Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

My favorite image in the entirety of Lizzie Boden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is the hands-on application of a condom. Casually included in one of the many montages set to Red Krayola’s titular anthem that repeats throughout the film, there’s something intensely provocative about that matter-of-fact condom application. Juxtaposed with a wide range of images depicting labor derisively considered “women’s work,” the hands-on work of applying a condom is (somewhat in dark humor) positioned as a burden often laid on women, no different than dental assistant labor, child care, call-center duty, or the factory work of shrink-wrapping raw chicken. Its contextless, matter-of-fact presentation leaves a lot of room for interpretation, though, dividing me & Alli on whether that image was being coded as domestic labor of professional sex work. Similarly, Born in Flames’s attitude toward sex work at large is open for interpretation, as it’s a narratively disjointed picture that relies in the strengths of ideas & images (like the contextless condom application) more than concrete explanations of intent. My personal interpretation of Born in Flames saw its attitude toward sex work as the only aspect of the film’s radical politics that did not age particularly well. In my view, the film advocates for the abolition of sex work as an industry, lumping it in with rape & gendered subjugation. Boomer & Alli both saw it differently, saying Born in Flames presents sex work as just any other kind of job (albeit one in desperate need of advocacy for workers’ rights), which would put it closer in line with modern political thinking on the subject, as opposed to the more hardline stances of feminism past. It could be that I was lumping individual characters’ negativity toward sex work in with Lizzie Borden’s own views; all sides of nearly every political issue are allowed to conflict onscreen in Born in Flames with equal weight. It’s tough to tell with just one picture as evidence, especially one this deliberately disjointed.

Thankfully, Lizzie Borden’s next feature film, Working Girls, delves further into this exact topic. Depicting a single workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls finds Lizzie Borden tackling the topic of sex work head-on and at feature length.  It even follows a much more straight-forward, linear narrative than Born in Flames, so much so that it could easily be adapted into a stage play. Weirdly, though, it never fully settled my mind on Borden’s political views of sex work as an industry, which is indicative of both her own internal ideological conflicts and the complex nature of the subject. ­­Louise Smith stars in Working Girls as an aspiring photographer with a live-in girlfriend (and daughter) who secretly pays her bills by working johns in a brothel/apartment that resembles a windowless version of the Seinfeld set. Over the course of the film she works a double shift, making money off a variety of men who visit the apartment by appointment and pay to spend time with her in rooms upstairs. As the title suggests, brothel work is depicted in the film as if it were any other kind of industry. The workers who comprise the operation are tasked to alternate personalities & functions, from receptionist to office girl to therapist to hostess to actor to lover to dominatrix to housecleaner, as the minute-to-minute demands of the job shift. The manual labor of condom application implied by that single image in Born in Flames is expanded to include used condom disposal, laundering of soiled towels, and the insertion of diaphragms. This matter-of-fact presentation of sex work in a functioning office context even comes with a demanding boss who takes credit for all their employees’ labor and changes the mood of the room depending on their emotional outbursts. Judging by its office environment hierarchies & work flows, Working Girls indeed reinforces the idea that Lizzie Borden views sex work as just being like any other profession. That would indicate Born in Flames’s views were much closer to modern radical politics than the prostitution abolitionist views of feminism past. That’s not all that’s going on in the film, however.

The function & method of sex work might be framed in the context of office culture mundanity in Working Girls, but the sex itself is a punishing, relentless nightmare that complicates that intellectual distancing. The disjointed landscapes of Art of Noise-style music & disembodied grunts mix with subtly grotesque expressions of masculine violence in a never-ending nightmare that resembles an early 80s slasher with condom-wrapped dicks instead of glistening kitchen knives. Consensual trading of cash for pleasure shifts into acts of rape within the span of a single phrase or physical gesture. The capitalist hierarchy & financial desperation that presses its boot on the neck of the workers with increasing intensity makes the cramped setting feel like an ongoing hostage crisis. Even the women eating junk food between customers is a stomach-churning display, an effect Borden plays for a sinisterly humorous tone. Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.

Where that leaves Borden’s political views on sex work at large is still as hazy as the contextless, provocative imagery of Born in Flames, but that’s honestly a large part of what makes her work so engaging. According to Borden herself, she made Working Girls after collaborating with the women who starred in & crewed Born in Flames, noticing that a large number of them were financially dependent on sex work to survive (and had fascinating stories to tell on the subject). That at least acknowledges that if Borden was politically opposed to sex work as an industry, it was a question of anti-oppressive ideals, not of denigrating individual people it employed. The shame is that we never had a chance to see her expand even further on the subject. Because of the studio influence that compromised her later work, Borden considers Born in Flames & Working Girls to be the only two titles that are truly hers as the principle artist at the helm. With more, better funded movies her world view may have had a chance to clarify, evolve, or self-conflict in a clearer political display, but instead she’s been effectively silenced by a lack of opportunity. Luckily, the two films she was able to compete without outside fuckery are both ideologically dense, provocative works of D.I.Y. political filmmaking, as well as essential documentation of a long-gone, grimy era in NYC history. I’m unsure of my interpretations of either film, something that’s made no better through repetition, but I’m also awestruck by the potency of her D.I.Y. matter of fact imagery. Isolated images of a condom application, a greasy cheeseburger, a pantied spanking, and an exploding World Trade Center miniature will haunt me forever in their political implications & daringness to provoke. In two no-budget films, Borden left me with more to think about & debate within myself than most directors achieve with entire catalogs of professionally financed, polished studio productions. That’s about as punk as you can get, no matter what your exact political stances may be or how they may age with time.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its place in the No Wave movement.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema

One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.

For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.

As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.

Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics

I struggled a lot with questions of tone & intent in Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven, our current Movie of the Month. In the film, Morris documents a small-town dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery with both an emotional & editorial remove, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in how he relates to his interviewees. Given the way the quaint subject is presented in Morris’s editing room choices, it’s often tempting to read an ironic humor in his fascination with his subjects (recalling more blatantly comedic works like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in the process). The economic hardships detailed early in the film generate genuine empathy and the rich bastards who profit off it later in the narrative likely deserve to be mocked, but there’s still something uncomfortable about a young NYC intellectual invading small town communities to have a chuckle at the local yokels. Gates of Heaven never fully tips in the direction of outright meanness & big city elitism, but I can still detect those impulses lurking in its morally compromised DNA. You don’t need to look far into Morris’s other works from that late-70s era to justify that unease, either. The filmmaker abandoned a few much more blatantly exploitative false-start projects before he completed his critically lauded debut, the scraps of one even becoming its de facto sequel.

Errol Morris would eventually enjoy a successful, prolific career as a documentarian, but his early professional years were more or less defined by false starts. Werner Herzog literally ate his own shoe because he was incredulous that the Gates of Heaven project would ever be completed. It was a fairly safe bet that it wouldn’t, as it was Morris’s third attempt at making a film to date, with nothing substantial to show for it. His first abandoned project was a documentary on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Morris took an edgy, provocative approach to the subject, interviewing Gein himself and making plans to dig up the killer’s mother’s gave to prove suspicions that her body had already been exhumed. When Herzog showed up ready to dig up the grave, Morris chickened out and the project was never completed. The same goes for Morris’s second attempt at documentary filmmaking, a project that was initially going to be titled Nub City. Foretelling Gates of Heaven’s humorous gawking at local yokels, Nub City was meant to be an investigative piece about the curiously high number of citizens of Vernon, FL who had amputated their own limbs to collect insurance money. It’s unclear if Nub City would have lived up to its exploitative title as a total “Getta load of this freak show!” endeavor or if it would have balanced that impulse with the same empathetic & economic concerns that complicated Gates of Heaven’s potential irony. What is clear is that the impoverished insurance scammers Morris hoped to document were not fond of the scrutiny. The filmmaker was beaten up by the Marine son of one of his potential subjects, received death threats, and smartly abandoned the project.

Unlike the Ed Gein project, an untitled narrative crime thriller screenplay, and a documentary about an unscrupulous court case expert witness nicknamed Dr. Death, Morris did not abandon the Nub City project entirely. He instead pivoted by using interview footage from other, non-insurance scamming locals to scrape together an eventual sequel to Gates of Heaven titled Vernon, Florida. As an art project, Vernon, Florida is more formally daring than the already context-light pet cemetery document of Gates of Heaven. It’s a film comprised entirely of leftover scraps, something you can feel in every second of tis meandering, non-sequitur interviews with local eccentrics. On the Florida pan handle (not too far east from here, despite my viewing of the film requiring subtitles) Vernon is portrayed to be a quaint town crowded with Southern Eccentrics. Without the David vs. Goliath capitalist narrative of Gates of Heaven or any kind of narrative direction at all, these subjects’ eccentricities themselves seemed to be the crux of what’s on display. Occasionally an old man will do something adorable like show off his pet tortoise, but the residents of Vernon are mostly shown as babbling kooks who can bore any open ear for eternity with go-nowhere stories about anything: turkey-hunting, buying a van, God, suicide, the word “therefore,” why we should bring back tar & feathering, etc. Without plot or music providing this empty pontification with any momentum, Vernon, Florida is stubbornly directionless. At its best it feels like the avant-garde indulgences of Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; at its worst it feels like the art world ancestor to The Jerry Springer Show. Either way, it confirms my suspicions that in his youth Morris approached his small-town subjects with an unhealthy dose of ironic detachment.

Morris matured greatly by the time he completed his next documentary in 1988, the pioneering true crime pic Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, interview clips from Vernon, Florida have been consistently used to mock poor Southerners (again, sometimes with merit), most recently as commercial bumps on the Adult Swim comedy show The Heart, She Holler. It’s a film that’s nowhere near as essential as Gates of Heaven, defiantly so, but it is one that helps illustrate that landmark work’s more unseemly impulses. At least the morbid fascination with this tone echoed in comparable, narrative works like Trash Humpers & Even Dwarfs Started Small didn’t risk exploitation of real-life, economically devastated people for the sake of artistic effect, a mistake many young provocateur documentarians make, including the greats.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and last week’s comparison to the Christopher Guest comedy Best in Show.

-Brandon Ledet

Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt

Werner Herzog’s entire public persona is a kind of performance art, the documentation of which has become increasingly crucial to his filmmaking projects in recent decades. A Werner Herzog “documentary,” no matter its subject, is just as much about the filmmaker’s own philosophical worldview as it is about the world outside his mind. This suits the audience just fine, since Herzog is what would classically be described as A Character, someone who’s naturally entertaining and whose mere presence is always a kind of performance. A succinct, early taste of this performance art can be found in the Les Blank short-doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which takes Herzog’s natural presence as a one-person side show as literally as possible. Staged as a promotion for Errol Morris’s debut feature Gates of Heaven (our current Movie of the Month), Blank & Herzog collaborate to document a blatant publicity stunt in which, as the title suggests, Herzog eats his own shoe in front of a live audience to draw attention to his friend’s work. With clips from Gates of Heaven interspersing with Blank’s Always for Pleasuremode of documenting the labor of food preparation (if you can consider a leather shoe to be food), and Herzog’s signature pontification on the nature of art & humanity, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an essential, one-of-a-kind collaboration between three of the most prestigious voices in documentary filmmaking. That’s an absurd thing to be able to say about what’s essentially a 20min infomercial for another, more substantial work.

Herzog opens this film complaining that television & talk shows are “killing” culture. He ends it confessing that filmmakers are also cheap illusionists & clowns, that his own chosen profession is embarrassing. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is self-aware of its participation in the death of culture. Just as its title is a cheap provocation, the event it documents is advertised in circus-style side show posters promising the shoe-eating stunt to a potential live audience. Herzog eating his own shoe is a stupid, pointless act designed to grab public attention for better art he believed deserved it. Supposedly, Herzog first jokingly bet that Errol Morris would never have the courage to complete a feature length documentary on a subject as inconsequential as a pet cemetery business. The story goes that he said if Gates of Heaven were ever completed & screened for an audience, he would eat his own shoe. Morris does not appear onscreen to confirm the terms of the bet in Les Blank’s short, nor is it confirmed whether the shoe Herzog eats is actually the one he was wearing when he made the bet, as he claims. The entire act is performance art born of flippant humor & male bravado, staged without apology as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Gates of Heaven, which had then yet to secure theatrical distribution. Les Blank shows an interest in the preparation of the shoe as it transforms into “food,” carefully documenting the hot sauce, duck fat, garlic, and vegetable stew used to soften & flavor it. Mostly, though, he allows Herzog to ramble on like a carnival barker throughout the stunt, pontificating as much nonsense as you’d likely encounter in a television broadcast or a talk show, yet framing it as art.

The idea that Gates of Heaven’s topic was too inconsequential for a documentary feels so foreign in a 2010s context. Some of my favorite documentaries in recent memory have been on topics as miniscule as erotic tickling, trash harvesting, and a single dead dog (as opposed to cemetery full of them). It’s also arguable that critic Roger Ebert later did much better by promoting Gates of Heaven in his own way, raising its profile by often citing it as one of the greatest films ever made. Herzog’s side show publicity stunt’s own value as a work of art is in making an even smaller film than the one he promoted with it. If Gates of Heaven’s topic was too absurdly thin to justify a documentary (something I doubt Herzog ever said or believed) then Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an even more extreme distillation of that same kind of art. This is an advertisement & an awkwardly staged performance art piece that somehow makes for compelling filmmaking thanks to Herzog’s natural charisma & gift for shit-talking. Like Gates of Heaven, it’s proof that you can make a worthy documentary on just about anything, even a frivolous bet that may or may not actually have even been real. In 2018, it likely would only have been presented to the world as a DVD extra. In 1980, it was art.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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

The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet

Neil Patrick Harris, Superhero Sidekick

Neil Patrick Harris wears a daunting number of hats in the show business racket: Broadway entertainer, game show host, sitcom star, children’s book author, etc. He’s one of these well-rounded, over-employed entertainers where you’re never sure how they fit all their various projects in a tenable schedule. One of his regular gigs is voiceover work for various animated projects wildly varying in target demographic, but often hitting that one common denominator in all age-specific marketing: superhero media. NPH has had regular voice acting gigs in the superhero pantheon over the years, even voicing the title role in a long-running animated Spiderman series. He’s only voiced characters in two animated superhero movies, though, both of which fall under the DC Comics brand. That’s maybe not that surprising to most people, as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand has dozens of feature-length cartoons under its belt to date. What is surprising, though is that someone as talented & recognizable as Neil Patrick Harris has only played supporting characters in both instances of his movie-length collaborations with DC. Likely a reflection of his busy, no time to dally schedule, NPH’s animated superhero movie specialty seems to be punching up a side character’s dialogue with wry, cocky wit, making them appear more fully developed than they’re written to be. As with many of the projects NPH applies his time to, he’s good at his job.

In our current Movie of the Month, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, NPH’s sidekick role plays as entirely intentional. He’s cast as just one of two ex-Robins, raised under the Caped Crusader’s tutelage in a movie that’s all about Batman’s struggle with the other. NPH appears in the film as Nightwing, an early adopter of the Robin persona who has since branched out to fighting crime on his own, but still desperately needs fatherly approval from a standoffish Batman. Nightwing is an outsider to the central plot involving a second, younger Robin, but he’s also an essential parallel of it. This requires him to be present, but without enough time to develop his persona. It’s a paradox that’s easily fixed by having NPH on hand to instantly sell the character’s sarcastic, performatively confident personality. It’s the same role he fills as The Flash in the earlier DC animated feature The Justice League: The New Frontier, through for entirely different reasons. The Flash is a sidekick to no one and his storyline is one of the driving plot threads in New Frontier, yet NPH is afforded just about the same amount of screen time & character development there as he is in Under the Red Hood. This is because the film is overstuffed with the backstories & character introductions of a long line of superheroes in the film’s cast, who all divvy up the runtime until there’s barely any left to go around. It’s a frequent problem for anyone who’s familiar with the trajectory of modern live-action superhero franchises, especially the DCEU. It’s also a telling contrast to the intimate story told in Red Hood.

As busy & overcrowded as The New Frontier can feel, it does have an excellent central gimmick. Set in the Atomic Age 1950s, the film feels like a better world where Brad Bird made his animated superhero media in traditional 2D instead of with Pixar. Telling the story of an ancient disembodied force that vows to destroy humanity because of its dangerous nuclear proliferation, The New Frontier is decorated wall to wall with the visual kitsch of a 1950s diner with a sci-fi theme. By setting the clock back to that setting, though, it also requires the Justice League to be a uniformed group of disparate superheroes who spend the entire runtime coming together as a team (and joining efforts of an untrustworthy military) for the first time. Characters like The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman already have detailed backstories in place, while more character development is afforded the origin stories of lesser characters like The Green Lantern & Martian Manhunter. It’s likely no accident that more seasoned, well-established voice actors are afforded to the three more static characters (NPH, Kyle McLachlan, and Lucy Lawless, respectively), since their personalities need to be more immediately recognizable than the ones who’re developed through origin stories. The Flash is key to the film’s plot, especially in establishing superheroes as McCarthy Era Others (“What’s with that red costume? Red’s for Commies,”) but he’s afforded almost the same amount of screen time as Nightwing in Under the Red Hood: very little. He’s a well-established superhero reduced here to Superman & Wonder Woman’s de facto sidekick.

From a technical standpoint, the more intimate, self-contained story of Under the Red Hood is more effective as a piece of writing, while the overly busy, origins-obsessed plotting of The New Frontier is indicative of the worst impulses of superhero media storytelling. I enjoyed both films very much, though, believing New Frontier’s narrative shortcomings to be far outweighed by the beauty & charm of its Atomic Age aesthetic. Neil Patrick Harris is employed in self-contradictory roles in both pictures. He is both central to the themes & plots and reduced to glorified cameo roles as sidekick & afterthought. NPH does a great job of making both roles memorable, informing both characters with a punchy, wry sense of humor without fully tipping them into wiseass Deadpool territory. Like The New Frontier, the man’s career is spread into an impossible number of directions and it’s impressive the amount of quality work he produces despite that myriad of obligations.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood.

-Brandon Ledet

Bruce Greenwood is (One of Many) Batman(s)

There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.

Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.

19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Batman – Under the Red Hood (2010)

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 Boomer made Brandon , Alli, and Britnee watch Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010).

Boomer: Cards on the table: Under the Red Hood is my favorite Batman movie. Obviously I prefer it over Zack Snyder’s take on the character, but I also find it superior to both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s respective series, although there are elements of both that work well and that I quite enjoy. This may not be my favorite version of Batman (that honor always has been and presumably forever shall be the Bats of Batman: The Animated Series), but it’s the best self-contained feature that both feels like a true standalone while also addressing the character’s long history. There’s no origin story, no belabored backstory showing how and why Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman, no attempts to make the character feel like he fits in a modern context or make the gadgets and gizmos seem “realistic,” and no damned pearls in an alley (note, even Batman v Superman did this, two years after the linked video pointed out that it was a cliche). I said it two years ago and I’ll say it again: Batman has the second most famous origin story in the world, surpassed only by the birth of Christ; we don’t need to see it on screen ever again. Instead, this film jumps in at a point in time pretty far into the detective’s career.

Under the Red Hood opens in Sarajevo, where The Joker (John DiMaggio playing against type) has savagely beaten Jason Todd (Jensen Ackles), the second of Batman’s sidekicks/apprentices to bear the codename “Robin,” nearly to death with a crowbar. Batman (Bruce Greenwood) races to the scene, but arrives too late, as a bomb destroys the warehouse in which Jason was left behind. Years later, The Joker is safely locked away and the majority of Gotham City’s criminal element reports to the Black Mask (Wade Wilson), but the leaders of various crime families are confronted by a new player: The Red Hood. The Hood has knocked off several of the families’ top players to demonstrate his prowess, and his hijacking of a major weapon brings him to the attention of Batman and Dick Grayson/Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the first Robin. Batman realizes early on that The Red Hood knows his true identity and is haunted by his past mistakes and failures, the worst of which was his inability to save Jason. The crime war between Red Hood and Black Mask escalates to the point that the Mask is so desperate he breaks The Joker out to take down his rival, leading to a confrontation that forces Batman to confront his mistakes, morality, and the nature of his war on crime.

This is a grim story, with a bleak ending that gives me chills every time. I’ll not bother with the spoiler alert as this movie is over ten years old and the comic on which it was based was published five years before that, and the film itself does little to disguise the reveal that The Red Hood is, in fact, Jason. This is a departure from the comic, which preserved this mystery for as long as possible, which makes for a richer story as it allows for a deeper rumination on the ways that devotion to an absolute moral code can have unforeseen consequences, and how a bad seed can take root in the soul despite the best attempts to provide a moral compass. As Bruce says in one of his introspective moments, the responsibility for the life and death of Jason Todd falls on his shoulders: “My partner. My soldier. My fault.” How Jason came to be The Red Hood and his motivations are instead the crux of the film’s mystery, and it’s all the more poignant for it. I find myself thinking about the emotional gut punch of the final scene fairly frequently: after the apparent death of Jason (again), violently and pointlessly, we return to the cave and a memory of Jason’s first day as Robin, as he excitedly dashes around with the kind of effortless exuberance that only a child can have, before declaring that it’s the “best day of [his] life.” And we fade out on that image of the hopeful, blindingly optimistic beginning of a journey that we as the audience have just seen come to a brutal, bitterly violent end; it’s a closed, nihilistic loop that gets me every single time.

Comparisons to Winter Soldier were common thirteen years ago when Judd Winick was writing the comic on which the film was based, titled simply Under the Hood. It was a common joke for decades that “no one in comics [stayed] dead except for Bucky (killed in action in 1945, as revealed in Avengers #4 in 1964), Jason Todd (killed in 1988’s Death in the Family storyline by Jim Starlin), and Uncle Ben (killed in the first appearance of Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962).” Winick started building his mystery in late 2004; in early 2005, Ed Brubaker was helming the fifth volume of Captain America, and he, like Winick, introduced a new enemy who proved to be a long-dead supporting character brought back to life. Both have since been adapted, although 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier obviously has the higher profile, being a part of the MCU. In that film, however, directors Anthony and Joe Russo preserved the revelation that The Winter Soldier was Bucky until the end of the second act, although given the fact that Sebastian Stan has a memorable face and comic book fans already knew the identity of The Winter Soldier, your mileage may vary based as to how successful that reveal is. Brandon, given that you’ve seen both films and aren’t really a devotee of superhero comics, which approach do you think works better? My money is on Under the Red Hood, but I can’t quite imagine what it would be like to be a first time viewer of either film without the knowledge that comes from the source material. Is it better to not attempt to preserve the mystery? Do you think that one approach or the other is geared towards a different kind of fan?

Brandon: One of my very favorite aspects of Under the Red Hood was, indeed, that the reveal of Jason’s vigilante resurrection as The Red Hood was not saved for a last-minute shock. In my mind, there wasn’t anyone the Red Hood could have been but Jason that would have been satisfying, considering that the movie opens with a lengthy depiction of his murder at the hands of The Joker. Ebert even coined a name for that scenario in his Glossary of Movie Terms. He describes it as “The Law of Economy of Characters”, writing, “Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story— even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot. This ‘mystery’ person is always the only character in the move who seems to be otherwise extraneous.” As a direct-to-video, animated feature, Under the Red Hood may have had more freedom to play around with extraneous characters than a megacorporate, every-minute-wasted-is-money-lost production like The Winter Soldier, but it would still be odd to waste so much screentime on Jason’s demise at the top of the film if it weren’t going to become significant to The Red Hood’s identity later.

I’d be lying if I said I could exactly remember how that relates to my reaction to the very similar Bucky reveal in The Winter Soldier, since we reviewed that film over two years and nine MCU entries ago. In our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. piece, I only mentioned Bucky once, saying that I had spoiled the mystery of his identity for myself by watching the MCU films late & out of order before we had started the project. I can say, though, that on principle I believe revealing the twist early was the smarter move, to Under the Red Hood’s credit. Ebert’s being a little snobbish when he says “sophisticated” viewers will be the ones to see through this kind of mystery before the reveal; I’d be more likely to use the word “seasoned.” I can’t speak for how shocking the Bucky or Red Hood reveals were in the comics, since those characters had ostensibly been dead for decades in the canon. However, anyone who’s seen more than a few movies, which require a much stricter storytelling economy, should see through the “mystery” almost right away. In a cinematic context, I’d say the Winter Soldier approach of withholding the character’s true identity until as late as possible will likely work best for younger fans who haven’t already puzzled their way through similar mystery plots in other works. By contrast, Under the Red Hood benefits seasoned vets who’ve been there too many times before and are eager to move onto the next story beat.

Part of what’s so wonderful about the early reveal of The Red Hood’s past life as Robin the Boy Wonder 2.0 is that it raises questions instead of answering one. Jason’s death at the start of the film is brutal, with a distinct finality to it. The Joker mercilessly beats the poor boy with a crowbar, splattering PG-13 blood & gore around the room. Jason is then subjected to a close-range bomb explosion, with Batman personally carrying his charred body from the rubble. The movie does a decent job of justifying his choice to reemerge as the Red Hood persona, which is explained to be a communal, anonymous part played by many villains in the past, including The Joker himself. It also uses The Red Hood’s predilection for gun violence (he’s essentially a less “Ain’t I a stinker?” version of Deadpool in tactics & design) to establish the classic vigilante conundrum that plagues most superheroes: How far is too far to keep citizens safe? What really separates these masked fighters from their violent opposition.? The questions that remain, then, are not why Robin 2.0 reemerged as The Red Hood, but how. He was established to be very, very dead— a mystery that confounded Batman himself, one of fiction’s great detectives, to the point that he excavates the unfortunate child’s grave for clues. Answering that question is much more complicated & dramatically fruitful than merely waiting for his hood to be pulled off in a climactic confrontation to reveal a character that other movies have trained us to expect.

In general, I agree with Boomer that more live-action adaptations of the Batman comics could learn from Under the Red Hood’s avoidance of an origin-story narrative in favor of a just-another-episode approach. Still, dropping into this particular scenario in medias res was especially jarring to me. There are not only a near-century of Batman comics I’m unfamiliar with, but now also decades of animated DC movies this entry could have been a part of in series that I would have been completely blind to. The Joker beating Robin to death at the top of the film felt like a “Previously on. . .” catch-up reel. Learning later that the dead Robin was actually the second Boy Wonder in a continued lineage was also news to me, since it has yet to come up in the live-action adaptations despite being what I assume is common knowledge to well-read comic book folks. In one way, constantly resetting the rotary dial back to Batman’s origin story is preventing the character’s live-action movies form moving onto fresh, lesser known storylines like Under the Red Hood’s. At the same time, though, the endless soap opera quality of comic book storytelling risks leaving the uninitiated behind by requiring too much knowledge of decades of backstory to get all viewers on the same page. Britnee, how do you feel about the balance Under the Red Hood strikes in giving comic book fans an opportunity to see something other than Batman’s origin story for a change and catching outsiders up on the info they need to understand its basic plot? Were you more baffled or delighted by being dropped midway into a Batman storyline you were wholly unfamiliar with?

Britnee: I don’t really watch many superhero movies or read many superhero comics (I stay within the Elf Quest realm for the most part), so I’m generally unfamiliar with the storylines of Batman, Superman, Captain America, etc. Straight-to-video animated superhero films like Under the Red Hood have always intimidated me a little, as it seems like they are made strictly for the super-fans. There are no big name actors or any substantial marketing behind them like with the live-action superhero films, so there’s really nothing to drive the non-superhero fans to grab a copy.

Under the Red Hood has disproved my assumptions of animated straight-to-video superhero films. It was fantastic! Initially, I felt like I was a little late to the party as the beginning of the film was so fast paced, but it turns out that I wasn’t. I got caught up in trying to figure everything out within the first 5 minutes because I assumed that this was specifically made for those with intense Batman knowledge, but it turns out that the beginning of the film would eventually be thoroughly explained later on. All I needed was a little patience. The film didn’t feel like a dumbed-down version of a Batman story either, as it wasn’t really focused on Batman all that much. This movie was about the origin of Red Hood, so it does offer something exciting to even the biggest Batman fans. It mustn’t have been easy to “get the balance right” *wink to Depeche Mode fans*, so I truly appreciate the thought and work that went into this story.

I love that Red Hood is an antivillain, so his story is much more complex than one of a hero or villain. It’s never obvious which side he’s on or if his next move will be good or bad. The mystery of it all is just so thrilling. Alli, I’m not sure if you’re a Batman fan or not, but do you consider Red Hood to be an antivillain, antihero, villain, or hero? And why?

Alli: I know just enough about Batman to know that I’m not a fan of his persona. I’ll get to that later.

I think of The Red Hood as a hero. I was rooting for him from the very beginning when he commanded that The Black Mask not sell drugs to children. He knew how to better the city of Gotham. He knew how to turn the true criminals against each other and how to control them in general. His plan to save the city was sophisticated, strategic, and effective. In a single crime spree, he totally changed the power structure of Gotham’s criminal element, got major drug lords off the street, and nearly killed The Joker. That’s more than Batman has ever done is his long, long life of “fighting crime.” Jason was a street kid with street-smarts saving his own streets, and he was doing a damn good job of it. The only thing that got in the way was his sentimental, burgeoning on codependent need for his father figure Bruce Wayne to accept his philosophy. Had The Red Hood kept going, crime would be down and there’d be an actual sense of community in this city plagued by extreme class disparity and fear.

On that note, let’s get right down to my dislike of Bruce Wayne. This is a rich, rich guy, rich enough to afford endless gadgets, cars, helicopters, and a literal man cave. Instead of using his money (inherited and presumably acquired through exploitation of underpaid workers) to help end poverty on a mass scale, he just finds an orphaned little boy here and there that just happens to remind him of his younger self, puts the kid in a costume, and trains him to fight crime too. Batman is the neoliberal of superheroes. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of these crooks who have chosen a life of crime are working class folks underpaid by one of Wayne Enterprise’s many ventures. He’s a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one. He approaches crime fighting like a man drunk with power playing god, which is probably exactly how the heads of his family before him conducted business. He may refuse to kill people or wield a gun, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also just constantly feeding into the cycle of crime. It’s no shocker to me that this capitalistic, neoliberal masked crusader is squared up against a foe of his own making under the moniker “The Red Hood,” a name that brings to mind “The Red Scare.”

Boomer, I’m going to admit upfront that I only have peripheral knowledge of Batman coming from a childhood of weekend cartoons and an adulthood being friends with comic book nerds. Is my characterization of Batman unfair? Do you think The Red Hood’s plan would have worked?

Boomer: I love this question! Your description pretty perfectly encapsulates my mixed feelings both about Batman as a character and as a cultural icon. It’s interesting to me, however, that you mention weekend cartoons; in my opinion at least, Batman: The Animated Series is the default Batman that I think of and is the best version of the character, even more than in the original comic texts. This is a Batman who was born of a perfect confluence of events: the popularity of a darker, more metatextually introspective Batman of the 1980s embodied by (for better or worse) Frank Miller’s 1986 opus The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman theatrical release; the rise of merchandise-driven children’s television programming in the 1980s (think TransformersG.I. Joe, and Rainbow Brite) after Reagan and his raging hard-on for so-called free-market capitalism abolished the regulations from the 1960s that were intended to decrease commercial interest and increase educational content in children’s programming; and the backlash against this deregulation. In 1990, Congress approved legislation to give TV industry officials an antitrust exemption to permit joint meetings to delineate guidelines on TV violence, confirmed in 1992 (the year that Batman TAS premiered). Violence must be “relevant to the development of character, or the advancement of theme or plot”, while it must not be glamorized, excessive, easily imitated by children, or used merely for shock value. As a result, we ended up with a perfect Batman adaptation, one in which the villains were psychologically complex and they were rarely defeated through violence. Instead, more often than not, Bats dealt with his nemeses through the revolutionary idea of talking to them, understanding their reasons for doing what they do (think of the Mad Hatter or Baby Doll) and talking them down from their activities before ensuring that they got the help they needed, not just breaking mentally ill people’s bones and then sticking them into the prison system.

Contrast this to my least favorite Batman adaptation: The Dark Knight Rises. I despise this movie, although not for the reasons that most people do. I think Batman Begins is good, and The Dark Knight is pretty great, but Rises feels like a personal affront. It came out at the height of the Occupy movement, and the first trailer made it seem like the film was poised to directly address the problem of Bruce’s millions, with Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle giving a pretty great little speech: “You think this [abundance] can last… there’s a storm coming, and you and your friends better batten down the hatches because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” I was pumped for this kind of deconstruction, because this was following a few years after my own realization that, as a character, Batman was kind of the worst. You are absolutely correct that there is something not-quite-right about idolizing a man who is the “World’s Greatest Detective” but also has a child’s understanding of crime and criminality. The question of why so much low-level crime exists (that is to say, economic inequality and the often insurmountable barriers to any kind of upward mobility) is rarely addressed in any kind of media, but Batman became a particularly problematic fave as I got older and became more socially aware. His adventures are, after all, those of a wealthy-beyond-measure man who takes to the streets and beats up poor people instead of, as Alli notes, investing in infrastructure or addressing the ways that intense stratification of wealth and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the elite are the primary factors in creating the inequality that breeds crime in the first place. And I really thought that Rises was going to tackle that conversation head on! How fucking naive of me.

Instead, Rises is a movie that not only treats the people associated with Occupy as simpletons who would willingly (and in fact gleefully) submit to the will of a terrorist because he gave them what they want, or rather what screenwriter David S. Goyer thought they wanted. Selina’s little friend is perfectly happy nearly starving in what is essentially post-apocalyptic Gotham in that film, content with having nothing, because no one has anything. No doubt Goyer is completely blind to the irony of the fact that, like Batman and his immature understanding of criminality, he outed himself as someone who not only had no clue what Occupy’s purpose and desire was and is while making himself come off as a smug jerk (his net worth is $12M, by the way). He’s not just an asshole, he’s a stupid asshole whose ego is so bloated he has no desire to entertain the possibility that those who disagree with him politically may have valid points; he’d rather just paint them as terrorist collaborators. This not only makes Rises a bad movie, but also morally reprehensible and socially dangerous.

So we have our great Batmen and our terrible Batmen, with decades of storytelling lying in between, with various men (and too few women) articulating a variety of worldviews using the dark knight as their mouthpiece. Sometimes there is a self-awareness of the problematic nature of the character and we end up with something like Batman TAS or even The Brave and the Bold (which is a delight), and sometimes you have an actual monster at the helm and end up with a blindingly ironic situation. Most of the stories fall somewhere in between, and some writers have actually addressed this directly (on more than one occasion, Bats deprived an enemy of his henchmen by referring all of them to Wayne Industries and promising them jobs), but Alli’s point of view is completely valid. I think that part of the appeal of Under the Red Hood for me, and I’m only just realizing this as I write it, is that Jason Todd represents my own personal journey as a Batfan. As I grew up I bucked more and more against his worldview, until part of me wanted nothing more to do with him, but he was still one of my first heroes and thus too important for me to let go of completely. And when I look back at the youngest version of myself, watching Batman TAS every day after school starting from kindergarten and going forward, I see that optimistic little Robin, ready for his first mission, with so, so far to fall ahead of him.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Red Hood’s plan would have done much to make Gotham a better place; by wiping out entire crime families and eliminating drug cartels, all that would be left would be a bunch of desperate people and a massive power vacuum. The first few days, when addicts wouldn’t be able to get their fix, would be madness as violence erupted across the city. On The Wire, there’s mention that one corner could pull in $5000 a day, and those slingers are selling heroin at $10 a pop, so that’s 100 people a neighborhood; conservatively, if there’s 500 junkies in just a few of Gotham’s neighborhoods all going through withdrawal at the same time, that’s going to be a disaster. Someone is going to swoop in and take advantage of that to build their own criminal empire. It might seem like a good plan in the short term, but the only real long-term solution is what you previously mentioned: infrastructure improvement. I cou moral quandry he presents feels so at hould be wrong, though.

Brandon, how do you feel that this film’s thesis holds up, especially in comparison to other Batman films, which are much less self-aware and critical of the hero? I’m pretty critical of The Dark Knight Rises, but are there other Batflicks that you’ve seen that you would argue have worse moral or ethical problems?

Brandon: I honestly didn’t dwell for too long on the political ethics at the heart of Under the Red Hood, because they didn’t stick out to me as especially unique within the superhero genre. Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals. The Red Hood is an interesting foil because his Bad Guy status is a grey area, but the “What if Batman, but too much?” moral quandary he presents feels so at home in a superhero storytelling context it would be safe to call it a cliche. As for Batman’s own ethics, it was initially jarring to hear Alli describe him as a neoliberal fantasy figure, since I’m so used to his politics being criticized for their undertones of right-wing fascism. That subtext is likely a stain left on the Batman brand by the Christopher Nolan trilogy (which, as Boomer points out, really went out on a wet fart with The Dark Knight Rises). As perversely fun as Heath Leger’s performance as The Joker can be and as welcome as it was to see Anne Hathaway challenge her usual typecasting as Catwoman, that trilogy has left a sour taste in its wake, especially in the way its been adopted as gospel by the more Conservative, Reddit-flavored corners of the internet. I don’t think the political stance Batman takes in Under the Red Hood is nearly that well-defined and the movie’s moral dilemma is more about the opposing virtues between extremism & moderation than it is about arguing any specific ideology.

I personally don’t need a specific, clearly defined political ideology to enjoy my Batman media, though. My favorite interpretations of the character are when he’s defined mostly as the ringmaster werido at the center of a fetishistic freakshow. Tim Burton & Michael Keaton’s collaborations are the pinnacle of that horned-up werido-pervert version of Batman (which is why Batman Returns has long been my favorite episode in Caped Crusader cinema), but it’s something you can see echoed in plenty kinky Batman interpretations (and real life kink play) elsewhere. I suspect it’s partly why I enjoy the over-the-top Joel Schumacher monstrosity Batman & Robin so much, since it shifts that kinkiness closer to a queer spectrum (while also subversively doubling down on the Saturday morning cartoon kids’ fluff aspects of the material). I didn’t think much about the political quandary at the center of Under the Red Hood, since my own experience with Batman is more as a kinky psychosexual id. As such, I found myself instead fixating on the two former Robins’ relationships with Batman and how they resembled spurned romantic exes. It’s probably best to ignore the usual insinuations about Batman & Robin’s power dynamics as master & ward (though I will say that scenes of a teen Robin running around in little green panties did make me very uncomfortable), but the way the two Robins shed their former identities to don wholly new personas, Nightwing & The Red Hood respectively, felt like watching someone experiment with a drastic haircut or a cross-country move to shake themselves out of the emotional fallout of a nasty breakup. They both still desperately need Batman’s attention & approval, too, despite trying to appear aloof in his presence. There’s always an undercurrent of romantic & sexual power dynamics lurking under Batman’s interactions with other masked weridos, whether friend or foe, and I found his relationships with his ex-Robins here to be a more complex expression of that than most. The movie intends for their relationships to play as entirely paternal, but my growing up with Batman as a horned-up kinkster makes it impossible not to see it through that lens.

Britnee, feel free to ignore my fixation on Batman’s function as a romantic kink icon, but I am curious what you thought of the character’s relationships with his ex-Robins here. Is there anything especially unique about the Batman & Robin dynamic in Under the Red Hood, besides there being more Robins than usual? What do you make of Nightwing & Red Hood’s compulsion to continue to be around a crime-fighting loner weirdo who doesn’t seem to share that enthusiasm?

Britnee: I love that we were introduced to two Robins in this movie. Bringing in Nightwing added so much more to this short, action-packed animated flick. Even though Nightwing has a bigger personality than Batman, their crime fighting guidelines are quite similar. Catch the bad guy without killing him, and let the incompetent justice system take over at that point. Red Hood is the rebel in this unusual family. Sick and tired of the endless cycle of catching a bad guy only to have him escape his confinements, Red Hood kicks it up a notch when it comes to crime fighting. Nightwing and Red Hood have a relationship similar to siblings that are close in age. One always seems to be the goody two-shoes while the other is angsty and misunderstood.

Batman is meant to be seen as their paternal figure, but he comes off more as a “daddy” than an actual father. What I found interesting about Under the Red Hood‘s unconventional family dynamic was Nightwing’s and Red Hood’s need for Batman’s approval. Both were just waiting for a pat on the back or an “I’m proud of you” to come from Batman, but of course, that never happened. I’m not sure if this is a result of great mentorship or abuse. Speaking of abuse, I have to admit that I too was very disturbed by pre-teen/teen Robin running around in green panties in front of Batman, who does have a bit of a leather daddy vibe. Thankfully, Robin eventually earns a pair of tights to cover up his bare legs, but I’m not sure exactly what he had to do to earn them. This may all be innocent, but if we flip Robin’s gender for a minute, a young girl running around in the bat cave with green panties would 100% make Batman look like a pedophile. I know that this is just a cartoon, but I really disliked those young Robin scenes. This also makes me wonder why he gets a new Robin when one leaves the nest (or the cave). What’s preventing him from keeping a Robin around to assist him with fighting crime? It could be that Batman wants to work alone once his Robins are ready to fight crime on their own, which is ridiculous because two crime fighters working together is always better than one, or it could be that Batman wants to have a younger partner at his side.

Alli, why is it that Batman just can’t hold on to his Robins? Would you prefer a duo with Batman and one Robin until the end of time? Or do you enjoy the process of Robins becoming their own superheros and new Robins filling in their place?

Alli: Gosh, here we get into more of my dislike of Batman, but this time it’s his personality. (And I know the personal is political, but I’ll try to stay on-topic.)

Batman has got to be hard to live with. He broods all day in his batcave. He holds onto a decades-old trauma to the point of exacting revenge on criminals who weren’t responsible for it. He’s incapable of forming any personal bonds out of emotion or affection. And as you said, nothing is ever good enough to warrant praise from him. Of course, as a young sidekick gets older they’re going to figure out how messed up all of this is and, while it’s permanently changed their life, leave to be on their own.

I think this is a lot like the standard idea of parenthood in general. Batman may be a freak in a leather suit with a broody man cave, but by God, he’ll be portrayed as going through at least one of the normal processes of parenthood by having the kids move out. It seems to be a lesson to the audience, of children, that one day they too will have to move out, even if their parents have a massive mansion with more than enough room to accommodate their need for privacy.

Seeking out new Robbins seems like an another aspect of Batman dealing with his trauma. It’s what psychologists call “trauma compulsion,” which is when you repeat the traumatic circumstances over and over again. He relives secondhand the act of losing his parents through these kids over and over again, which explains his actions pushing them away once they become adults as well. He’s stuck in this stage, permanently stunted. Instead of growing and fixing himself, he just gets new boy toy after new boy toy, replaying his fears over and over again. That’s pretty messed up.

So yeah, I like the idea of all the various Robins going out on their own. I think they need to find a new path and learn to appreciate themselves & their own strengths unlike their surrogate father figure. Until Batman grows up, I don’t think he can properly work with anyone who is an independent adult. Two heroes are better than one, but no Batman is also better than one.

Lagniappe

Alli: I was super impressed with the quality of animation and how well this film was made! Usually your expectations of a cartoon Batman movie don’t include well-animated smoke plumes and amazing sound design. I was really blown away by that. This was a technically amazing piece of animation, and it bears being said since we didn’t get to it.

Britnee: Under the Red Hood has sparked my interest in animated superhero films and television series. In an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, Batman and The Joker are present for whatever reason, and there’s a scene where the Joker is hitchhiking and shows a little leg. That image is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Batman, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. If that was just one scene from one episode, imagine all the other funky stuff that is just waiting for my discovery.

Boomer: I’m always curious how other people interpret the Batman/Robin relationship, especially with regards to the appropriateness (or not) of the Robin costume in general. In general, the Robins are young, generally getting started at the cusp of adolescence. For me, though, my first and still-primary image of Robin is of the character as played by Burt Ward in the classic, campy 1960s Adam West era. That costume was the classic, hot pants version, although Ward was given a pair of nude hose to wear, and it was an awakening for young Boomer. (It’s worth noting that Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl outfit was far slinkier and more intentionally titillating despite covering the entirety of her body.) The next Robin to come along was in Batman Forever, when I was eight years old, and that one also leaned hard into the “sexy Robin” template, and that was only more of an eye-opener. Robin was rarely present in the animated series when I watched it as a kid, and even his first appearance, in the episode “Fear of Victory” (aired 09/29/92), firmly established him as being a college student. Given that Ward was 21 in 1966 when he donned that cape and those ridiculous elf boots and that Chris O’Donnell was 25 in Forever, I never conceived of Robin as being all that young until I got older and started reading comics, at which point Dick Grayson was already active as Nightwing, Jason Todd was dead, and even Tim Drake was presented as being in his late teens; it wasn’t until Damian Wayne was retconned in that there was ever a child Robin in anything that I read. As such, I never read his costume (or relationship with Batman) as being exploitative until later in life, when thinkpieces about the inappropriateness of Robin went through a period of fad intensity. As someone trapped within the horizon of his experiences with the text, I have to admit that I can see how others would read the mentor/ward hero/sidekick relationship as inappropriate or exploitative, I prefer to reject that interpretation, although I admit that part of that is just to keep my Robin crush, developed in childhood toward older actors, intact— without it getting creepy or weird. On the other hand, if finding the subversiveness in everything is your cup of tea, the Venture Brothers episode “Handsome Ransom” inspects that issue with the creators’ trademark acerbic iconcolasm, with Batman TAS voice actor Kevin Conroy (my Batman) in the role of Captain Sunshine, a Superman expy with… questionable predilections.

Brandon: Alli’s criticism of Batman as “a rich guy who takes to streets he’s not even that familiar with to throw people into a prison system that seems even less effective and ethical than the real life American one.” immediately reminded me of a recent SNL sketch about Bruce Wayne being confronted by the community he supposedly protects. The sketch, titled “Wayne Thanksgiving,” is a quick, hilarious watch that feeds directly into the questions of Batman’s political ethics discussed in the conversation above. I highly recommend giving it a look:

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Alli presents Gates of Heaven (1978)
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents Blood and Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew