Movie of the Month: The Honeymoon Killers (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 Britnee made CC, Boomer, and Brandon watch The Honeymoon Killers (1970).

Britnee: Leonard Kastle, a well-known opera composer, became a film legend after writing and directing his first and only feature, the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. The film is based on the true story of serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Known as “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” the murderous couple would meet their victims by responding to “lonely hearts” ads in newspapers. Kastle personally performed extensive research on Ray and Martha’s crime spree in the late 1940s, and his hard work paid off because the film truly captures the dark, ugly world of the killer couple. In an interview featured on the 2003 Criterion DVD release, Kastle expresses his disdain for 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, stating, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” I let out a guttural laugh reading that statement because it completely caught me off guard. He wanted his film to be a realistic contrast to the big box-office Hollywood hit (such a rebel!), and that’s exactly what The Honeymoon Killers is.

The film may be based on a couple, but Martha, not Raymond, is the star of the show. Martha (Shirley Stoler) is a lonely, overweight nurse with a bad attitude who lives at home with her nagging mother in Mobile, Alabama. Her friend Bunny (Doris Roberts of Everybody Love Raymond fame) secretly signs her up for Aunt Carrie’s Friendship Club, which is essentially an early, in-print version of Match.com. This is how she meets her partner in crime, Raymond (Tony Lo Bianco). After scamming Martha into giving him a “loan,” he takes off and sends her a letter to end the relationship. Martha has Bunny assist her with calling Ray and selling him a fake suicide attempt story to guilt him into not leaving her. It works like a charm, and Martha leaves her life behind to join Ray in New York City. She soon find out he’s a con man that preys on lonely women to make his money, and it doesn’t bother her at all. She joins him on his escapades, posing as his sister. At first, the crimes aren’t violent and the women he scams leave with empty pockets and a broken heart, but it doesn’t take long for things to get deadly.

I love how The Honeymoon Killers starts off in a campy, John Waters-like style and transitions into something much darker once Martha makes her first kill. However, during some of the grimmest scenes in the film, Kastle is still able to keep a little dark humor and campiness intact. A great example would be the scene where the couple is burying the body of their first victim; Martha throws in the woman’s Jesus portraits and sarcastically says something along the lines of, “She always took them with her,” mocking the woman she just brutally murdered. Brandon, did you find Martha to be a likeable character? Did you find the same humor in her that I did?

Brandon: Interestingly enough, it’s the tension created by those exact two questions that most endeared me to The Honeymoon Killers. The film boasts a self-conflicted tone that alternates from punishing grime & cruelty to slapstick camp in a minute to minute rhythm, never committing to a single effect for any prolonged stretch. The Honeymoon Killers is both a continuation of the handheld, art house immediacy of The French New Wave films that likely inspired it and comfortably of the same cloth as early, over-the-top John Waters camp fests like Multiple Maniacs (which premiered the same year as this surprisingly violent curio). Now that Multiple Maniacs & Female Trouble have recently gotten the restorative Criterion Collection treatment also afforded The Honeymoon Killers, that split between low-fi, grimy camp and high-brow cinema aesthetic makes more cultural sense. However, I imagine that when Francois Truffaut claimed that this was his all-time favorite American film he was being somewhat of a provocative ass.

My sympathies with Martha were similarly conflicted. On one hand, she’s a ruthless murderer who supposes in the first act that maybe Hitler had some worthwhile ideas. Those are not the easiest personality traits to fall in love with from the outset, but Martha does find her own paths to worm her way into your heart. She begins the film on the receiving end of one of Raymond’s “lonely hearts” scams, but refuses to be a victim and instead muscles her way into his operation (and his bed). Martha is a lonely, unexceptional woman with absurdly over-plucked eyebrows and an endless parade of friends & strangers eager to comment on her weight. She’s a bully, but she’s also a wounded animal. Moreover, all of the murders committed in the film are a direct result of Martha flying into a jealous rage whenever she catches Raymond sexually engaging with their marks, infidelities he promised he’d never commit (again). Much like how the film at large drifts between camp & cruelty in its depictions of violence, Martha drifts between being a total monster & a put-upon victim without ever fully settling on either, which is exactly what makes her (and the film) so fascinating.

That Leonard Kastle quote about Bonnie & Clyde not going far enough in depicting the ugliness of its own romantic crime spree is interesting. Bonnie & Clyde, however polished, is often cited as being the first major studio production to break apart the tyranny of the Hays Code and usher in the more freewheeling morality (or lack thereof) that guided the New Hollywood movement. Operating far below the budget of that studio system game-changer, The Honeymoon Killers is a ramshackle AIP production that feels more spiritually in line with the feverish grime of films like Multiple Maniacs, Spider Baby, Mudhoney, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “erotic” roughies purveyed by schlockteurs like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman. Still, even as the grimier, low-fi alternative to Bonnie & Clyde, The Honeymoon Killers feels a little stifled by the morality of its time. At first it seems almost anachronistically horrific that Raymond & Martha would kill a child in the film to increase the convenience of a grift, but that murder is depicted with the same off-screen discretion adhered to in Fritz Lang’s M almost four decades earlier. It’s also daring for the film to depict a wide range of women initiating sex with Raymond for their own pleasure, but the only scene of onscreen naked flesh is de-sexed by having the woman in question flatly sing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub (an unhinged display that is admittedly hilarious). If the tabloid coverage of the events is to be believed, the real-life story of the Lonely Hearts Killers was also more sordid than what’s depicted in The Honeymoon Killers, with the couple being accused of a much higher body count than what they were ultimately executed for.

CC, do you think The Honeymoon Killers could have been a better movie by depicting the full scope of Raymond & Martha’s accused, real-life brutality or was Kastle smart for holding back on some of the tabloidish details and sticking to their verifiable legal convictions?

CC: Short answer: Definitely the latter.

Long answer: I couldn’t help myself; I had to do some outside research for this one. In the book Death Row Women: Murder, Justice, and the New York Press, the factual elements of the killers’ lives are both lurid and horrifying. Martha Beck’s past included a childhood sexual assault she was punished and ostracized for. By her early twenties, she had two children out of wedlock (although she was technically married to the father of the second child, it was revealed he was also married to someone else, putting her marriage into question) and a shrill monster of a mother. Martha retreated into a fantasy world fueled by her love of pulp detective and romance magazines that were popular at the time, filling her apartment with hundreds of copies and obsessively reading and re-reading them. She did show some signs of a sinister (or at least unmoored to reality) streak, when she lied about the identity of her first child’s father and then “killed” him off via a fake telegram to generate sympathy. After arriving on Raymond’s doorstep with her two children in tow prepared to start a new life with him, he told her he would never allow children in his household. Her desperate solution was to abandon them at the Salvation Army in Manhattan; she never saw them again until she was on death row. Her life and later cruelty were the culmination of years of abuse and misery.

Raymond, however, took a very different path to becoming a serial murderer. By all accounts a kind and gentle man, he left his beloved wife and four children behind in Spain to get a job in the United States (where he grew up) with the intention of sending for them when he got established. A cheap way to cross the Atlantic back then was to work as a merchant marine in exchange for free travel fare. He had previously worked on ships, so this voyage should have been rather routine. A few days into the voyage, a heavy metal hatch fell on his head, heavily fracturing his skull, sending him into a coma for a week, and leaving him with a permanent furrow across his frontal lobe. As soon as he recovered enough to finish the journey, his personality took a rapid turn for the worse. For reasons unknown to even himself, he stole a large quantity of the ship’s linen, landing him a 12-month jail sentence. While incarcerated he met a Vodun practitioner and became obsessed with the idea that he had a supernatural power over women. He suffered from debilitating headaches and the delusion that he could make a woman orgasm from 1000 miles away with just a lock of her hair, both byproducts of that metal hatch.

Would it have been more fun to watch a lonely, brutalized woman and a man with a severe head injury kill even more people? Nah. There’s a point where verisimilitude stops being entertaining because it precludes the introduction of the camp elements that make this film so fun to watch. Of course, as with all exploitation cinema, that act of condensing & fictionalizing real-life detail to increase entertainment value does present ethical questions about whether this story should have been told onscreen at all. It’s a moral shakiness The Honeymoon Killers somewhat compensates for by affording Martha some sympathy as a protagonist, but it remains questionable all the same.

Boomer, what do you make of the morality of the film’s indulgences in over-the-top camp entertainment among its depictions of real-life greed & cruelty?

Boomer: First of all, let me just express my joy that you are here and joining us in the MotM roundtable, CC. I’m so excited and happy that the stars have aligned to make this happen.

As to your question, I think it’s strange that this film alters so much of the story while the names of the participants involved remain unchanged. My roommate often watches MotM films with me and generally for the best, as his positive reactions to some of them have helped me be more appreciative (for instance, his profound enjoyment of Unfriended helped temper my own initially cold reception of it; had he watched last month’s Born in Flames, I might have been less antagonistic of it in my response). For Honeymoon Killers, he was in and out of the room and up and down throughout in one of the manic moods that he sometimes exhibits after finishing a particular academic project, but there were points where I called him into the room to take note of certain shots that I thought he might appreciate. I rewound the scene in which Ray rhumbas across the screen, eclipsing and then revealing the elder Mrs. Beck; I also made sure he saw the panicked Delphine’s eyes dart back and forth while Ray and Martha debate her fate. At one point, when Martha ran into the lake to attempt to drown herself after Ray (once again) broke his chastity, my roommate asked what she was doing, and I explained, before stating “She’s my new hero.” Granted, this was after she had already killed Myrtle, but even though Ray’s “soothing” of Myrtle on the bus had dark undertones, the fact that her face contorted into such a comical rictus—complete with crossed eyes and her tongue hanging out—made the whole thing too campy to be taken seriously. It wasn’t really until Janet Fay starts to panic, with her realization of how screwed she is dawning on her and playing out in real time as Ray listens to her begging from the next room while shrouded in darkness, that the film crossed into capital-“D” Dark territory for me. As Janet begged for her life, the stark reality that Ray and Martha were not just lovefools but deeply sociopathic really started to set in.

That tipping of the balance from over-the-top camp to realistic greed and cruelty served to underline the horrific nature of the situation more than if the film’s earlier darkness, like Martha’s weird antisemitism (it’s worth noting that the actress herself was Jewish) or her cold and apathetic abandonment of her mother in an old-folks home, had been more of a throughline. As it is on the screen, they call to mind the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk made stark by the lack of color, which gives the whole thing a feeling of being overdramatized but desaturated, like one of the romance novels that the real Martha Beck idealized if it had instead ended in a double murder (or the serial murders of 20 people, the number that some sources claim as the victims of the real Honeymoon Killers). There’s also something endearing about the staginess of it all, the gritty cheapness and spare place-setting making it feel like an overlong episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which of course elicits positive feelings from me.

