Lagniappe Podcast: Mad God (2022) & The Overlook Film Festival

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and guest Bill Arceneaux discuss a selection of high-style, high concept horror films that screened at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, starting with Phil Tippett’s psychedelic stop-motion nightmare Mad God (2022).

00:00 Welcome

01:50 Mad God (2022)

29:15 The Overlook Film Festival
35:20 Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)
44:05 Nosfera2 (2022)
1:01:31 Deadstream (2022)
1:15:22 Swallowed (2022)
1:27:57 Hypochondriac (2022)
1:33:22 Piggy (2022)
1:37:53 Flux Gourmet (2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made HannaBrandon, and Britnee watch Embrace of the Serpent (2015).

Boomer: “The world is full of fishes,” Theo says. “We cannot possibly end them.” 

“You have no discipline,” Karamakate says, shortly thereafter. “You will devour everything.” 

El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) is a 2015 Colombian film about an apocalypse. It isn’t one which comes with neither the fire nor ice of Robert Frost’s poetry or the heat or cold death of the universe that is hypothesized by modern science, nor a dumb superhero movie sky beam, nor is it one of clashes between heaven and hell (although they each certainly play a role). The film is a fictionalized synthesis of two real-life accounts written by German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872-1924) and American ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), embodied here as two separate men who are taken on a treacherous Amazonian journey by an Indigenous man named Karamakate, the ostensibly last survivor of a village that was destroyed by colonizers exploiting the natural resources of South America. Koch-Grünberg is reimagined as “Theo” (Jan Bijvoet), who, with his “liberated” manservant Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) approaches the young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in 1909 and asks him to be his guide to the sacred yakruba plant, a fictional sacred plant with healing qualities that Theo hopes will save him from his unnamed, wasting disease. Although he is initially hesitant, Karamakate is convinced to join this endeavor when Theo tells him that he has seen other survivors of his same tribe. The character inspired by Schultes, Evan (Brionne Davis), appears to the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) in 1940 and claims that he has never dreamed and hopes that the yakruba will heal this missing part of him, working his way into the Indigenous man’s good graces by claiming to be devoted to plants, although his true goal is to secure disease-free rubber trees for American manufacturing for the war effort. 

Readers who have never seen the film may be asking themselves how this can be an apocalyptic story, if the latest time frame envisioned by the film is nearly eight decades ago, but for many of us, that is ignorance born of privilege as the descendants of colonizers and settlers, who can denounce the violence of our ancestry but nonetheless continue to benefit from it every day. As Pam Oliver once said, “If your ancestors cut down all the trees, it’s not your fault, but you still don’t live in a forest.” To put it another way, the (unfortunately now inactive) IndigenousXca Twitter account once posted a statement that lives in my mind perpetually: “something I don’t think occurs to settlers is that Indigenous people already are living in a post-apocalyptic world.” For the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, invaders came from another world, pillaged their natural resources, committed mass genocide, and drove the last living remnants of a whole world from their ancestral lands into reservations. For mass media created mostly by and mostly for white people, this is a common “apocalypse” narrative, wherein we are meant to empathize with and cheer for our mostly white heroes as they defend themselves against invading Soviets (ex.: Red Dawn), machines of our own creation (ex. MatrixThe TerminatorBattlestar Galactica), and aliens (ex.: Independence DayWar of the Worlds). Because we’ve been fed American exceptionalist propaganda for our whole lives by that same system and, frequently, our educational institutions, this results in a kind of psychic disconnect wherein the same people who are cheering the heroes in those works for fighting back against colonization and genocide will also show up to school board meetings frothing at the mouth to make sure that their children never learn about redlining or that Aunt Gloria was actually one of the girls who screamed the n-word at Tessie Prevost.

The river on which Karamakate spends his existence is a post-apocalyptic world. That the men he finds in his old village greet him with “We’re toasting to the end of the world” isn’t an accident. The “world mover,” as he is called by others, has been so traumatized by living through the (ongoing) destruction of his world that he considers himself to have become a chullachaqui, an empty shell that looks like a person but who lacks a living animus. The throughline of Indigenous destruction at the hands of profiteers, priests, and plantation-owners who come to “save” the “pagan” peoples of the jungle from “cannibalism and ignorance” is at the heart of Serpiente as, alongside Karamakate, we bear witness to the scars of exploitation on both the land and bodies of the people thereof. This is made manifest in the film’s final scroll, which is dedicated to those South American Indigenous peoples “whose song we never knew.” This is made most manifest in a pair of sequences that both take place in a Spanish Catholic Mission, in both 1909 and 1940. 

In 1909, Karamakate arrives with Theo and Manduca, after the three of them have already interacted with a man, for all intents and purposes an enslaved man, who has been violently disfigured by those who run the rubber plantations, and we see Manduca’s own scars from his time on one. They discover that the mission, which is implied to be a former plantation, has one remaining priest, and that this place is essentially a residential school in all but name, wherein indigenous children are abducted, renamed, prevented from speaking their “pagan” language (this is the subtitled translation, but to my ear it sounds like they’re saying “lengua demoníaca,” which is literally “demon tongue,” which I have no doubt is historically accurate and extremely telling); when Karamakate tries to impart some of their ancestral wisdom that weaves together both myth and medicine, the children are beaten mercilessly by the priest. The Amazonian River in 1909 is a place of both scars and fresh wounds; by 1940, there is only madness and death. The now-adult population, which may be the same boys whom Karamakate had met 31 years before, have descended into a full-on cult with a Messiah and everything. The beatings of the priest have devolved into a series of ritualistic sacrifices and self-flagellation, and the self-proclaimed messiah seems to have continued the priest’s tradition of kidnapping children, if I’m judging the age of his “wife” correctly. This can only end tragically, which it does. 

That colonization is inherently the antithesis of conservation is also an omnipresent theme in Serpiente. Before accepting Theo’s proposal, Karamakate sets out a series of prohibitions by which he must abide. To the western viewer, these first appear to be mostly the kind of “superstition” that we dismiss out of hand, but are a complex interweaving of thoughtful conservation, medicine, and defense alongside the spiritual, in a way that means that extricating one from the other is an exercise in self-sabotage. At the film’s outset, we’re never given a reason that Theo mustn’t eat fish or other meat. Shortly thereafter, they encounter Tuschaua (Marcilio Paiva) and his people, who have a prior, friendly relationship with the explorer, and Karamakate is surprised to learn that they eat fish even when they shouldn’t do so until a specific seasonal time has been reached, indicating that there’s an ecological element to the proscription. This is further emphasized during the first encounter with the Spanish Mission; Karamakate warns the children that “one day, [the colonizers] will finish all the food in the jungle.” The fish are like the rubber trees which are like the yakruba, all resources that are renewable but not endless. “The world is full of fishes, we cannot possibly end them,” Theo later says, but he’s wrong; Karamakate understands that they must abstain until after the rains end because there has to be a balance, and that Theo “will devour everything.” Further still, when Theo breaks this proscription, not only does he fall physically ill, he is also unable to further accept holistic medical intervention, as his body will now reject it. It’s spiritual, physical, and ecological, entwined. Theo’s inability to follow these rules are a demonstration that, to paraphrase the proverb, there is no ethical colonization, even when relations are friendly. When Theo discovers that Tuschaua’s people have taken his compass, he decries that leaving behind this (to them) advanced technology will, in time, supplant and erase their Indigenous cultural knowledge of an “orientation system […] based on the winds and the position of the stars.” What he can’t see, but that Karamakate does, is that contact with Europeans has already begun to undermine them, as evidenced by their preparation of fish despite the season being incorrect. Theo may truly believe he’s doing the moral thing by attempting to prevent further cultural contamination, but the first dominos have already fallen, and to introduce Tuschaua and his family, possibly the last generation of their people because of the intervention of profiteers, to a technological advancement and then deny them its use isn’t a kindness, but a cruelty. 

At the mission, Karamakate sees a plaque (in Spanish, which he presumably cannot read, and thus this is solely for the benefit of the audience) endowed by the Colombian government, which thanks the violent colonizers for “[bringing] civilization to the land of cannibal savages and showed them the path of God” (emphasis added). When sharing his knowledge with the children there, he warns them: “Don’t believe their crazy tales about eating the body of their gods.” Decades later, those same children now not only believe these tales to an extreme, but then do in fact eat their Messiah. I think that this can be interpreted in several ways—that wickedness often reveals itself in the way that it projects its worst aspects onto the proverbial other (like when the same people who ~allegedly~ participate in interstate sex trafficking also unironically tweet out #disneygroomer because a media monopoly reluctantly and sluggishly took a stance against a law that in practice is definitively going to result in a surge of domestic violence and rampage familicide), or as a contributing narrative thread in the overall tapestry of the film’s conservationist thesis. Hanna, what did you make of this during your first viewing? Did you get a sense of that, am I plucking at strings, did you interpret it completely differently?

Hanna: What a great point! I think I basically had the same feelings as you. In addition to receiving the message of holy cannibalism through Christianity, the heart of the mission is founded on the belief that the children are “cannibal savages” being uplifted through God; under the instruction of the priests, there’s no way for the children to find meaning for themselves outside of that narrative. What kind of identity can you form when you’re assured that you’re fundamentally inhuman at the core, and the “righteous” path you’ve been assimilated into is violent at its core? I definitely agree with the projection aspect as well. Like Karamakate points out, colonialism is inherently cannibalistic; the dominant culture is actively devouring the bodies and resources of the colonized people, destroying their way of life and the ecosystem on which they depend. To deny and rationalize cannibalism, the colonizers convince themselves that their subjects are not only inhuman, but that they would have no hope of redemption without the mercy of “civilized” people; you’re not a cannibal if you’re not eating people!

I think Embrace of the Serpent is, by far, the most nuanced, honest, thought-provoking movie I’ve ever seen about colonialism and conservation. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, which works well with the narrative shifts between 1909 and 1940 – it kept the two time periods tied together in my mind as one artifact, and the film almost reads like a marriage of two old pioneering documentaries that someone salvaged. There’s no hint of sentimentality here. The Amazonian jungle is lushly rendered (even without color) and beautiful images abound, but the film is unflinching in its depiction of violence, whether it manifests interpersonally, physically (self-inflicted or otherwise), or internally. I’m always entranced by films that seem to have a tactile temperature; they tend to be meditative, slowly dragging you down into a maddening dream or nightmare. This was definitely a nightmare, but especially because it’s a lived reality.

The two timelines vividly depict the ripples of alteration and destruction that invasion has wrought onto Karamakate’s community and the ecosystems that community depends upon. I agree that this is an apocalypse movie, and I think that (barring natural cataclysms) most apocalypses probably end up looking like this: a slow deterioration of life as it was until the old ways of existing are no longer possible. It seems pretty difficult to make a movie about colonialism that didn’t somehow feel like it was exploiting suffering for the sake of self-reflection, but Guerra apparently worked in close collaboration with Indigenous communities from the Amazon; I think the infusion of that perspective has a lot to do with the film’s success.

Like Boomer mentioned, the cultural exchange between the settlers or visitors and the Indigenous people is difficult to navigate; the contact has irrevocably changed the Indigenous people, but there’s no going back from that point, so withholding knowledge or trying to stem contamination is impossible and cruel. That being said, there are a few moments of true human connection that I really appreciated in this film; in one scene, Evan plays Haydn’s “The Creation” on his gramophone for Karamakate. It was hard to read Karamakate’s expression at that moment, but he seemed moved to me, and the music takes him back to a memory of Theo in his last days of sickness. The last scene of the movie involves an unbelievable gift from Karamakate marking the end of one civilization’s way of life, even in the face of a violent betrayal (the only scene with color in the entire movie). Brandon, what did you make of this ending? Did you feel any shred of hope for humanism and connection in spite of centuries of selfishness and violence, or did redemption die with the yakruba? 

Brandon: If we’re going to consider the present state of the Amazon post-apocalyptic, it’s difficult to read Embrace of the Serpent as anything but a tragedy.  If either timeline in the film were present-day, there might be room for hope, but we know that capitalist exploitation of the Amazon’s people & resources didn’t cool off after 1940.  The yakruba’s extinction at the end, although fictional, represents a wide range of decimated resources, and Evan represents a wide range of white colonizers responsible for that tragedy.  All Karamakate can offer him is a glimpse of the beauty & power that will soon be lost forever, in all its natural glory.

The film smartly undercuts a lot of its warmer, humanistic interactions in this way.  I’m thinking particularly of the sequence in which Theo & Manduca entertain a small tribe with a practiced song & dance routine around a campfire, a moment of communal delight that first warms Karamakate up to the idea of collaborating with white outsiders.  It’s the very next morning when Theo freaks out about his stolen compass, souring the possibility for positive cultural exchange with supposed ethical concerns about industrialized technology ruining locals’ more “natural” way of life.  There’s no way that interference from white outsiders won’t irrevocably change the local culture forever, so all Theo accomplishes is shielding them from any possible positive gains from the tragedy that will gradually consume them.  There cannot be any hope in these cross-cultural interactions no matter how personable & heartfelt they feel in the moment.

The sudden introduction of color at the end did make me think more about the film’s digi black & white cinematography.  The contrast between the deep shadows of trees and the sharp white voids of the sunlit sky is striking, but it’s definitely an unusual way of capturing the immense beauty of the Amazon on film.  Britnee, what do you think of the film’s visual style?  Does the sudden rush of color at the ending make you wish it had been styled differently?

Britnee: I thought about this for most of the film. Why would something as beautiful as the Amazon jungle be filmed in black and white? It wasn’t until the burst of color at the end that I understood that choice. As the Indigenous tribes and natural resources of the Amazon are destroyed, the Amazon loses its vitality. While the black and white imagery was stunning, it created a dreadful ambiance that really connected me with the emotions of Karamakate. Well, as connected as a white woman can be. I will never truly understand what it feels like to go through, as Boomer perfectly stated earlier, a post-apocalyptic tragedy. 

I had a couple of self-reflective moments while watching Embrace of the Serpent, but one that really struck me was during the scene where Karamakate asks Theo to get rid of all the luggage that is weighing them down during their journey. I stared around my room to look at all of the junk I’ve acquired throughout the years, and I couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to not value my possessions as much as I do. I associate memories with all of my belongings, but how would it feel to have the same attitude as Karamakate? I don’t really need all of this baggage to survive or maintain a high quality of life. I mean, I’m still probably not going to get rid of anything because I’m a garbage person, but Karamakate really hit me in the feels with that one.

Lagniappe

Britnee: This made me think of Fitzcarraldo, which we covered on the podcast a few years ago. The production of Embrace of the Serpent was definitely not as problematic though!

Brandon: We talked a lot about the evils of capitalism & colonialism here (always worthy subjects), but to me this registered most clearly as a condemnation of anthropology as a morally bankrupt field of study.  Theo’s attempts to interact with Amazonian locals without altering their way of life is pathetically misguided, as evidenced by the wide-scale destruction that follows in his wake decades later.   The real-life Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s research is a cornerstone of anthropological field work to this day, so that cursed corner of academia was never very far from my mind throughout the film. 

Hanna: Embrace of the Serpent was a difficult movie to watch and process, but I’m glad it exists. I really appreciate the director’s efforts to make a piece of art that honors and includes the perspectives of Indigenous communities, and from my perspective, he did a great job of honestly reckoning with the destruction of Indigenous life and the loss our world experiences (and will continue to experience) as a result.

Boomer: Unfortunately, the IndigenousXca Twitter account stopped posting some time ago, and the bio now indicates that it’s an archive for posts made from the account Oct. 23, 2014 – Dec. 3, 2020. In a post on the associated blog from March 2021, entitled “Social media burn-out, it’s not just you,” the author writes that this has a lot to do with the stresses of being very online and that it became overwhelming. The author’s personal Twitter, however, is still active, and you can go follow her now and keep up with her thoughts on contemporary politics, which are always insightful and thoughtful.

Next month: Britnee presents White of the Eye (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cube (2021)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss last year’s Japanese remake of the classic Canuxploitation sci-fi thriller Cube (1997).

00:00 Welcome

01:55 Drag Me to Hell (2009)
04:45 Evil Dead (2013)
10:30 Being John Malkovich (1999)
13:40 Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978)
19:30 Interview with a Vampire (1994)
26:00 The Overlook Film Festival
31:37 Spider-Man 3 (2007)
38:00 Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2022)

41:27 Cube (2021)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Diabolique (1955)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss H.G. Clouzot’s widely influential horror-noir Diabolique (1955).

00:00 Welcome

01:58 The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
03:50 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
07:55 Firestarter (1984)
12:32 The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
14:25 Candyman (2021)
16:50 RRR (2022)
21:00 Blood Simple (1984)
25:37 Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
32:00 Men (2022)
40:11 Turning Red (2022)
43:35 Petite Maman (2022)
44:45 Vortex (2022)

49:10 Diabolique (1955)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: The Music Lovers (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).

Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small.  People are being weird about it, though.  Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government.  It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia. 

The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter.  In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”.  That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment.  It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes.  I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual.  I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.

To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer).  The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin.  There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict.  Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot.  Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky?  Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?

Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.

I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.

Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?

Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dance the once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence. 

During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose).  I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake. 

Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would  have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist? 

Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!

Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!

Lagniappe

Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability. 

Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.

Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.

Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP.  Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography. 

Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Arrebato (1979)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the recently restored cult curio Arrebato (1979), a trippy not-quite-horror picture about addiction to movies & heroin.

00:00 New Orleans Abortion Fund

07:05 The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
09:05 Scream (1996)
14:55 Movie of the Month
18:05 Intermission
25:15 The Batman (2022)
32:45 Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)
38:45 Raising Arizona (1987)
46:00 Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2022)

49:50 Arrebato (1979)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Copycat (1995)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Copycat (1995), a post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer meta-thriller starring Holly Hunter & Sigourney Weaver.

00:00 Welcome

03:48 Swampboox
06:57 Murder, She Wrote
10:04 Malignant (2021)
11:27 Stories We Tell (2012)
15:48 Our Flag Means Death
17:50 The Batman (2022) & The Northman (2022)
21:55 You Won’t Be Alone (2022)
25:47 The Pink Cloud (2022)
29:02 Dual (2022)

32:20 Copycat (1995)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: Oliver! (1968)

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 Hanna made BrandonBoomer, and Britnee watch Oliver! (1968).

Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.

The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.

I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?

Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does.  His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company.  If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism.  As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so.  Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against.  The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging.  The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse.  What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing.  And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.

I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two.  There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way.  When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing.  However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive.  It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out.  It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel).  The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm.  Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook?  Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?

Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.  

The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.

I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?

Boomer:  I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.

I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose). 

Lagniappe

Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.” 

I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done. 

Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions.  Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children.  A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews!  It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge).  These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!

Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.

Next Month: Brandon presents The Music Lovers (1971)

-The Swampflix Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cronos (1993)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, the revamped vampire myth Cronos (1993).

00:00 Welcome

01:56 Morbius (2022)
03:34 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
13:28 Scream 4 (2011)
15:35 Crimewave (1985)
18:09 Darkman (1990)
22:24 Cryptozoo (2021)
25:05 The Night House (2021)
27:33 The French Dispatch (2021)
30:47 Death on the Nile (2022)
33:22 Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
35:05 Deadly Cuts (2022)

37:27 Cronos (1993)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Lagniappe Podcast: Cherry Falls (2000)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the post-Scream teen slasher Cherry Falls (2000), starring a very gothy Brittany Murphy.

00:00 Welcome

00:42 Psycho Ape! (2020)
02:55 X (2022)
07:17 RRR (2022)
11:50 Bridgerton
15:33 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
17:10 Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
18:49 Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (2019)
19:36 What Happened to Monday? (2017)
21:42 Scream (1996)

29:47 Cherry Falls (2000)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew