Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.
It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.
Crazy in Alabama (1999)
In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).
If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.
Now and Then (1995)
This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.
Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.
Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.
The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.
What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.
On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.
There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).
The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.
It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.
Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.
Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.
By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.