Britnee, one of the things that really stood out to me, especially given that this was a first-time director with no apparent background in film, was the abundance of strategic uses of narrative shortcuts alongside unobtrusive foreshadowing (the fact that Martha is introduced scolding two lovebirds who let their feelings overwhelm their professionalism to literally explosive results is particularly clever). The first time this is apparent in the moment is in the way that Martha and Ray’s letters become more and more breathless and rushed as a way of accelerating what could otherwise be a dull recitation of other people’s love letters. Britnee, what are some of your favorite techniques used here, and which ones do you think work particularly well?

Britnee: One of the biggest strengths of The Honeymoon Killers is that the film doesn’t waste screen time. There are no prolonged, boring scenes like in most films from the 1960-70s, because the film’s small budget didn’t allow it. Martin Scorsese was initially hired to be the film’s director, but he was taking too much time to direct each scene. Time is money in the movie world, so this wasn’t great for the budget. One of the few scenes Scorsese directed was the one where Martha attempts to drown herself, one of the longest scenes in the film. Thankfully, Scorsese was quickly replaced with inexperienced Kastle. I can only imagine what the short sequence detailing Martha and Ray’s love letters would have been like if Scorsese directed it.

I love how Kastle was able to incorporate so many of the victims’ individual experiences with Ray and Martha in the film. There’s no silly five-minute montage of all the crimes committed by the duo, nor was there ever too much time spent on any of the individual victims. Instead, for most of the victims, we see what occurs from the moment Martha and Ray enter their lives until their grim ending in a matter of minutes. I think Kastle’s lack of experience is what gave him the ability to do this. He saw movies through the eyes of the viewer, and that gave him the ability to make a movie that the average moviegoer would appreciate.

After re-watching the movie for this discussion, I found myself more concerned about the relationship between Martha and Ray. At first, it seems like they are both two sociopaths who miraculously found each other, but after watching it again, I was so focused on figuring out if they were truly in love. Martha comes off as being so desperate for companionship that she clings onto Ray because he’s the first man to come into her life (as far as we know, at least). Ray seems to use Martha for assistance with his schemes, but when she has her suicide attempts (both real and fake), he can’t bear to lose her.

Brandon, is Martha controlling Ray or is Ray controlling Martha? Or do they both actually love each other in some sick way? What are your thoughts on their relationship?

Brandon: I suspect it’s the mystery of that relationship dynamic that made the real-life Lonely Hearts Killers such a tantalizing tabloid story and, thus, a large factor in how this movie got greenlit in the first place. Sure, Raymond & Martha’s peculiar method of baiting their victims through personal ads & the brutality of the resulting crimes are remarkable on their own, but it was likely public speculation around the details of their romantic dynamic that really piqued the morbid curiosity of Kastle & his audience. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, two unromantically tied men posing as brothers to pull off this scheme enjoying as much tabloid longevity & thematic foundation for a movie as Martha & Raymond posing as a brother-sister duo. The movie’s main hook to audiences already familiar with newspaper coverage of the crimes depicted is in supposedly offering intimate insight into a bizarre romance outsiders struggle to wrap their heads around, even though the filmmakers likely knew as little about Raymond & Martha’s private rapport as anyone else.

As for my own speculation on their private dynamic, I personally read the Martha-Raymond romance as the archetypal story of the cunning con man who finally meets his match. Raymond appears to be used to running his grifts from afar, by letter, only popping in to seduce & collect when it was time to seal the deal. After the payoff, he would then retreat back to the safety & anonymity of his big city apartment hundreds of miles away from his target. When Martha appears at that apartment, bullying her way into his professional & romantic life, Raymond either doesn’t have the fortitude to turn her down or he is genuinely impressed with her gall, given how different that response was from the women he normally bowls over & leaves behind brokenhearted. I read Martha’s refusal to be just another grift as something that genuinely impressed Raymond, so that he fell in love with her through admiration of her audacity. As presented in the movie, I believed them to truly be in love, even if the violent, impulsive, controlling tendencies they employed in their grifts also privately manifested in ways that eventually led to their romantic (and legal) downfall.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if my interpretation of this relationship following the con-man-meets-his-match romantic trope is a result of my watching too many crime pictures or if that was Kastle’s desired intent. CC, do you think Kastle tips the scale in influencing how audiences are meant to understand the Martha-Raymond relationship dynamic or does he attempt an editorial distance to allow personal interpretations to develop on their own, the same way tabloid coverage would encourage amateur speculation?

CC: Awww, Mark! Thank you! I’ve never been super confident about my writing, so hopefully this will be a way for me to strengthen my voice while also putting my MoviePass to work (while it lasts).

Brandon, I think what Kastle made was a brutally honest portrait of a relationship. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like Raymond really loved Martha, as evidenced by his constant two-timing and generally duplicitous behavior. Sometimes, I feel like Martha didn’t really care who she shared her crime-novel-fantasy-come-to-life with, just as long as she got to live out one of her stories. But other times, they were so desperately in love any other alternative just didn’t make sense. Just like a real dysfunctional relationship, sometimes their love was apparent, sometimes it was buried under resentment and possessiveness. I think that’s ultimately the strength of this film: its willingness to be honest, no matter how ugly. I think a different filmmaker would have skewed too far towards either romanticizing their relationship (oh, look at these lovebirds, torn apart by their passions for each other!) or focusing only on the brutality of it (both trapped in a doomed relationship). Kastle definitely kept his distance from his subjects. We never get real insights into their motivations or inner dialogue; we just see their actions play out on screen. Maybe that leads to some people thinking this is a true love story or maybe it’s a case of two sickos manipulating each other.

As Britnee mentioned in the introduction, Leonard Kastle was originally more well known for his original operas and musical compositions. He said later in life that he had plenty of other screenplays he wanted to direct, but everyone wanted him to do another Honeymoon Killers. It’s interesting, then, that what ended up being his only feature film doesn’t stray too far from his operatic roots, even if its similarities to opera aren’t immediately apparent. It feels akin to professional wrestling, where it looks so different from a soap opera that people have trouble understanding that they have the exact same narrative structure. Mark, do you think that Honeymoon Killers is at its heart an American Opera (minus the music)?

Boomer: You’re definitely onto something here, CC. There are two major stereotypes about opera that have penetrated into the general consciousness and immediately come to mind when the subject arises: that all operas are tragic (although this isn’t necessarily true) and that women who perform in operas are often larger than what is the current, contemporary “ideal” shape for women (i.e., references to “the fat lady” singing). Although this heftiness is frequently exaggerated, it has its basis in fact and physics: small bodies generate higher sounds, and larger bodies generate deeper sounds. I’m not just talking about humans; go search for videos of little lion cubs learning to roar (or just click here) and compare that to the terrifying sound of a full grown lion’s roar. Although Kastle didn’t write this screenplay and wasn’t the first choice to direct, there’s definitely something operatic about the full-figured Martha Beck that I can see being an influence on Kastle’s decision to present her as a kind of tragic figure. She’s mad, surely, but so were Medea and Lady MacBeth in their respective operatic adaptations. Her story is a tragic one: unloved and unlovable, tied down to a shrew of a mother who belittles her (not that it makes the scene of her being left at the old folks home any less hear-rending); taken with a man who reveals his true colors as a con artist and a rake, he commits to her but only when it is convenient for him and he doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “faithful.”

It’s also certainly American in the sense that it represents the truth about the dark underbelly of the so-called American dream. Martha can’t truly succeed in the world, even in her profession, because she is constantly sidetracked by having to tend to the libidos of her co-workers who lack self-control, or to the needs of her haranguing mother. Raymond has no real skills other than his charm, which is often vaunted as the most important asset in making your way up the corporate ladder, as evidenced by Fast Company‘s “5 Tips To Charm Your Way To The Top” or Forbes‘s exultation of the importance of charm and charisma in the business world. Despite his seductiveness (much of which is actually rather charmless at points, but his victims are so starved for attention that they fail to notice), he never manages to put it to use doing something with any kind of long-term returns on investment, instead going for the same kind of windfalls over and over again without much thought of the future. His need to take advantage isn’t motivated by a desire for wealth, but is compulsive and psychological, much like the aforementioned Lady MacBeth’s thirst for power. Both Ray and Martha are tragic figures, and that contributes to the overall operatic quality of the film.

Lagniappe

Boomer: There’s a really great YouTuber named Sideways who did a fantastic video about how to make music scary, but it has apparently been deleted (another great one about the use and misuse of indigenous music and the “exotic” music styles that are used to evoke the sound of indigenous music despite being, like, Hungarian has also been deleted). I wanted to link it here, but since it’s gone, I’ll just say that he talks about how the pairing of small, high pitched chords with low chords creates a kind of neurological feedback that induces anxiety. It’s simply a matter of physics that large animals make scary, deep, low sounds, and smaller animals make comical high noises, so we are biologically programmed to consider low noises, like roars, more frightening than high noises, like birdsong. By pairing high and low chords, our brains are tricked into a kind of anxious state. That doesn’t have much to do with Martha and Ray per se, but does explain why larger women are generally better for opera over music which is not pitched as low.

Brandon: I’m always a sucker for a long-winded, sensationalist title card intro for a genre picture and The Honeymoon Killers packs a doozy: “The incredibly shocking drama you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime. The unbelievable acts depicted are based on newspaper accounts and court records. This is a true story.” Now that’s how how you reel in a captive audience, some real carnival barker shit.

Britnee: The best victim is without a doubt Janet Fay, the 66 year old crazy Catholic who enjoys cheap cafeteria lunches. She is such a bizarre character. Between her funky feathered hat and her obsession with two large framed Jesus portraits, just about everything she does is hilarious.

CC: I can’t stop thinking about that early mark, the homely schoolmarm Doris Acker of Morris County NJ, knees pulled to her chest vigorously scrubbing her bony body in a washtub, bellowing “America The Beautiful.” America, the beautiful indeed!

ALSO, I just found out that University at Albany has a collection of Kastle’s papers in their archive, including early drafts for Honeymoon Killers. Swampflix trip y’all?!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Born in Flames (1983).

Brandon: I first watched Lizzie Borden’s ramshackle punk screed Born in Flames shortly after the historic Women’s March that protested Trump’s inauguration last year. The film’s mere existence is incredible for countless reasons, but what struck me most at the time was how closely it resembled current, compromised news coverage of radical political resistance. Early 1980s protest footage integrated into Born in Flames’s sci-fi narrative could just as easily have been captured at the 2017 Women’s March with just the right Instagram filter to match the film’s low-fi static. It’s not that the Born in Flames’s politics were especially predictive or ahead of their time, either. What’s most striking is not the film’s prescience, but how little the world has changed in the 35 years since its release. Current concerns of respectability politics, White Feminism, Men’s Rights Activism, public sexual harassment, patriarchal rape culture, and dishonest media coverage of peaceful protests are all demonized in Born in Flames as the enemies of true social progress. The film preaches a message of Intersectionality & true feminist unity (across borders of race & sexuality) that still hasn’t been fully achieved to this day, but has become a much more commonly expressed ideal. Its vision of D.I.Y. punk culture, from bicycle gangs to alternative modes of broadcasting & press to dingy nightclubs & ripped street clothes, still feels true to how radical counterculture looks today. This D.I.Y. punk ethos also extends to the film’s form, which is a version of sci-fi filmmaking so lacking in budget & traditional craft that you’d never be able to tell it was set in the future if that weren’t explicitly stated.

Set ten years after a fictional American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

Born in Flames splits its efforts as both a document of its time in D.I.Y. political filmmaking and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to a long-gone, idealized past.  Alli, do you think either side of this divide overpowers the other? From your perspective, does Born in Flames excel more as a historical document or a living, breathing ideological manifesto?

Alli: I don’t think the idea of black lesbian punks running the streets is necessarily part of an idealized past. There are things like Afropunk and many radical Tumblr blogs right now making a lot of waves (Afropunk even has its own festival) and inspiring a lot of kids to just be themselves, loud and proud. Maybe New York isn’t the same, but other places in the country are seeing demonstrations, women trying to take care of each other, and celebrations of these kinds of lifestyles. We can yearn for the optimistic ideas of this era, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while progress is happening at a molasses pace and America feels like a “two steps forward one step back” country as far in its progress, these people are out there and are being more open.

As much as these ideals feel like a past moment looking towards an optimistic future, like every sci-fi book that predicted we’d have flying cars by the year 2000, a lot of the movie actually felt very prescient to me, but also made me feel sad for the radical movements currently at work in the country. The “suicide” of Adelaide Norris felt a little too much like the life and death of Sandra Bland, which should have galvanized many movements into action but instead most of the talk around that tragedy has quieted down. Just as sad as this movie made me feel, it also gave me hope. Radical ideas haven’t died out. Radical people have been fighting forever and are still around and kicking, even though we live in a near police state where any slightly rowdy protest is considered a riot, and the same old lukewarm liberal narrative exists that any major action is just as bad as the oppression. In this way to me, it definitely felt like a living, breathing manifesto. I have never seen a movie embrace so much of my personal ideology while also teaching me a thing or two about direct action and the power of large groups of people acting together even if they have different priorities within their shared goal. The quote about one lion versus hundreds of mice really stuck with me. There are so many teaching moments here. As you said, it’s still so relevant. We can look at the writings of people like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Marx, Engels or Bakunin and still there’s so much to take away from these works. Just because the ideas posed aren’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a call to action and even a proposed guide to how to get change started.

Of course, all the writings I just compared Born in Flames to are essays, works of nonfiction. If I had to compare this to any fiction parallels, it would be the writings of my personal favorite, the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. She, too, looked to future utopias with a critical eye. Her works are filled with critiques of gender, capitalism, tyrannical government, religion, and, even though she identified as an anarchist, anarchy itself.  There was no ideal too perfect for her critical eye, and I think that’s also what I like about this film. None of the activists here have all the answers as to how to get things done. These characters live in a supposed ideal government system, in which people are supposedly taken care of, given jobs and housed, and yet there’s still so much wrong. We’re shown a future that many socialist activists have been working towards for years and changes still need to happen. Movements are shown as hard work worth fighting for, even though you can’t even be sure of the outcome.

Which brings me to the unfortunately dated, open-ended conclusion. Boomer, how did you feel about the ending? Do you wish the movie had shown what happened after that first major strike of taking down the transmitter of the World Trade Center?

Boomer: I think that showing what happens next would undermine the message as a whole. In one scenario of the film’s continuation, there would be sudden and efficient retaliatory action by the patriarchal government system against the Women’s Army (and associates), thoroughly knocking the uprising off its horse and reinforcing the supremacy (not the superiority) of the system in place; which would be a bummer and run counter to the film’s self-evident call to action on the part of the women and allies in the audience. On the other hand, if the film committed to the concept that The Movement would install a newer, truer, more egalitarian utopia, then that new society would have to be depicted. Not only does this lie outside the film’s budget, it also falls outside of what I would like to call its thesis, except that the term suggests a cohesive idea, which I don’t feel the film has. Its various points of views overlap in a Venn diagram of ideologies between different groups, but these groups rarely manage to put up a united front and is fractious when doing so. There’s a lot of discussion in the film about what constitutes right, proper, reasonable, and fruitful action in response to government oppression, with little conversation about what an improved world would look like in comparison to the one in which the women reside now. There are a lot of opinions, and even when there is collaboration, there are still those who are in the oppressed group whose ideals are in conflict with others. Born in Flames is, as am I, a proponent of intersectionality, but there’s no definitive answer as to what the ideal form of governance does, how it treats the members of its society, what it looks like, and how it works.

This lack of singular vision isn’t a flaw objectively; documents of reactionary art, especially those made outside of any studio system and which are iconoclastic but not necessarily reformative or restorative, are often an amalgam of different branches of critical theory that are prominent in academia or highly educated groups at the time of the text’s creation. One could argue that such a reading makes Born in Flames a kind of artifact of a bygone era just as much as the image quality, fashions, and presence of the WTC Towers dates it, and while it is a bit of a time capsule, that doesn’t make its questions any less potent or applicable, even if it never quite gives an answer. The answers, both to the question of what comes next in this world post-revolution, and what happens next in our world after having heard this film’s arguments, are up to you. I had a hard time getting with the film, despite my alignment with many of the philosophical ideals of various characters (and from which other characters distanced themselves). It’s not because it’s not “for me,” which is all-too-often trotted out as a placeholder for legitimate criticism by people who can’t or won’t inspect their preconceptions, and it’s not because of the film-making quality, as I love low-budget films and legitimately enjoy the aesthetics of this one. And I’m not opposed to films counterposing various ideological constructs and leaving it to the viewer to piece together a personal political philosophy from the constituent parts, nor am I simply depressed at how little ground we’ve advanced in some areas since 1983. But, if you put all of these things together into one movie, what remained for me once the movie was over had little staying power, even when I was in agreement with it.

One of the things that kept pulling me out of the film was the music. And I’m not just talking about Isabel’s cringeworthy spoken word/rap, although I was embarrassed for her in the moment; I didn’t care for the title song the first time it was played, and it didn’t grow on me as it was repeated throughout the film. Even when I recall the montages from the film, I mentally replace the music with Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “The Parade”. The DIY aesthetic comes through in the music, definitely, but I wasn’t feeling it. What about you, Britnee? Did the music pull you of the film or help you cement yourself in its world? Would you change anything, if you were able?

Britnee: As I was reading through everyone’s thoughts and responses to Born in Flames, I sang “We are born in flames” out loud each time I ran across the title. I cannot shake this song for the life of me. The scratchy recording with those funky yodeling female vocals were sort of like a less-polished version of a Rubella Ballet tune. It conjures up images of dirty city streets filled with young folk in denim jackets, which is what we see in Born in Flames.  In my opinion, the “Born in Flames” song perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the film. I even felt a bit more rebellious than usual after the first couple of times hearing it. Although I enjoyed the song and its presence in the film, it was a bit repetitive. I want to say that it played over 5 times throughout the films 80 minutes, and that is just way to much for a single song to be played in a movie. Getting other songs may have just been too costly for this low budget flick, but it would have been better to just have less music.

I went ahead and gave Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “Parade” a listen while keeping all of those important scenes in mind. It would definitely be a great theme song for the modern version of Born in Flames. What a modern version of the film would look like is a thought that crossed my mind when I realized that what was being portrayed in the film was supposed to be the future. Progression in our country moves at a snail’s pace, so a “modern” Born in Flames would be almost identical to the original (bicycle gangs included), but with different music.

Speaking of the bicycle gangs, I was disappointed that they appeared once when a girl was being attacked by two thugs. The whole idea of a bicycle girl gang is fabulous, and I wish they would have had just as much screen time as the “Born in Flames” song. Brandon, do you wish there was more focus on the bicycle girl gang in this movie?

Brandon: At the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival, I caught a small documentary titled Ovarian Psycos about an all-female-identifying Latinx bicycle brigade that was dedicated specifically to feminist community-organizing in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s incredible, in retrospect, how much the political tactics & D.I.Y. aesthetics of that film resemble the “bicycle girl gang” that appears briefly (but is referenced often) in Born in Flames. More than three decades apart and on the opposite American coast, the bicycle brigades in the two films feel like they’re of the same cloth, a continuation of a political organization tradition that remains constant in punk culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve already seen the intricacies of exactly how feminist biking crews aim to destroy the social norm of public spaces only being safe for men detailed at length in the Ovarian Psycos doc, but I don’t think Born in Flames necessarily needed more of their presence to strengthen its thematic fabric. I was just appreciative that they rolled into the scene at all, presented as a communal feminist alternative to the police state in cases of sexual assault, as it’s yet another detail to Born in Flames that feels true to what punk-culture-in-action still looks like today.

Most of my appreciation of Born in Flames works this way. Much like the various, ideologically-conflicted women’s movements that populate its narrative, the film itself is a kind of well-meaning, but disorganized political screed that does gradually become focused & coordinated, but starts in total chaos. The messiness of its structure is partly due to an overabundance of ideas (something that I always admire in any film), which means that no one detail is afforded a wealth of screentime (outside the repetitions of the post punk theme song). The bike brigade, the Sandra Bland foretelling, a pre-auteur Kathryn Bigelow’s presence among the White feminism journalists, etc.: Born in Flames is a collage of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details, which is something that makes your head swim in the moment, but also makes for rewarding repeat viewings.

In fact, my favorite aspect of the entire film is a single image included in one of the earliest montages set to the Red Krayola song. A series of images details labor that would be traditionally coded as “women’s work”: dental assistant labor, factory work, childcare, etc. Mixed in with these details is a woman’s hands applying a condom to an erect penis, a sly comment on the sexual labor women are expected to perform domestically. The matter-of-fact presentation of that image is also subversively funny, as it’s juxtaposed with factory workers shrink-wrapping raw chicken (among other menial tasks). I don’t think everything the film has to say about sexual labor is on-point (more on that in the “Lagniappe” section below), but I found that montage to be incredibly clever in visually defining what “women’s work” actually looks like and challenging the way it’s socially undervalued. There’s a lot of thematic power behind that singular condom application, an effect that extends to other barely-seen ideas like the bicycle brigade.

Alli, are there any other minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details in Born in Flames that felt powerfully resonant to you even though they barely appeared onscreen?

Alli: You mentioned the condom scene, and that one stuck with me not because of the domestic aspect but because of the sex work positivity of the film, which is extremely interesting to me given the time period. Radical feminism of from this era didn’t necessarily see sex work as anything more than objectification and oppression, where this movie takes a more updated approach in saying that it’s just a job, which is the view intersectional feminists and what I’m going to call true radical feminists stand by these days. (True radical feminists here meaning those opposed to every institutional system to oppression and aren’t trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary.) It’s just awesome to me to see radical women of this time period embracing other women from all walks of life and not looking down on one another because of their occupations.

Another ahead of its time detail that stuck out to me is the inclusion of women from other countries in the movement. A lot of what’s lacking in modern feminism is a lack of solidarity, a focus on America’s problems (or the problems of whatever country you’re settled in), and even a focus on individual empowerment & declarations. We’ve become fixated on the commodification of self-care, buying bath bombs and the like, and celebrity identification, instead of group acts and collective action. (There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a revolutionary act, but it isn’t about buying things to make yourself feel better while setting the expectation of self-care prohibitively high for low income or houseless women.) The idea of women’s liberation being a worldwide movement is powerful to me, especially in the context of women everywhere freeing themselves and teaching each other things rather than white saviorism.

Other blink and you miss them details: queer women making love without the male gaze, women in what are thought of as traditionally male trades such as construction, and posters identifying men as rapists. Basically, I love this movie, including the Red Krayola song (but I was already a fan of the band).

Boomer, I know you mentioned that this movie had a very “not for me” feeling for you, but are there any ideas that you feel the modern era of resistance could benefit from? Are there any superfluous ideas that you feel would be detrimental to modern activism?

Boomer: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that sex work is presented in the way that more modern (and more true, non-TERF) feminism would, as this is an element of radicalism in the past that can be easily forgotten. Again, this is an unusual situation for me, in that I rarely find myself in a position where I am so completely aligned with a text’s stated and envisioned ideals while also feeling so completely cold about the text itself. I can only conclude that this is the result of the film being so cheaply (if not poorly, necessarily) made. I’ve seen films that are worse, and I’ve seen films that are cheaper, and I’ve still been able to get “on board” with those movies, but there’s something blocking that here for me, and I can only conclude that it’s because this film is just kind of . . . ugly. This is at least in part because 1980s New York was an ugly place: despite being the Platonic ideal of an the bohemian artist’s “New York” that took root the public consciousness before the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole city by stamping out and destroying many of the things that made it truly unique, this film certainly doesn’t highlight anything that makes it beautiful (and not that this has stopped the husk of New-York-That-Was from drawing countless mothlike hopefuls to beat their wings vainly against the searing flame). The philosophical theses are clear, but film is a medium that requires a confluence of different kinds of expression to adhere into a complete whole; the scenes of a woman being attacked on the street are not distinct, visually, from those scenes of women in bed together or vigorously discussing different political ideals while straddling a windowsill (metaphorically and literally): they’re all filmed in an ugly way, which is understandable given that this is an independent feature that took years to make. This lack of difference in the framing of different scenes with dissonant purposes can be chalked up to an evocation of a documentarian’s distance from the subject, but that simply doesn’t work for me here, as it attempts to graft an apolitical (at least in theory) aesthetic onto an inherently political text. As a result, the whole thing is just too muddled for me, like a painting that uses a lot of vibrant colors but mixes them together in such a way that you end up with a canvas of various muddy browns. I wouldn’t claim that any ideals in the film are backward (although there’s a questionable one I’ll get to in a minute here), but since the medium is the message, the overall palate of the film may be detrimental, at least to the general public’s willingness to empathize and get anything out of the movie.

I understand that the intent is to demonstrate that a supposed socialistic democracy can descend into misogynistic policy-making and oppression just as easily as an authoritarian, conservative-dominated society can when the figurehead at the top practices autocracy instead of representational democracy, or when representatives act as advocates for only some voices in their districts instead of all. And I applaud the film for focusing on society’s “lower decks,” as confining the presidential/governmental presence in this world to speeches and television appearances better reflects the world the characters (and we) inhabit, with the implicit distance between the working class and lawmakers made explicit, with TV screens as manifest barriers of this distance and demonstrating that power in this system flows only one way: from orator to spectator. That’s certainly an important part of the discussion of any dichotomy of power.

As I wrote back in my first part of this conversation, the most depressing thing about this movie is how much it demonstrates how little has changed. Thirty years later and wheatpasting is still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal? But with regards to the messages that modern activism can still benefit from and if any are detrimental, I’d like to circle back to your discussion of sex work. (Disclaimer: this is outside of my lane as I am a cis man.) This is an area in which many modern people who consider themselves feminists, men and women alike, consider to be inherently oppressive, which is an understandable reaction given that, historically, sex work has been dominated not only by male interest but also male violence and authority. Different people can find the same thing liberating or oppressive depending upon the horizons of each individual’s lived experience and point of view: hijabs can bring comfort to some while others find them oppressive; pride parades might give some the strength to come to terms with themselves and self-expression while others balk at the commercialization and pursuant capitalism of pride celebrations or feel unwelcome among the sea of twinks and hunks because gay culture can be just as cruel as the mainstream to those whose bodies fall outside of the “ideal” range; testing accommodations for students can make life easier for some while others resent the fact that having to make such arrangements increases attention on them. As a result, I’ve also seen certain discussions descend into angry name-calling and ad hominem attacks instead of mutual edification and respect when it comes to discourse about the topic of sex work and its place in feminist movements. As such, I would argue that the only place where I feel there’s a real disconnect between the feminism of Born in Flames‘ then and the feminism of our now is in response to the president’s proposed policy allowing for payment for domestic work for women. Although its goal is to roll back the clock on progress and push women back into kitchens (as evidenced by the fact that it is explicitly stated as a program for women instead of remaining gender-neutral in indicating who would be eligible for such a benefit), but removed from the context of the attitudes we’ve seen evinced by the men in power, a stipend or paycheck for stay-at-home domestic duties is not terribly dissimilar from modern policies that advocate for a basic universal income or even newborn supplements and allowances like those available in Australia and parts of Canada. It’s presented as a universal ill in the film (and within the context of the film, it is), but the philosophical descendants of those ideals present in Born in Flames would be less likely to reject the concept outright, but if they used the film as a fundamental and cornerstone text of their philosophy, it could be detrimental, at least hypothetically.

Britnee, I too was disappointed that the bike gang only showed up once in the film and then disappeared. Some of the issues present in the film were hammered over and over again, to the point where it felt preachy, while others were given barely a passing mention. Were there other elements that you felt could have born to be repeated more often, and was there anything you felt got more attention than necessary?

Britnee: When I hear the word “revolution”, the image of youthful, energetic beings is what generates in my mind, which is why I completely understand why there is such a focus on young women in Born in Flames. Interestingly enough, though, I really enjoyed the few moments of screen time afforded older women in the movement. Zella Wylie and The Belle Gayle Show are the only times we really see women over the age of 25, and their camera time is brief compared to the rest of the cast. Nothing gets me more jazzed than aged feminists because they have seen and been through it all and still have hope for brighter days to come. I don’t think not having women from different age groups equally present in Born in Flames hurt the film or prevented it from making bold statements; I just think it would’ve made the film a little more interesting.

As for what I felt got more attention than necessary in the film, I can’t really think I of anything. I enjoyed how there were a variety of issues that were addressed, and I didn’t feel like anything was overdone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would have gotten so much more out of Born in Flames if the film’s main ladies saw more character development. Knowing about their background and day-to-day on a more emotional level would have helped me connect with the characters. Instead, I found most of them to be sort of annoying, as they reminded me of the mean crust punk girls in college who made me feel like I was never good enough to hang out with them. Even though Born in Flames reopened those wounds, I did enjoy the film for the most part.

Brandon: I’m going to have to contradict both Alli & Boomer on a couple points here: the effect of the ending and the film’s view towards sex work , which was wholly negative in my interpretation. I understand why someone would find the World Trade Center explosion that concludes this film to feel dated in a cringe-inducing way, but I find it at peace with its larger “All oppressed people have a right to violence” messaging. I’d even say it feels exciting as a go-for-broke call to arms, a continuation of the film’s political organization aspirations at large. What hasn’t aged so well, however, is the film’s attitude towards sex work.

While most of Born in Flames’s radical leftist ideologies feel consistent with modern politics, the way it lumps all sex work in with rape & gendered subjugation does feel out of step with political thought in the 2010s. If this film were contemporary, I suspect it would shift its stance from abolishing sex work entirely to advocating for sex workers’ rights that would protect them from gendered power-imbalances. A film’s political ideology feeling slightly outdated is more of a positive sign of real-world progress than anything, though, so that sex work-shaming attitude is more than forgivable, especially considering the striking amount of the film’s messaging that’s still on-point. Lizzie Borden’s next film, Working Girls, was also specifically about upscale NYC sex workers, so I’m curious to see if expanding on the subject makes her abolitionist stance seem more nuanced that I’m giving it credit for here (as indicated by everyone else in the crew taking away an entirely different interpretation of her views on the subject).

Alli: Discussing and viewing art is entirely subjective. Every person brings their own experiences and opinions to the table. I was predisposed to like this movie as a crazy radical. Sure, it’s not pretty, but neither is oppression or the world these women inhabit. Sure, the same song is repeated like an anthem over and over again, but as cheesy and “spiritual” as it sounds, we all need a mantra to get by in times of conflict. I’m not saying that this is a flawless movie by any means or that these aren’t valid criticisms of it. I just think that this movie lives and breathes its ideals.

One tenet of true punk radicalism that I absolutely love is the fact that you don’t have to be trained or an expert to make art. The idea of gatekeeping art to only include “intellectuals” or those who went to art school is inherently classist and against “the cause.” Many untrained people, children even, have produced movies that are gorgeous and perfectly composed. Some people can make untrained, unpolished work beautiful, like Daniel Johnston or the sisters of the band The Shags.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty to mean something and be good.

Boomer: I saw this film for free on Amazon Prime by participating in a free trial for Fandor as part of Amazon’s services; as of this writing, that free trial is still ongoing, so it’s not as difficult to find as one might expect. The Amazon reviews for the film are unsurprisingly positive or negative on the extreme ends of the star rating spectrum, from such insightful ratings as “Sucked like a lamprey” and “Looks like this was made for a college film class” (which, to be fair, it does) to more positive ratings from more thoughtful viewers like this one or this one. But my favorite simply reads “I am not sure to remember I was watch movie,” which makes me think poor Patsy Johnson had her world rocked so hard by the film that she couldn’t think straight. Nice work, Borden!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August:
Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

Shock Corridor (1963)

It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).

Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.

Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.

Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.

When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hereditary (2018)

It’s no secret that I love horror movies. Of my top ten movies of 2015, 3-5 were horror (depending on how you categorize thrillers like Cop Car and Queen of Earth); in 2016, that was a solid five out of ten, and in 2017, six of fifteen. I even did a list of my favorite horror movies by year for the past fifty years in 2017, and that’s not even getting into my months-long Dario Argento retrospective before that. So it might surprise you to learn that I’m rarely actually scared by horror movies. We’re entering a new golden age of horror (both in film and in the real world, at least here in the U.S.), but it’s rare that a film manages to induce such fear and anxiety in the animalistic part of my brain that it manages to topple the wall of critical theory that usually takes center stage in my viewings. In essence, the value, entertainment and otherwise, that I normally get from a horror film viewing, is in the dissection of its component elements and its social statements and theses. For instance, as captivating as Get Out was, the rhetorical space created in the theater between me and the text was one of intense interest in and attention to the social criticism and symbology of the film rather than making me actually afraid at least until the arrival of those flashing lights at the end, when I feared our protagonist was about to be murdered by the police, as so many young black men in our country are every day. In the past half decade, very few films have managed to actually engage with my fear response over my academic interest “in the moment”: Don’t Breathe, The Babadook, IT, The VVitch, Raw, the aforementioned Cop Car, and probably one or two others that aren’t coming to mind immediately. That pantheon now has a new member: Hereditary.

What an amazing film. I’m going to do my best not to spoil anything about it, but be forewarned: if you’re so sharp a person that discussion of foreshadowing and artistic influences can spoil something for you, you should go and see the movie now now now and come back when you’re done. Ok? Welcome back. First and foremost, I’d like to salute the marketing of this film for so thoroughly managing to disguise the premise. I can’t remember the last time a film’s trailers and TV spots threw such an opaque veil over the text’s true subject matter and so effectively obscured the content to preserve the surprise, successfully. Last year’s mother! did this by crafting a trailer that told you nothing about the movie, really, but that ended in more of a severe disconnect between audience expectations and authorial . . . let’s call it “artistry.” That same division may be coming for Hereditary too, given the disparity between the critical consensus and audience response (sitting at 92% for the former and 59% for the latter on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). There was even a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences.

I’ll refrain from making too many broad statements about the general public’s unwillingness to be shocked, but suffice it to say I’m long past being surprised when the average moviegoer expresses disproportionate outrage when something genuinely novel comes along simply because it isn’t what they would expect. This is part and parcel of the democratization of criticism, as the internet provides a platform for everyone to express their views, from that racist idiot in your office, to that guy on the bus who’s been reading the same David Foster Wallace essay collection for months, to that group of women at the next table at Phoenicia who want nothing more out of a movie than a kiss between a handsome man and the lady whose love changed him (and to lowly old me!). This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly blurs the lines of discourse. I’m going off topic (surprise), but the point holds true: the film that you’ll see after you buy your ticket is going to be a different experience than you’re expecting, and that’s a good thing.

So what should you expect instead? (To allay the fears of those concerned that this is potentially spoilery information, let me advise that there are some dream sequences in which the imagery is thematically relevant and resonant but not necessarily literal.) Since you aren’t me, I can’t just say: “Remember that bizarre dream we had after watching the final segment of XX while on post-surgery painkillers last year? It’s basically the same narrative, but with Toni Collette instead of Tyne Daly.” I mean, it is almost exactly that, but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. Imagine a horror movie version of Ordinary People and you’re halfway there; add in some concerns about the heredity of mental illnesses and imbalances, a dash of the St. Patrick’s Day segment of 2016’s Holidays, a few handfuls of Rosemary’s Baby, a pinch of Killing of a Sacred Deer, and a dash each of Hausu, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Ring, and Carrie, just for good measure. Admittedly, this is a jumble, but it leads to a cohesive narrative that is shocking, creepy, and depressing, all in good measure.

Annie Graham (Collette) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother, Ellen, a mentally unstable woman with dissociative identity disorder. Mental illness seems to run in her family, as her depressed father starved himself to death when she was an infant, and her schizophrenic brother committed suicide after accusing their mother of “trying to put people inside of him.” She is an artist who works in miniatures, several of which appear throughout the sumptuous but isolated home she shares with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and teenage stoner Peter (Alex Wolff). In many ways, Charlie is most like her mother, as she likewise creates miniatures and figurines, but unlike Annie’s meticulously carved, sculpted, and painted recreations of reality, Charlie’s tiny homonculi have electrical outlets instead of faces, or pigeon heads instead of humanoid ones. After further family tragedy, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd) outside of a grief support group, and the older woman lends her a sympathetic ear before introducing her to the occult as a way to communicate with those who have moved on. Or does she? Is there really a conduit to speak with the loved ones who have died, or is it all in Annie’s head? Or is perhaps neither of those things true? Or both?

I’m at a loss to say more without giving away some of the movie’s biggest swerves, especially given that, as noted above, I wasn’t in “critical film theory” mode while watching. From the opening moments, when we swoop in on one of Annie’s miniatures of the home in which the Grahams reside and the tiny dollhouse becomes Peter’s bedroom, the film captivates the width and breadth of your attention. I wasn’t inspecting the music to see if it mixed high and low frequencies to create tension (CW for the link: uses a jump scare from a Conjuring film); I was too concerned about the characters and what was going to happen to them to worry about any of those things, and I’ll be processing the ideas and concepts in the film for days to come, but I can’t get into those without telling you too many of the film’s secrets. Just go see it, if you dare.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Movie of the Month: Gates of Heaven (1978)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Brandon , Boomer, and Britnee watch Gates of Heaven (1978).

Alli: Told in a series of interviews, Gates of Heaven is about pet cemeteries. Two feuding parties fight ideologically and legally for control over the final resting place of people’s beloved animals. Originally, Floyd McClure, a bleeding heart dog lover, is dead set on his belief that pets deserve better than to just be taken to a rendering facility after he was traumatized living near one in his childhood. He is not a business man. Out of the goodness of his heart, he buys a plot of land with the help of investors, and begins to assist in comforting people as they shepherd their pets onto the next life. Of course, not being a business man, and being totally dedicated to the idea of helping people in their grief, his cemetery goes out of business. All the animals get exhumed in a dramatic spectacle, and are moved to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, upsetting many of the pet owners. Bubbling Well is run by the Harberts. The Harberts are intolerable rich people solely in the business for the money, with two down-on-their-luck, basically loser sons who flock back to the nest to get jobs at the cemetery.

The contrast between these two groups results in a documentary not just about pet death and grief, but about human nature. There are those who are earnestly out to help people, and those who don’t believe in the cause. There’s the genuine and the facade, and the poor grieving people stuck in between.

Gates of Heaven is the first documentary I truly fell in love with. It was the first time I watched people being interviewed on screen, and thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I went to film school, probably because of it. It taught me that you don’t need a big budget, fancy equipment, or A-list stars to make a movie about anything. All you need is some chairs, a few eccentrics, and the time to let them talk. I obviously haven’t done much filmmaking or interviewing of eccentrics (YET!) but my strong love of the documentary format lives on.

Werner Herzog famously dared Errol Morris that he couldn’t make a whole documentary about this “unlikely” subject matter, and that if he did, Herzog would eat his shoe. He lost that bet, and the shoe eating is documented in a short shot by Les Blank. To me, since truth is very often stranger than fiction, this doesn’t seem like that wild of a subject to make a feature-length documentary about. I may be viewing this through the lens of the present where there’s a very great documentary, Helvetica, about the history of a font, but to me, the topic of death as a commercial industry in general is full of possibilities.  Britnee, were you impressed that there’s a whole documentary about the conflict between two pet cemeteries? Or do you, like me, believe in the power of film to bring out the weird in the mundane?

Britnee: Other than the spooky Stephen King film, there’s not much out there in the film world about pet cemeteries, at least not that I’m aware of. Gates of Heaven provides a unique view into the world of pet cemeteries while stirring up loads of thought-provoking questions (“Do dogs really go to heaven?,” “Why are there so many assholes in this world?”). It reminded me of Grey Gardens a bit. Not only were the two films from the same time period, but they both focus on eccentric folks disguised as white-bread Americans. Between the middle-aged woman showing off her chubby, black chihuahua’s talking skills and the twenty-something year old playing his guitar outside with the pet cemetery as a backdrop, there’s never a dull moment. It’s sort of like a Wes Anderson film except nothing is scripted. These are real people talking about real things. I love it all so much!  Needless to say, I was very impressed with Gates of Heaven, and it is definitely one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

Gates of Heaven changed my perspective of what the average American pet owner was like in the late 1970s. When my family members and friends that grew up during the 1960s/1970s share those back-in-the-day stories, I never once heard of a pet being like a member of the family. Pets were never allowed inside of the house, much less given kisses and snuggles. They were referred to as “animals,” and they were so far below the level of the superior human being. When they died, they were never given a proper burial. The image of a dog on a chain in the backyard with a little wooden doghouse and a cat sleeping under the carport is how I imagined most pets during that era. It was heartwarming to see that there were people who looked to their pets as equals and loved them unconditionally.

Brandon, this documentary was made almost 40 years ago. What do you think today’s version of Gates of Heaven would be like?

Brandon: Besides the insight into historical attitudes towards pets, the most distinctly 1970s thing about this film is the way it avoids contextual narration or exposition. The story is linear and not exactly in medias res, but the most editorializing Morris imposes on the film is in the meticulous composition of individual shots (Britnee’s Wes Anderson comparison is dead-on) and whatever footage he chose to excise in editing. Otherwise, the story is told entirely by its subjects, who speak plainly in oral history-style interviews. This feels true to the matter-of-fact documentary style of the era, considering contemporary works like (to call back to already-cited documentarians) the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens or Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure. If Gates of Heaven were made decades later by a different director, I believe the impulse would have been for the filmmaker to impose their own personality & worldview on the interviews in the name of being ”honest” about how their perspective shapes what’s supposedly documented reality. Think of the way modern Werner Herzog “documentaries” are essentially essay films about how Herzog himself sees the world, more than they are a presentation of unaltered facts. I think keeping a personal distance from editorializing about its subjects was a smart move in this case, as it allows Morris to profile these strange, real-world characters with a clear fascination for their quirks without ever quite leaning into his (possibly ironic) amusement with them. His style was later borrowed for outright comedy by mockumentary goof-em-ups like Best in Show (and every other Christopher Guest joint, really) & Documentary Now, but the tone is much more delicate & distant here, avoiding pure “Getta load of this freak show” cruelty. I suspect a more modern, Herzogian approach with Morris’s authorial voice framing the interviews might have tipped it in the wrong direction.

The question isn’t what Gates of Heaven would be like if Herzog made it in 2005 as a follow-up to Grizzly Man, though; the question is what it would be like if it were made today. I think modern filmmakers have learned a lot form Herzog’s embrace of documentaries’ inherent subjectivity (as opposed to earlier films’ embarrassed denial of it), but they’ve taken the art form in an entirely new direction from his This Is Really About Me philosophy pieces. The most exciting modern examples of the medium, the ones that avoid Wikipedia-in-motion tedium, are the ones that mix performed fictions, found footage abstractions ,and multimedia collage structures to guide their tone. Weirdo art projects like Heart of a Dog, Rat Film, Flames, The World is Mine, Swagger, The Nightmare, and Faces Places blur the line that divides the documentary and the essay film as separate mediums. They’re as heavy on first-person editorializing as a typical Herzog doc, but also include blatantly artificial performance & other forms of stylized artistic expression with their “real life” documentation to the point where what’s real and what’s fiction would be totally up for debate. Gates of Heaven was radical in its time for affording an oddball subject a dry, matter-of-fact academic treatment. If it were to be equally radical in 2018, it’d probably include sock puppet reenactments of interviewees’ anecdotes or Morris himself purchasing a plot for his own dead pet or a lengthy visual essay about the process of physical decay for a small animal body and how that relates to some economic us-vs.-them political philosophy. There’s no telling if it would be nearly as good of a film if it were made with a 2010s sensibility, but I can guarantee it wouldn’t be as dry or editorially distanced. Even Errol Morris’s own recent work on the experimental, LSD-influenced documentary Wormwood hints at that cultural shift.

Boomer, Morris’s style here obviously depends on his interview subjects to tell a compelling story (or at least tell a mundane story in a compelling way), but I found it curious which subjects he chose to afford the most attention. Most of my favorite interviewees in the film were the pet owners who employed the services of the cemetery, but it seems Morris was more personally invested in the conflict between the people who maintained its daily operation (for love or for profit). Do you think the movie could have used more (dead) pet owner profiles or would that have risked tipping it too far in the direction of Christopher Guest quirk humor?

Boomer: I actually feel like there was just enough balance between the proprietors and the patrons of the two pet cemeteries to prevent the film from becoming either too maudlin or too tongue-in-cheek. In general, there was a distinct tendency toward sentiment among the (for lack of a better word) mourners, which is sensible but not exactly what I expected. To me, the very idea of an organized pet cemetery seems incredibly bourgeois, although it makes sense in the context of a more urbanized area than the one in which I grew up. When our beloved eighteen-year-old cat Tabitha died in 2003, we were able to bury her in the back field between two trees next to the pond, but those living in an apartment building like I do now, or in suburban areas with overzealous and overreaching HOAs, don’t have that luxury. And while I would consider the more sensible thing to do would be having a memorial in the home (with or without your furbaby’s cremains), I understand the desire for something more traditional.

The couples who were interviewed were interesting, but the MVPs of those who were on the mourning end are those who were interviewed alone. First is Florence Rasmussen, with her long-winded, meandering, unbroken speech about her son (really her grandson) and his car, which she bought for him (really gave him $400 for, or the equivalent of $1,597.15 in 2018), and her desire to get out and do more (even though she also says that she “gets around pretty well”). Hers is a ramble that is mired in contradiction and a narrative of self-promotion and self-interest that effectively demonstrates the depth of her neuroses (and probably dementia). I also loved the feud between Zella Graham (she of the howling chihuahua) and Lucille Billingsley (her nemesis). The differences between how the two are framed, with Graham and her living pet in a welcoming-if-kitschy dining area in her home against Billingsley in her baroque wingback chair beneath a framed portrait of her departed darling, says a lot about each woman, which is only reinforced by the issues that each takes with the other: Billingsley speaks about larger concerns and barely thinks of Graham at all, while Graham’s diatribe is all about Billingsley’s apparent pretentiousness and flaunting of her wealth, like showing up at the graveyard in her luxury car and adorned with furs (a telling detail in how Billingsley sees the “hierarchy” of animals) to complain about the disinterment at McClure’s failed cemetery. Their pettiness lends the whole affair a surreality that elevates the documentary from simple investigation into something more. The interviews with couples may add to this feeling, especially with regards to the woman who appears on the poster and gives a speech about her idiosyncratic conception of the cosmos and the place of humans and animals within it; unlike a Guest film, however, where the two people on screen would be characters and not real people and thus would be intentionally written more comedically to play off of each other, these scenes are more about two people in parallel than in counterpoint.

Overall, I found the Harberts clan and Floyd McClure more compelling than their customers. Forgive me for not using names as much as I would like to under normal circumstances; the lack of identifying information about who all of these people were was a source of frustration for me over the course of the documentary (not that I didn’t love it overall). Among McClure’s friends and contemporaries, I was never quite certain who was who, or if the minister with whom McClure had a handshake deal that from what I could discern was the root cause of his cemetery’s demise was one of those interviewed or not. Even though my sympathies lie with McClure, as his devotion to his collie led him to spend his life trying to create a space in which pets could be mourned, my investment in both parties was split pretty evenly, although for different reasons. I felt like we got very little information about McClure in comparison the Harbertses, despite him being more open about his feelings, as we saw more of their candid lives. The dichotomy between rich and . . . well, not poor, but middle class was an element of the feud between Billingsley and Graham, and we see that writ large in the difference between McClure and the Harbertses. McClure is a man whose interview occurs in a small home with little decoration, while the youngest Harberts son tells the camera that when he wasn’t sure where his life was going, he knew he could come home and have his own house, even if it is the one by the chicken coop. The elder son’s discussion of his previous work as a motivational speaker is largely done from behind a desk full of trophies and in front of a wall of awards as he talks about how he used to use those same trophies and awards to create a rhetorical space with potential clients, droning on almost hypnotically while demonstrating why he was such a success in that arena, apparently with no intentionality informing his “performance.” There’s so much that’s being communicated in these frames: the banality of wealth, the sumptuousness and self-aggrandizement of his office in comparison to his father’s (which is less ornate on the whole but has that ridiculous name plate done up in Old London Gothic typeface that almost seems to dominate the frame despite taking up so little of it), the look of quiet resignation and resentment on his face when relating that he understand and accepts that he is the “third” (read: last) person in the chain of command at the cemetery.

That is true filmic storytelling, which is notable given that documentaries generally attempt to tell the truth from an unbiased perspective (give or take your Michael Moores and your Dinesh D’Souzas). I found myself truly fascinated by the surroundings of the interviewees, none more so than when McClure was speaking from what appeared to be his den. He never mentions a wife or child at all when relating the oral history of his failed endeavor, which makes the pair of bronzed baby booties behind him a total curiosity to me. The same can be said of the yellow document hanging from the doorknob in Graham’s kitchen and the bizarre red fake flower(?) that foreground the interviews with Mrs. Harberts. For me, these were just as intriguing as the stories themselves. Given that Morris’s intention was to present an unbiased account (to the extent that such a thing is possible), I’m not sure how much directorial input was given with regards to placement when giving these interviews, but some of the locations seem too perfect to be anything other than staged. For instance, both of the Harberts men we see in their offices speak directly from behind the desk as if we are meeting with them, while our “meeting” with the manager of the tallow rendering plant frames the plant itself behind him through his window, giving those speeches a more casual vibe. Alli, as you’ve seen this film more than the rest of us have, what insights do you have into this particular rhetoric in this film: the composition of the mise en scène as it applies to homes and offices as meant to evoke a particular response? What speaks to you, and what doesn’t?

Alli: As far as filmmaking goes, I always assume that everything in front of the camera is intentional or an intentionally included accident. Even a more matter-of-fact documentary is still a controlled and directed piece of art, and some of those backgrounds were a little too composed to be just there. They’re made to be an extension of the interviewee’s character. The rendering plant manager is shown with his life’s work, grotesque as it is. There’s no way for him to put on self important airs with the plant in the background. He’s a link to the reality of the world as opposed to McClure’s idealism and the Harbert’s affected manner. If I had to guess about the baby boots behind McClure, they were a subtle hint at his innocence and maybe even infantilizing this naive man. The fake flower behind Mrs. Harberts is a bit on the nose in this reading.

Despite the matter of fact feel, the whole composition and placement of shots show some editorial bias. There’s a shot of a man that’s from uncomfortably crotch height that feels like it’s highlighting his man of the 70’s masculinity. There’s the scene with the younger Harberts son where you can see his pot plants in the background where you know exactly what kind of lifestyle he leads. So much of Morris’s views are hidden in what’s with the subject in the frame and how they’re placed. Even if there’s no voice-over or direct explanations, he’s manipulating you into drawing conclusions about these people. He doesn’t blatantly try to villainize or place judgement on his subjects, but there are subtle hints at how he feels about them. As far as what affected me most this particular viewing, I got to re-experience my negative feelings for the older Harberts son, but his backgrounds seem the most incidental to me, as if Morris let him call the shots a little bit, because of course this man wants to be seen with the backdrop of his achievements and his swimming pool. And it makes the irony of his unexplained failure in the motivational speaker arena all the more delicious.

Britnee, did you have a favorite or least favorite interview subject?

Britnee: Of all the fabulous interviewees in Gates of Heaven, I would have to say my favorite interview subject was Floyd McClure. He brought so much heart and innocence to the screen. It was endearing to see that he was in the pet cemetery business for all the right reasons. I became so invested in his cause just within the few minutes of him speaking, so my heart was completely broken when it was revealed that he lost his business. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was put on this earth to help bring comfort for those who lose their beloved pets, but the greedy world we live in prevented him from fulfilling his purpose. I hope that when it’s time for me to bury/cremate my pets that there will be someone like McClure to assist me with such a difficult process.

Even though McClure was my favorite interview subject, I can’t help but feel as though I would have the best time hanging out with the pet owners. I can talk about my cat and dog for hours, and sometimes people will give me the “Please shut up” look. Thankfully, New Orleans is a city filled with dog lovers, so more often than not, the stranger I’m talking with will share my enthusiasm. The singing dog lady reminds me of the eccentric folks that I always run into at the dog park and feed stores. Singing Dog Lady would understand me, and I would totally schedule some puppy play dates with her and her dog.

Brandon, you mentioned earlier that you enjoyed the pet owners in the documentary. As a pet owner yourself, did you recognize an similarities between yourself and the pet owners being interviewed?

Brandon: If there’s one major commonality I see in myself it’s sentimentality. I never had pets outside a fish tank growing up and my first pet as an adult, a large black cat, simply disappeared when he died (presumably hit by a car). As a result, I’ve never had to truly deal with the physical remains of a beloved animal that couldn’t be swept away with the flush of a toilet and I can only presume I won’t handle that grief especially well when my dog (who is getting relatively old . . .) inevitably dies. Interviewees singing to their animals or treating them with the same respect they’d extend to a human member of their family is relatable in a broad sense, but what’s more idiosyncratically captured here is the sentimentality pets inspire in their owners. I don’t think I would ever pay for my dog to be buried in a proper cemetery, but I could easily see keeping her skull or ashes or taxidermy model around the house as a visual reminder of her. The result is essentially the same: sentimental clutter. I empathize deeply with the sentimentality that could lead an animal lover to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have their pets buried properly, as opposed to the posthumous disrespect of having their remains hauled off to the dump with the rest of our pedestrian trash. The truth is, though, that I don’t think that impulse is a necessarily healthy one, which is partly why it’s so grotesque that there are people on hand so willing to exploit it. To me, the capitalist villains of Gates of Heaven are the ones profiting off the sentimentality of their customers while pretending to share their emotional investment in the pet cemetery business as a sign of respect for the dead, when it’s really just like any another racket to them.

As such, I find the racket chosen by the rendering plant operator to be less blatantly evil than the one of the wealthy couple who usurp Mr. McClure’s business. You’d think that as a pet owner I’d be offended by the business model of selling off animal corpses as raw biproduct materials, but that honestly sounds more useful & practical to me than allowing the emotional clutter of animals (that are never coming back, nor care about how well you treat their remains) to fill up otherwise useful land. Since Gates of Heaven consciously avoids editorializing, it’s difficult to tell where the movie’s POV falls on this secondary dead animals racket, which is just as shrewdly capitalistic as the pet cemetery business, just with cruder honesty. Boomer, where do you think the rendering plant business lands on Gates of Heaven’s moral compass? Does the movie express an opinion on it either way or does it leave that philosophical quandary entirely to its audience?

Boomer: The biggest parallel that I see between participants in this film is between the rendering plant manager and the elder Harberts brother. Both are professional men in that late-thirties/early-forties stage of life, both with an air of authority despite the area of their respective expertises being either physically gross (rendering animals into tallow) or emotionally manipulative (as Alli notes, capitalizing on people’s grief). The difference is that Harberts has the decency to be embarrassed about his station in life, even if his hand-wringing is about the fact that he now reports to his stoner younger brother. Mr. Rendering Plant, on the other hand, grins like Patrick Bateman while describing how people react when they find out about his line of work, going so far as to recall, with great mirth, how a woman who, despite being unable to see the actual process of rendering from anywhere in their office building, was so “bothered in her mind” by what they were doing that she could not tolerate working there. Perhaps this is a rhetorical cheat as we see him counterposed against Floyd McClure, whose greatest sin in life was loving animals too much and being too trusting in people’s good nature; however, there is something truly unsettling about how defensive the rendering plant manager is when discussing his business and his complete and utter inability to understand how someone could be shocked or disgusted by the fact that he boils people’s dogs and horses until they can be used for glue or candles. I’m not a big fan of people who laugh while reminiscing about lying to the public about what became of the local elephant. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea what a rendering plant was until watching Gates of Heaven, and I cannot believe that pet owners were bringing their dead pets to such a terrible place to have them disposed of like garbage. What part or parts of a household animals is being rendered and what is it used for? It’s just so sad and disturbing. By the way it was talked about in the documentary, it seems like taking dead pets to rendering plants was the norm, and I really hope this isn’t a thing anymore. 

Alli: I’m a big critic of the death industry as a whole and Americans’ lack of acceptance of death as a personal expererience. People in this country pay exorbitant amounts of money for strangers to handle and dress their dead, such an intimate process. This isn’t as common in other parts of the world as it is here. I love my cats like they’re my children, so I would never leave their burying and handling to people who run what basically feels like a satire of an actual cemetery. It just goes to show that the predatory nature of the funeral industry, much like death, knows no bounds. No matter what your species, people will try to take advantage of your family’s desire to distance themselves from the grief. One thing that’s always struck me about this documentary is the subtle way it examines the psychology of all of this. Premium spots are glorified over different, cheaper areas of the cemetery, subconsciously telling people, “If you really loved your pet, you’d pay for us to do this.” Basically, the commodification of grief is an extremely, grossly American phenomenon and it’s interesting to see it laid out so transparently in the form of pet grief.

Boomer: The thing that I found most fascinating about the interviewees is that even the most out-of-it like Florence and a sweet/simple country bumpkin like Floyd had such a delightfully flexible and voluminous vocabulary. When Florence states that her pet corpses were moved to “that place that commences with a ‘B’,” I was surprised. It’s amazing how even people that could be considered simple-minded, senile, or even stupid engaged in a level of discourse that’s so much higher than the one in which we live now.

Brandon: Before viewing this film, the Errol Morris documentary I was most familiar with was Thin Blue Line, which absolutely bowled me over with its intense Philip Glass score. It’s appropriate, then, that one of the most memorable moments of Gates of Heaven for me was a musical one. When the cemetery owners’ loser son plays arena rock guitar at the edge of the cliff on his family’s shitty, animal corpse-laden property, the gap between the image in his head and the one we’re seeing onscreen is remarkably vast. It’s a perfect microcosm of the movie’s delicately comical, oddly tragic tone at large, an image that’s stuck with me for much longer than I expected it to when I first met it with a light chuckle.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Sometimes you find yourself in a dark, nearly empty theater screening the newest Star War on a Tuesday afternoon less than a week after its release and you find yourself asking Big Questions. Questions like: Will I never again pass through a calendar year without seeing one of these? Should I stop getting these giant blue raspberry slushes and a hot dog every time I come to the movies, knowing that I’ll spend the next 90-150 minutes regurgitating and swallowing that liquid and solid matter like a cow chewing cud? (I am a human garbage disposal, and like all disposals, sometimes things . . . splash around.) Was Thandie Newton paid as much for this film as Anthony Hopkins? Why aren’t there more people here? Would anyone have really noticed if I got nachos as well, or am I just being paranoid about people’s hatred of fat people like me? (See above, re: being a human garbage disposal.) How many hours long is this Venom trailer, anyway? Wait, there’s a new Jungle Book movie? Wasn’t there another one just, like, two years ago? (The answer to this one is easy: yes. There will be a mere 928 days between the respective premieres of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Andy Serkis’s Mowgli.) Is that the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of Crashing fame and the creator of the recent smash hit Killing Eve, which everyone should be watching? But most importantly: Why does this exist? And, hey is that Warwick Davis? (It is!)

I don’t think anyone in the world was clamoring for this movie to be made. No one asked for Solo: A Star Wars Story, but it’s here now, and we all have to live with that fact, so get used to it.

Solo, naturally, follows the story of lovable (YMMV) rogue Han “I ain’t in this for your revolution” Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes the hellhole slums of his homeworld, becoming separated from his childhood love Qi’ra (the Khaleesi herself Emilia Clarke) in the process by the cruel vicissitudes of fate, swearing he’ll return to save her one day. After a brief stint in the Imperial Forces, he joins a ragtag team of thieving scoundrels led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), meets up with his future bromance partner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and has his first fateful meeting with galactic playboy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Lando’s assistant/common law wife/sidekick L3-37 (Waller-Bridge). Along the way, he runs afoul of a gang of outlaws led by Enfys Nest, and is opposed by sophisticated crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, taking over for Michael K. Williams). It’s got everything you ever wanted in a sequel that shouldn’t exist: battles atop trains that traverse icy wildernesses, betrayals, giant tentacled space monsters, sacrifices, Wookiees rarrarr-ing at each other, holograms, monochromatic 2-D displays, hover cars with impractical and impossible physics (when banking left, shouldn’t the vehicle tilt left instead of right, as if it had thrusters and not wheels?), and Paul Bettany somehow simultaneously phoning it in and chewing the scenery. Truly, he is one of the great living actors of our time. Also, hey look everybody, Clint Howard’s here!

It takes 45 minutes (aka “not quite enough time to sober up”) by bus to get from the bar nearest my office to the Galaxy Highland theater, but those 45 minutes were much better spent than the first three quarters of an hour of this movie. There are jokes in this movie that land and others that don’t, while some do nothing but induce pure cringe. The cringe-inducing ones are peppered throughout, but the bulk of them (the most notable–although not the worst–being how Han gets his surname) appear in these early scenes; there are terrible jokes that come later, of course, but by then they’re spread out enough that you don’t seem to mind. I joked about this on my Facebook, but Solo may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that got better as my sobriety increased, but I was coherent enough throughout to be able to tell that this was because the movie improved over time. After you get through the joyless opening chase scene, the melodramatic and treacly faux-Casablanca separation at the spaceport, and the out-of-place D-Day-esque battle wherein Han meets Beckett for the first time, Han and Chewbacca have their meet-cute and escape together and it’s all pretty fun from there, even if Donald Glover’s performance feels more like Troy Barnes is doing a (very funny) Lando impression than Glover is playing the character outright.

To sidetrack for a minute and revisit Star Wars history, lets talk about Phantom Menace. My issues with the film (and the guy who wrote “As for your issues with the prequels in general, I will let someone else address those because honestly, I don’t know where to begin” – I still think about you and want to know who hurt you, other than George Lucas while grooming you to accept shovelfuls of shit and call it ice cream) aside, there’s a moment in the 1999 film that I thought about a lot while watching The Last Jedi back in December. And no, it wasn’t Anakin’s “Now this is podracing!” line while Finn and Rose rode those stupid CGI chihuahua horses to freedom, although I also couldn’t stop thinking about that. No, it’s this scene, that comes at about hour 14 of Phantom Menace, right around the time you’ve stopped wishing you were dead and started to accept that you already are and that this is hell.

ANAKIN. I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back here and freed all the slaves… have you come to free us?

QUI-GON : No, I’m afraid not.

And . . . that’s that.The scene moves on quickly to Qui-Gon blah-blah-blahing about Coruscant and trade agreements and then Jar Jar says “Wit no-nutten mula to trade” (no, really, see for yourself, in case you forgot–or are too blinded by the warmth of your childhood nostalgia to realize–that this movie is a crime against humanity). This is something that’s always been a problem with the Star Wars universe: no one really gives a damn about the existence of slavery. First of all, leaving aside the debatable sentience/sapience of droids and thus whether their servitude could be considered “slavery,” (which comes up in Solo and which I’ll get to later), the idea that anyone would be using organic life forms for manual labor when mechanical alternatives are so omnipresent, widespread, and affordable (even Luke’s aunt and uncle can afford one) is absurd. On the other hand, as long as there are backwater planets with little resources and abstinence-only sex education–as I assume Tattooine must, given that Shmi has a virgin birth and doesn’t seem awed by that fact at all (again, from the PM script: SHMI : There was no father, that I know of…I carried him, I gave him birth…I can’t explain what happened.)–there will always be mouths to feed, bills to pay, and Dickensian childhoods that can only be escaped by becoming a Storm Trooper.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But the Rebellion/Resistance is fighting for freedom for all from the Empire/First Order!” you yell at your phone reading this on the toilet at work, frightening an accountant and generating a solid afternoon of work for poor, sweet-faced Devan in HR. Yeah, sure, but slavery was a fact of life on non-Senate worlds during the prequel trilogy, and we never hear bleeding heart Amidala or cartoon rabbit minstrel show Jar Jar arguing for the Senate to intervene on worlds like the one where Anakin was born, not with the carrot or stick, with neither olive branch or lightsaber. In the Orig Trig, perfectly constructed straightforward sci-fantasy that it is, none of that is important. But come The Last Jedi, the audience is expected to be thrilled that our heroes liberated a bunch of racing animals while also leaving behind a not-insignificant number of children, still in the “employ” of slave masters. This would be so easy to do.

ROSE: It’s a pity that our roles in the Resistance and the need to return to the fleet means we have to leave these children behind.

FINN: Every life is important. As soon as we get back to the ship, we’ll tell General Organa about this place, and we’ll rend the shackles from every child in this place.

(They could even disagree, with Rose noting that they have to get back to the ship while Finn, with his background of having been a child soldier, would be more resistant to the idea of leaving the kids behind. It would make for a stronger emotional beat than “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” anyway. Nobody in the Resistance ever even pays lip service to the idea that they have a moral responsibility to fight back against the First Order because slaves need to be liberated. But I digress.)

Solo finally does . . . something with this problem, even if it makes no real definitive statements or even takes a clear moral stance. Although I have no doubt that there will be many who disagree with me and take offense to everything that she says, L3-37 is one of the best characters that this franchise has produced, and she was the highlight of the film for me. We meet L3 for the first time in a wretched hive of scum and villainy (’cause it’s Star Wars) as she pleads with a couple of droids duking it out in a ring, Battle Bots style, to not let themselves be reduced to fighting like dogs for the entertainment of organic onlookers. In a later heist scene on Kessel, she helps create chaos by attempting to instigate a droid rebellion in the film’s best sequence. Waller-Bridge is one of the funniest people on Earth, and her timing and inflection are comedy gold; there’s one scene where she climbs into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and complains of the equivalent of joint pain and tells Lando he’ll “have to do that thing later” while Glover makes the perfect expression, and it’s simply fantastic. Often for better and at times for worse, this is a franchise that has encompassed some truly uncanny inhumanity (whether it be due to bad CGI, weird puppetry, or just wooden acting), and this earnestly human and relatable moment was the point where I thought, “Hey, this movie’s actually all right.” And that’s not even getting into the fact that someone finally remembered to give a shit about ethics with regards to forced servitude here, although I’m never quite sure if the text is mocking L3 just as much as it is agreeing with her.

Alden Ehrenreich, despite all bad press to the contrary, does a good job here. From the first moment I saw him in Hail, Caesar (other than in the Supernatural episode “Wendigo,” but that was a dark period in my life of which I dare not speak), I thought “This guy looks like a movie star.” And here he is, defying the odds (insert “never tell me the odds” joke here) to pull off one of the most well-known characters in the history of Western cinema. Opting to simply play “charming rogue” instead of aping Harrison Ford was a wise choice, which was counterbalanced by Glover’s more self-aware acting choices. Harrelson could have sleepwalked through this role given that it’s not very original, but he showed up, which is more than can be said of most people’s erstwhile father figures in the crime business.

That’s the good, but the bad . . . is bad. On an older Simpsons commentary (I want to say it was “Bart Gets Famous” but don’t quote me on that), the writers joked that they would know they would have gone to the well of ideas until it was dry if they ever did an origin story for Bart’s red hat. The idea is laughable, but that’s also kind of what’s happening here. We get an origin story/explanation for Chewbacca’s nickname, Han’s blaster, how Han was able to make “the Kessel run in 12 parsecs” despite that being a unit of distance and not time, and even Han’s last name. It’s embarrassing and drags the movie to a halt every time the film has to wait for the hypothetical shameless applauders in the audience to sit down and stop providing their children with therapy fodder for decades to come. This dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to be anything other than cynical these days. Coming of age during the Bush Administration (how quaint our worries from those days seem now), then passing into the not-free-from-issues-but-generally-pretty-good halcyon days under Obama only to emerge into the rhetorical hellscape that is the current state of American affairs has left me in suspension between various states: hollowed out, terrified, and using humor as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression (check out Majken Jul Sorensen’s essay about the topic here, if you so desire). I find it pretty hard to garner much enthusiasm for anything of late; I’m certainly happier in my current city and living situation on a day-to-day basis than I’ve been for much of my life, but like Lisa Simpson in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” I feel like all of the static and my own age have left me incapable of feeling either highs or lows. It’s unusual for me to be able to get myself hyped about anything, even something that I’m looking forward to, like the recent premiere of the second season of Westworld, or my own upcoming birthday. But I was excited about Avengers: Infinity War, especially with it coming so close on the heels of Black Panther, which was amazing. And after 18 films and ten years of lead-up, how could I not be? Maybe I was setting myself up for a disappointment right from the start.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War opens with Thanos and his hideous CGI minions aboard the Asgardian refugee ship. From there, we check in on each of the characters that we’ve come to know over the course of the past decade: the crew of the Milano are out and about doing good, bad, and a little bit of both; Dr. Strange is being a snarky snarkman; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts contemplate their upcoming nuptials and perhaps starting a family; Rhodey is holding down the fort at Avengers HQ while Vision and Scarlet Witch sneak away for a secret tryst, Montague/Capulet style; Cap, Falcon, and Black Widow are still fugitives from the law per their rejection of the Sikovian Accords; Bucky gets a new arm from T’Challa and Shuri; Peter Parker is on a field trip to MoMA. And then all hell breaks loose as Thanos’s various heralds show up to retrieve those blasted Infinity Stones.

I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, so that may mean this review is shorter than you’ve come to expect from the needlessly verbose windbag that I am. I’ll save all of that for the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion (I can hear poor Brandon‘s wrist bones creaking already, despite the next zine transcription being some time from now; sorry, buddy). There’s only so much you can discuss when you’re trying to avoid sharing any details, but I’ll try. I will say that a lot of people die in this movie. Like, so many more than you’re expecting. That number that you’re thinking of? Double it, then double it again. You think your favorite character is safe? Think again, buddy.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of these flicks and am a staunch defender of even those that some consider their missteps (I’ve long held that Iron Man 3 is the best of the three), although I’ve also been quick to criticize their racial or regressive issues (suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of Doctor Strange), but there are other legitimate problems that crop up over and over again. Eighteen of these films preceded Infinity War, and they almost all follow a similar formula. In 2/3rds of these, in fact, the conflict is all but identical: in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Winter Soldier (to a certain extent), Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even Age of Ultron if you think of Ultron as a dark mirror of Tony all follow the same basic plot of “protagonist meets a dark reflection of himself and defeats him (or her, but only once).” The original Avengers and both Guardians films are more about opposition to an external invading force, with the inclusion of personal stakes, sure, but with a different kind of immediacy and intimacy as the whole “Obadiah/Winter Soldier/Yellowjacket/Mandarin/Vulture/whatever is me without a moral compass” element. I honestly can’t remember at all what The Dark World was about.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that these movies are always formulaic or generic, as the uninformed armchair critic likes to claim: Winter Soldier is a seventies-style conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Homecoming is a John Hughes-style high school comedy, etc. A more legitimate criticism is that these films are usually lacking in stakes, as character death is often a misdirect (Loki’s multiple “deaths,” the fakeout death of Nick Fury in Winter Soldier) or otherwise undone (Bucky was revealed to have survived his apparent death in The First Avenger, Agent Coulson’s death in Avengers was undone in Agents of SHIELD); the only permanent deaths leading up to this film among protagonists has been the death of Quicksilver in Age of Ultron and the elderly Peggy’s death in Civil War. Infinity War seems to be attempting to course-correct, with the deaths of a lot of people, but only some seem more or less permanent, while others are so obviously temporary that it makes the whole thing seem . . . pointless.

The fact that this is a dark movie isn’t a problem, per se. There’s just something that feels . . . off. There’s been a sharp uptick in the outright comedy in this franchise ever since Guardians showed that the audience was hungry for that kind of mix of humor and action, and that’s been for the best overall, with Ragnarok and Homecoming both being very funny. But a lot of the jokes in this film don’t seem to land as well as in those films. I saw Infinity War late on Sunday night, so it wasn’t a packed theater, but even when there were obvious punchlines that would normally elicit at least a chuckle or two from the general audience, there was dead silence. Which isn’t to say that all the jokes missed; a lot of them were actually pretty strong. There’s also a lot more Doctor Strange in the film than one would expect, but that wasn’t a detraction for me either. All the hallmarks are here: the great interaction between characters that we’ve come to know so well over the past ten years, the action sequences to make every viewer’s inner child jump for joy, and the grouping of characters who have never interacted before coming together in a brand new calculus of characters playing against each other.

It’s hard to narrow down what exactly doesn’t work for me here, but there are a few things that I can point to as being problems. Thanos’s cronies are no fun, and every single one of them looks terrible. Only one of them is named onscreen (Ebony Maw), and perhaps not coincidentally, he’s the only one with any kind of real personality in his brief appearances. Two of the three others are on par with Justice League‘s Steppenwolf when it comes to character modeling, as they appear to have been rendered using some truly outdated technology (like, maybe two generations newer than what was used for Babylon 5), and the third, an ax-throwing hulk of a man, is so needlessly baroque that he resembles a Transformer. None of them have even the smidgen of personality afforded to even the most shallow Marvel villains we’ve seen so far, so although there are stakes on a large, intergalactic scale, it feels like our protagonists are fighting cardboard cutouts.

I can only guess that this issue is the result of editing the film down from a longer narrative, as this would explain quite a bit. For instance, when last we saw the purple stone, Starlord et al had left it in the care of the Nova Corps on Xandar; at the beginning of this film, Thanos already has it in his possession. Structurally speaking, it feels like too much of this film happens offscreen or in between cuts. The pacing of the movie works perfectly, however, so I must conclude that there was a choice between a movie that had good narrative flow and one in which all the relevant scenes were present, and the choice was made to jettison chunks of the story in order to maintain a better flow. That’s probably the right choice, but it still left me feeling unfulfilled when I left the theater. That’s not even getting into the complete irrationality of Thanos’s entire plan (killing half the universe “at random” to ensure that the other half has enough resources, which is some Malthusian nonsense on top of being illogical), or the fact that some characters get a “moment” but are still ill-served by having very little to do (Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon are notably absent for long periods and do little more than punch and shoot when they are on screen, despite being, you know, the Avengers).

I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing. Here’s hoping the next outing is something better.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond