her death, leading Belial on a roaring rampage of revenge, one which involves a dominatrix outfit, an overly long bit involving the alliterative names of all the deputies, and a robotic exoskeleton. And a swarm of little baby Belials, which somehow manage to be kind of cute despite being as disgusting as their father (I think it’s their little animatronic mouths that won me over).

As I said before, Basket Case 2 is my favorite of this trilogy. The original is a classic, but the first sequel expands the number of unique individuals in a way that makes sense, while keeping the majority of the focus on the Bradleys, even when they spend much of the film apart, and shows Duane accepting himself as a unique individual in his own right, separate from Belial. A traumatic event at the end of the film leads him to make a bad decision, but it all holds together. Basket Case 3 is a different animal: neither Belial nor Duane is really the central character here, Granny Ruth is. Belial and Duane’s separation is more than just physical here, as they spend most of the film not talking to each other, although both of them cause trouble for themselves and everyone else by falling back on old patterns of behavior, first when Belial attacks the doctor because his native language is violence, and when Duane exposes Granny Ruth’s cabal because he falls in love with every woman who shows him a moment’s kindness. In each instance, it falls to Granny Ruth to try and rectify the situation, but even when she is the centerpiece, nothing that she does in this film approaches the same energy level as her “Our sanctuary has been violated!” speech from BC2. The closest that we come is the “Personality” musical number, which is delightfully weird, or perhaps Ruth’s final speech to the viewers of “Renaldo” about the importance of playing nice, but neither are as riotous or have the staying power of anything in the previous films.

If anything, the film is simply too unfocused, which may be the result of editorial changes. Supposedly, the producers instructed Frank Henenlotter to make this film less gory than either previous entry and the original script, resulting in the omission of 11 pages from the shooting draft. The excision of this material likely contributed to the more rambling nature of this narrative. For instance, there’s a scene in which the entire Ruth clan appears in a fast food restaurant, freaking out the customers and generally causing annoying havoc, but there’s never a moment of menace, and we see neither Belial or Duane in the whole set piece. Compare this to, for instance, the scene in BC2 where Susan is harassed by a local about how she never comes to his bar and always seems to be buying more food than two women alone in a house could eat: neither Bradley boy is in this scene, but it does set the tone for how others view Ruth and her activities, and creates a sense of tension. We could also compare this to the scene in the previous film where Duane confronts a P.I. at a seedy bar with his fellow freaks: like the fast food restaurant scene, the freaks are in public, but there’s a purpose and an intensity to the scene, despite it being in a ridiculous film.

Still, there’s a lot to love in The Progeny. It may not measure up to the accidental(?) genius of its predecessors, but it makes up for most of its weaknesses with another strong performance from Ross (Van Hentenryck is at the same level as always), and its sudden turn into a revenge flick at the midpoint is a pleasant surprise, even if the franchise’s hallmark gore is greatly reduced for this sequel. You may even end up wanting a little baby Belial of your very own. It’s unfortunate that this us the apparent end of the Basket Case series, as it’s been 18 years since the film, enough time for all those little monsters to start thinking about college and adulthood, which would make for an interesting follow up (then again . . . maybe not), but a man can still dream that we’ll meet the Bradleys again, one day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew