Movie of the Month: Trouble in Mind (1985)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made BrandonBoomer, and Hanna watch Trouble in Mind (1985).

Britnee: Director Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind is truly a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s a neo-noir that blends in 80s new wave kitsch, creating its own genre that I like to call New Wave Noir. I’m not sure there are any other movies that would fall into that genre. Maybe Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? could qualify, but they’re way more on the fantasy side. I didn’t get around to watching Trouble in Mind until a few years ago when I was obsessing over Marianne Faithfull. After reading Faithfull: An Autobiography, I was constantly listening to her music, and that’s when I came across her rendition of the blues classic “Trouble in Mind”. I discovered that it was used in a film with the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, and an out-of-drag Divine. That was more than enough to draw me to the movie, and it turned out to be such a hidden gem.

In the fictional Rain City (it’s basically Seattle), an ex-cop/ex-con with the most neo-noir name ever, Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), becomes entangled in the lives of a young couple from out in the country. Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) drive into Rain City in their beat-up camper to build a better life for themselves and their baby named Spike. Hawk, Coop, and Georgia are all brought together by a diner owned by Hawk’s ex-lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Coop gets involved in selling knockoff watches and quickly gets pulled into Rain City’s criminal underworld, run by Hilly Blue (Divine). Coop’s fashion choices become progressively more cartoonish as he sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime. His hair becomes a growing new wave pompadour, his face becomes paler, his outfits get wilder, and his makeup becomes increasingly intense. It’s my favorite thing about this movie. He literally becomes a new wave monster. While Coop is out and about being a criminal, Hawk sets his eyes on Georgia. He gets the hots for her and becomes her “protector”, even though I find him to be pretty creepy when it comes to how he forces himself into her life.

One major aspect of Trouble in Mind that really didn’t make much sense and was completely unnecessary is that Rain City is under militia patrol and some of the characters randomly go from speaking Korean to English. The state of the city is never really explained and doesn’t add much to the story. Brandon, what did you think about Rain City’s militia and random Korean lingo? Would the film be any different if that component just didn’t exist?

Brandon: If I had to guess what they were going for with the militia patrols and American/Korean cross-culture, I’d say they were borrowing a little New Wave Noir finesse from Ridley Scott’s 1982 game-changer Blade Runner.  Trouble in Mind may take production notes from Seoul instead of Hong Kong, but its retro-futurization of Seattle feels like a direct echo of Blade Runner‘s retro-future Los Angeles.  The difference is that Blade Runner is explicitly set in the future (2019, to be exact), updating the familiar tropes & fashions of noir with a sci-fi bent.  Trouble in Mind, by contrast, doesn’t really subvert the noir genre template in any overt ways.  It’s not a parody or an homage.  It’s the real deal: a noir that just happens to be made in the 1980s (which makes the influence of Blade Runner near-impossible to avoid).

Personally, I was really into the characterization of Rain City as a setting.  It’s an intricately detailed, lived-in alternate reality that makes the movie feel as if it were adapted from a long-running comic book series.  I loved the “fictional” city’s clash of 1940s nostalgia with intensely 1980s fashion trends, and I was tickled by the scene set in the Space Needle restaurant, acknowledging that we’re basically just running around present-day Seattle.  I was much less in love with the characterization of Kris Kristofferson’s gruffly macho ex-cop.  Hawk is not so much of an enigmatic anti-hero as he is a boring loser, which is maybe the film’s one miscalculation in its low-key version of 1980s noir revival.  When Divine’s degenerate mobster villain looks Kristofferson dead in the eyes to snarl, “You have nothing but bad qualities,” I couldn’t help but agree.  What a pathetic asshole.

Hanna, did Hawk’s anti-hero status lean a little too hard into “anti” territory for you as well?  If so, were the other citizens of Rain City charismatic enough to save the movie from that misstep?

Hanna: I love a good anti-hero, and I’m a cursed sucker for a gruff neo-noir cop/PI character, even when their behavior is problematic or despicable. Unfortunately, Hawk embodies all of the worst aspects of macho authority—including possessiveness and that special type of sexual aggression that somehow eludes the label of assault—and none of the appealing qualities (e.g., smoldering charisma). On top of everything, his relationship with Georgia was totally baffling and uncomfortable. I kept holding out for Hawk to develop some humility and self-reflection, but I was foiled at every turn. Will Hawk stop stalking Georgia outside of her trailer (a moment that reminded me of that scene in Smooth Talk where Arnold Friend tries to coax teenage Connie out of her house)? No? Okay, well maybe he’ll realize that he can care about a beautiful woman without having a sexual relationship with them? No again! Well, maybe he’ll care for her in a loving, non-controlling – oh, he’s demanding total ownership of her in exchange for saving her New-Wave pompadour’ed ex-thing. I guess he’s a changed man because he asks her out for dinner?

Fortunately, the world of Trouble in Mind has more than enough splendors to enjoy apart from Hawk and Georgia, especially in the vibrant criminal underground. Coop was actually one of my favorite characters; he’s a huge creep for the majority of the film, but he shows at least a semblance of self-reflection towards the end, and his transformation into an 80s glamour criminal is indeed a glorious surprise. Just when I thought his pompadour couldn’t get more delicious, a little curl would spring up at the top, or the tips would be touched with a kiss of red. Divine was totally captivating as Hilly Blue, and I even liked Nate (John Considine), the crazed criminal that Coop accidentally robs. I found myself wishing I could spend just more time amongst the various fiends of Rain City; I sighed every time the film cut from Coop slinking around in oversaturated suits to Hawk eating his dumb eggs. If nothing else, I would have loved to see a version of Trouble in Mind without Hawk where Wanda helps Georgia leave Coop while he goes off to crime it up with Solo and Hilly.

Boomer, what did you think of the balance between the two worlds of Rain City (the Diner and Hilly’s criminal cabal)? Do you think there were more interesting depths to plumb in the criminal underworld? Are there aspects of Rain City do you wish had been more developed, or developed differently?

Boomer: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, this movie felt very loooong to me, to the point where I had to research whether a runtime of this magnitude was normal for film noir. I was convinced that they must normally be shorter than Trouble in Mind‘s 111 minutes, but reviewing the classics, it looks like this is pretty standard, with The Maltese Falcon clocking in at 101 minutes, Double Indemnity at 107, and Touch of Evil matching Trouble exactly at 111. Those movies don’t feel their length to me the way that this one does, and although Geneviève Bujold is giving the performance here that I like the most and she only occupies the diner and its adjacent rooms, I would have liked to see more of the criminal underworld. By having the audience experience the seedy underbelly of not-Seattle mostly through the eyes of Coop, who is the least interesting character, it hinders our ability to fully realize both this city and its criminal element. On the other hand, part of the appeal is that Hilly Blue is a figure that exists outside of the characters’ day-to-day lives for a long time, building him up as a figure of great influence and prominence among the denizens of Rain City’s underclass, before we finally meet him. So while I want to see that world fully, I also think that seeing more would mean cherishing less, and any increase to the film’s runtime would be to its detriment as a piece of media overall. 

What I think we could have benefitted from seeing more of without the risk of diminishing returns was exactly what was going on with all of the fascist goose-steppers constantly breaking up rallies. Every time Georgia gets more than two blocks from the diner, she doesn’t actually seem to be all that imperiled, but she’s certainly overstimulated to the point of losing her mind (and her baby!) histrionically. What I liked about the film’s aspirations to be more noirpunk than it succeeds in achieving is the unspoken acceptance of all of the odd little futurisms that pop up throughout and how they go uncommented upon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and wouldn’t have liked to understand more. Their iconography is clearly aping that of the fascism of the day—red and black, harsh angles—and they appear throughout and people are tolerant of (if not necessarily deferential to) them, and I think that drawing a comparison between a fascist force and Hawk’s need to be the ultimate authority in the lives of the women he seeks to dominate and control was an opportunity that was missed. I don’t need to know the whole genealogy of their rise to prominence (if not power), but a few hints would have been nice. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I want to make sure that it isn’t overlooked that this is our second Movie of the Month featuring Geneviève Bujold, after Last NightAlso, as always, it’s worth mentioning that although Hawk is awful, Kris Kristofferson is a real goddamn hero

Brandon: Of course, for degenerates like us the main draw of this film is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters classics like Hairspray & Female Trouble. To that end, I’ll just share a quick piece of trivia I picked up from a recent rewatch of the documentary I Am Divine . . . The gigantic diamond earring Hilly Blue rocks in this film was not provided by wardrobe but by Divine himself. He was super proud of saving up for that piece of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in his later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen.

Britnee: The big shootout scene at Hilly Blue’s mansion is amazing. The Seattle Asian Art Museum was transformed into the unforgettable residence of Rain City’s big mob boss, and I find so much comfort in knowing that this wasn’t just a set build. The fact that I can someday visit Hilly Blue’s mansion (minus Divine and all the guns and stuff) lifts my spirits. I guess I have to pay a visit to the real-life Rain City soon!

Hanna: Whoever scouted locations for Trouble in Mind did a fantastic job. Every setting—Wanda’s lonely-heart diner, the Chinatown restaurant, the villainous mansion, etc. etc.—was the perfect version of itself in the cyber-noir/dystopian film landscape. Also, I was shocked to find out that this movie somehow only made $19,632 at the box office on a budget of $3 million! Thank you to Britnee for unearthing this gem of a financial flop.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: London Road (2015)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.

London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it.  However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes.  Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform.  London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera.  Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war.  It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.

Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one.  London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation.  Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.

Les Misérables (2012)

2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road.  The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing.  What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form.  Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.

Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio.  The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats.  Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.

Leto (2018)

Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing.  A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting.  For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad.  Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs.  When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.  Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.

While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways.  It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack.  More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: London Road (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).

Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV. 

In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015. 

I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top SecretGod Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers. 

The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling. 

There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments. 

I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich. 

I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community? 

Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.”  The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart.  I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense.  Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place.  Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds.  London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.

This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off.  I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end.  Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes.  It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny.  Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do.  It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.

The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat.  There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech.  The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV.  What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee?  Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?

Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.

London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.

Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?

Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).

This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.

Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.

Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing.  He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead.  I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic.  A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth.  Smart.

Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”  

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Home of the Brave (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, is only a small glimpse into the profoundly peculiar mind of performance artist & avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of Anderson’s United States I-IV stage show: a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, digital projections, absurdist dance, and bizarre new wave compositions to abstract & deconstruct the nature of modern living in the Western world (and America in particular, as the title suggests). It’s a sprawling “Who are we?” existential crisis for The Reagan Era, abstracting basic modern concepts as varied as America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Even as only a small portion of that magnum opus, Home of the Brave clearly registers to my eyes & ears as one of the greatest concert films of all time, a wonderful introduction to Anderson’s consistently exciting & confounding genius.

While there is only one wonderful mind like Laurie Anderson’s, she’s not the only philosophically minded musician who’s used filmmaking to document & bolster her art. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more pop music cinema on its profoundly peculiar wavelength.

American Utopia (2020)

Full disclosure: the only reason I recently sought out Home of the Brave in the first place is because last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia reminded me so much of Anderson’s work in United States I-IV. In American Utopia, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his Small-Town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. Like Home of the Brave, it’s the kind of existential national identity crisis that you can dance to.

To be honest, I do have a small chip on my shoulder about how much praise is heaped on Byrne’s American Utopia & Stop Making Sense films while Home of the Brave never even made the jump from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD, much less Blu-ray. Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & contemporary alongside David Byrne in NYC art snob circles in the early 1980s. Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas to their furthest extreme in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds Byrne leaning further into the Laurie Andrersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. Both films are great, but only one is being left to rot in the wasteland of fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

While David Byrne collaborated with the distinctly American auteur Spike Lee on his own pop-lecture concert film, Björk outsourced the filmmaking duties on her 2014 concert piece Biophilia Live to two eccentric Brits. Unrepentant fetishist (and one of my favorite living filmmakers) Peter Strickland handled the direction of the film, while famed naturalist David Attenborough contributed the lecture portions of the performance (and expanded on its ideas in a bonus feature titled When Björk Met Attenborough). Biophilia Live beings with Attenborough making wild, unrealistic declarations over breathtaking nature footage, urging the audience to “Forget the size of the human body. Remember that you are a gateway between the universal and the microscopic, the unseen forces that stir the depths of your innermost being and Nature, who embraces you and all there is.” He goes on to claim that “We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovation.” That abstract, philosophical subject is a Laurie Anderson-scale ambition for a mere concert film. Björk nearly delivers on that majestic promise too, finding a unique visual language that combines “nature, music, and technology” into one cohesive whole.

This union of “nature, music and technology” is accomplished through a layered visual collage that matches the on-stage aspects of the concert being filmed to the beautiful nature footage & pixelated CGI that swirls around and above it. During the opening song “Thunderbolt” Björk appears in the Earth’s stormy atmosphere, her backing band’s synths (and a specially rigged Tesla coil) seemingly controlling the lightning that illuminates the air around her. The imagery then shifts from the earthly to the celestial, the rhythm of the music correlating to the phases of the moon and the glacially shifting lights of stars and galaxies. The focus then shrinks from the heavenly to the microscopic; Fantastic Voyage-style close-ups of blood moving through veins fade to pixelated bacteria attaching to strands of DNA before the images finally devolve into distorted television color bars & computer monitor static. These phases of the imagery are cleverly allowed to bleed into one another instead of remaining isolated, which leads to some transcendent juxtaposition: a lightning storm in outer space, the moon perched on a spinal column, crystal formations melting into prism light. Even Björk herself looks like a combination of two ostensibly separate natural phenomena: her gigantic wig like a colorful galaxy & her asymmetrical dress like an underwater growth.

Attenborough’s opening monologue defines “biophilia” as “the love for Nature in all her manifestations” and Biophilia Live tries desperately to capture all those manifestations in one definitive catalog. Conceived as a single facet of a multi-media project alongside a studio album, music-composition computer apps, and the aforementioned conversation between Björk & Attenborough, the film itself is more than just a document of a single concert. It’s also an attempt to tie years of far-reaching ideas spread across various art forms into a single product, the same way it tries to tie all of Nature into a single entity. It’s the only concert project I can think of that matches the hyperbolic ambition of United States I-IV, and it’s not at all surprising that effort came from an artist as daring & eccentric as Björk.

Heart of a Dog (2015)

While I greatly respect both the American Utopia & Biophilia concert films on their own terms, neither can truly scratch the itch of wanting more art on Home of the Brave‘s peculiar wavelength. Laurie Anderson is just too distinctive of a philosophical mind to find that need satisfied in another artist’s hands. That’s why I’d also recommend pairing Home of the Brave with her essay film Heart of a Dog (her only subsequent feature-length work as a director) even though it’s not a concert film. While Home of the Brave is a snapshot of Anderson going as broadly, abstractly philosophical as possible, Heart of a Dog finds her at her most intimate. Presented as a meditation on the nature of Death following the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lola, the film mostly functions as an act of self-therapy after the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. In the film, Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken-word work to vivid, visual life. Anderson’s intense soundscapes & language play hadn’t changed much in the decades since Home of the Brave, but they’re presented here with the immediacy & intimacy of listening to her narrate a private family photo album instead of a sprawling stage show.

Of course, Anderson can’t help but process her familial grief through prodding at larger, more abstract concepts; that’s just who she is. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but it stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul, as opposed to the snapshot of America’s soul presented in Home of the Brave.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Home of the Brave (1986)

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

Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.

This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.

United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.

Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.

I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?

Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.

Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson; she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!

Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?

Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.

It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).

I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?

Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.

Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat.  I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.

Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.

Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:

She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!

So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.

Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Our current Movie of the Month, Aki Kaurismäki’s low-key revenge-thriller The Match Factory Girl, is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, specifically tuned in to the absurdist indignities of modernized labor & urban living. The further you dig into Kaurismäki’s catalog, the more you realize how constant these elements are: the carefully curated visuals, the low-key absurdist humor, the fixation on the embarrassing exploitations of entry-level labor. Something else you’ll see a lot of is actor Kati Outinen, who plays the titular Match Factory Girl and appears in almost all of Kaurismäki’s most iconic works.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more collaborations between Kaurismäki & Outinen, a consistently rewarding pair.

Shadows in Paradise (1986)

In a way, this is basically the romcom version of The Match Factory Girl. All of the Polaroid-in-motion aesthetics & pitch-black urban despair are there, but the poisonous revenge is replaced with low-key romantic whimsy. It’s lovely.

A lonely garbage man (Matti Pellonpää, another Kaurismäki regular) falls in love with a jaded grocery store clerk, played by Outinen. Their would-be romance is awkwardly stilted but gradually adorable as the pair earn equal footing in each other’s esteem. The near-documentary glimpses into 1980s Finnish waste treatment plants are starkly reminiscent of the match factory footage in our Movie of the Month, but the whole thing plays much sweeter & less devastating.

The Man Without a Past (2002)

Another darkly humorous Kaurismäki drama about a poor soul crushed by the indignities of life (played by Markku Peltola). This time it’s a man who can’t remember his own past & identity after suffering brain damage from a random, vicious attack in a public park. For such a fucked up premise, it’s oddly very cute watching him rebuild his life from scratch in an abandoned shipping container – including an unlikely romance with a lonely Salvation Army worker played by Outinen.

In a way, this one is just as sweetly romantic as Shadows in Paradise, but that grim romcom riff is more of a side-plot than the main attraction. Here, Kaurismäki really drills into the absurdist embarrassments of poverty, a Kafkaesque farce about how daunting it is to make a life for yourself without a home, a name, or past. Still, it’s a great showcase for the quiet vulnerability & guarded empathy Outninen got to exhibit in The Match Factory Girl (which is somewhat missing in her steelier performance in Shadows in Paradise).

The Other Side of Hope (2017)

The most outright humorous film of the bunch is also the most recent, and the one with the saddest ending. A Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) smuggles himself into Helsinki hiding among coal cargo, then struggles to find steady work & a place to live (basically as a man without a past). He eventually settles working at a restaurant that’s under new, chaotic management, contrasting his real-life political struggle with sitcom-level hijinks.

Kaurismäki’s announced retirement film still feels a lot like the bleak, low-key comedies he made in the 80s & 90s, which is no small feat considering how flat & cheap most modern film is on this budget level. The major deviation here is that he really lets the influence that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has had on his work push to the forefront, both visually & thematically. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a lovely More of the Same exercise from an impressively consistent auteur (including a small cameo from Outinen, who essentially appears here as an auteurist calling card).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Match Factory Girl (1990).

Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.

In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)

I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).

The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?

Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.

One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.

Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?

Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull back from the edge of their cliffdissolves in upon oneself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.

Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.

What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?

Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance.  However, you’re in good company making that connection.  In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her.  To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort.  She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.”  The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories.  Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway.  At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.

I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone.  This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema.  It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion.  And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!

Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work.  I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro).  Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”.  It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.

Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.

Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”

Upcoming Movies of the Month
March: Brandon presents Home of the Brave (1986)
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.

Gothic (1986)

The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.

Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.

Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.

Lisztomania (1975)

If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.

In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.

I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.

The Music Lovers (1971)

This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunchSalome’s Last Dance includedif not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.

The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Passion Fish (1992)

Our current Movie of the Month, John Sayles’s 1992 comfort-watch Passion Fish, is a Southern-fried melodrama about a Rude soap opera star whose career comes to a halt after a paralyzing car accident. It looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about a proud woman overcoming sudden adversity, but pulls it off with an unusually direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the bullshit. In particular, the way the film depicts its lead’s discomfort, rage, and gradual acceptance of her newfound disability & reliance on a wheelchair feels refreshingly honest & relatably human for a 90s-era VHS rental. As a result, most recommendations of further viewing for anyone who enjoyed Passion Fish probably should touch on its unusually frank depiction of newfound physical disability, which really does set it apart from other, more maudlin works in its genre.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar depictions of recognizably Real people venting relatable frustrations over their own physical disabilities.

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

A young dancer (Lupino regular Sally Forrest) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to maintain the romance, career, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion. The resulting film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Never Fear is a romantic melodrama in which Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s more or less a standard sudden-illness weepie, but it’s emotionally fearless in directly tackling its subject in a way that can be impressively horrific in flashes. It isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is a film with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system. It’s also one of the few melodramas of its kind that matches Passion Fish‘s bullshit-free depictions of personal, internal conflicts over sudden physical disability.

Misery (1990)

If the bitter disability journeys of Passion Fish & Never Fear are too subtle or gentle for your liking, there’s always the Kathy Bates psychobiddy classic Misery. According to Steven King, Misery was written as a metaphor for his debilitating addiction to cocaine, which figuratively held him captive and forced him to write pulpy dreck far beneath his dignity as a Serious Artist. There’s likely some truth to that, but I do suspect King brandishes that anecdote at least somewhat to cover up the novel’s more obvious expressions of his open, seething contempt for his most enthusiastic fans. In the 1990 adaptation, Kathy Bates stars as a disgraced nurse who kidnaps her favorite pulp author after a blizzard-incited car crash and forces him to write novels that fit her headcanon instead of his own imagination. It’s a wonderfully blatant, literal depiction of the increasingly hostile relationships between artists & their audiences in recent years, where fans’ demands are too often allowed to dictate the work. It’s also, on the surface, a torturous body horror about a man held captive by a deranged medical professional who violently hobbles him to delay his recovery instead of working in his own interest.

In the opening sequence of Passion Fish, May-Alice is a big-city Soap Opera Star who’s frustrated that she relies on the whims & the capabilities of the small-town nurses hired to help her navigate her Louisiana bayou home. Things calm down once she finds an unlikely friendship with a nurse on her own wavelength, but that frustration over her reliance on another human being to accomplish mundane, daily tasks never really goes away. In Misery, a big-city Celebrity Author finds himself at the mercy of a small-town nurse who cares more about the fictional characters he creates than she does about his physical health (to put it mildly). Both films traffic in a warmly familiar 1990s mainstream filmmaking sensibility that sets expectations for a wholesome, safe viewing experience. Passion Fish cuts through that expectation with an unexpected vulgarity & bitterness as May-Alice becomes increasingly frustrated with her newly disabled body. James Caan goes through the same struggle as the Celebrity Author in Misery, except with a pronounced layer of traumatizingly gruesome body horror that even more drastically contradicts director Rob Reiner’s wholesome, mainstream sensibilities.

Weirdly, Misery also happens to employ an overqualified cinematographer in Barry Sonnenfeld, which mirrors Passion Fish‘s employment of industry legend Roger Deakins as its own DP.

The Intouchables (2011)

Maybe Misery‘s gory hyperviolence & Never Fear‘s Old Hollywood prestige are too fringe for a proper Passion Fish pairing. Maybe you just want to watch another by-the-books tearjerker that only strays from melodrama conventions by indulging in some occasional vulgarity. 2011’s The Intouchables isn’t exactly a great film the way Passion Fish is, but it does share some of its recognizable humanity that’s often missing from similar sudden-disability melodramas.

Based on a true story, The Intouchables chronicles an unlikely friendship between a paraplegic French aristocrat (who recently suffered a paragliding accident as part of his adrenaline seeking interest in X-Treme Sports) and the underqualified Senegalese ex-con he hires as his live-in caretaker (who only applied for the job as a ploy to remain on welfare). Although it arrived in theaters two decades after Passion Fish, it stumbles a lot more frequently in its own depiction of a budding friendship across race & class barriers (the Senegalese man is a pothead horndog criminal with no sense of public decorum, an often embarrassing line of humor). Still, there is a core sense of mutual respect & playfulness in their relationship that’s surprisingly endearing, especially in contrast to the long line of unsuitable, uptight, white caretakers who also interview for the job. The live-in caretaker is hired because he doesn’t look at his employer’s disability with any sense of pity or patronizing caution. His vulgar, casual demeanor cuts through the bullshit to allow them to meet on equal terms as human beings, even though one needs the other to accomplish most mundane tasks. The central friendship in Passion Fish is a lot more nuanced (and a lot less problematic in its race & class politics), but both movies share that vulgar, humanistic core.

I feel a little conflicted recommending a film I don’t wholly appreciate myself. The Intouchables alternates between charm & cringe so erratically that it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about the positives when the whole ordeal is through. For perspective, then, it’s a good idea to follow up the film by watching the trailer for its recent American remake, starring Kevin Hart. It’s a quick way to appreciate how much worse the material could have been (and apparently was!) in even cruder hands.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Passion Fish (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch Passion Fish (1992).

Boomer: I was born in Louisiana and didn’t reside elsewhere for longer than a month or two for the first 28 years of my life.  It’s been over a year since I was last home. With the pandemic continuing to rage because some people are just too selfish and obsessed with the abstract concept of personal liberty to just stay home, what could have been a few fortnights of quarantine, isolation, social distancing, and loneliness have stretched into over half a year with no real end in sight, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to travel again.  Where I am now is a place of natural beauty, varied cultural interest, and urban elegance, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lack a certain verdancy that I sometimes feel a longing for.  Few things of late have made me more homesick than the movie Passion Fish.

NYC-based soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is left paraplegic following a mundane but nonetheless tragic vehicle collision, and returns to her long-abandoned parents’ lakefront home on Lake Arthur.  Unable to fully care for herself in a home that wasn’t built with the wheelchair-bound in mind, May-Alice’s resentment of her newfound immobility, loss of employment, and isolation lead her to lash out angrily at a series of home nurses who range from grossly incapable to overly familiar to simply not being a good fit.  The last of these is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who has her own problems.  Although the two women are initially mistrustful and intermittently antagonistic, Chantelle’s unwillingness to coddle May-Alice or to allow herself to become another in a long line of nurses driven off by her employer’s hostility forges a bond between the two women that eventually exceeds what either of them could have expected.

I was given this movie a few years ago as a birthday gift by a couple who were my first friends here in Austin, and with whom I played weekly trivia—religiously—for a few years. As we have similar interests, one of the games that we used to play (poolside, in the car, wherever) was the one where you connect two actors using a series of “acted alongside” connections.  For example, if one person suggests Pam Grier and the other suggests Audrey Hepburn, one might connect Hepburn to Veronica Cartwright through The Children’s Hour, then Cartwright to Yaphet Kotto through Alien, then Kotto to Pam Grier through Friday Foster.  I have a profound love for both McDonnell and Woodard, and bring them up frequently as a connector when playing this game, which led to the recommendation (and ultimate gift) of Passion Fish.  It has been one of the best recommendations ever, as it transported me fully not only back home to Louisiana but also to my childhood in the nineties.

Passion Fish also falls under one of my favorite genres/topics: the story of women on the verge.  May-Alice’s frustration, feelings of impotence, and what she perceives as the loss of her identity as a woman of moderate celebrity, are clear and powerful without falling into the trap of ableism, which it easily could have.  Her career is over, her place in society is gone, and she finds herself back in a home she never wanted to revisit and has spent her entire adult life running from.  As we learn in one of a series of vignettes in which she reunites with various people from her past, May-Alice was always an outsider in her community, the “weird girl” who stood out and was socially punished for it; it’s no wonder that she sees the loss of the lifeline that she used to flee this place as the end of her journey, while also dealing with the associated traumas of losing the functionality of the lower half of her body.  It’s not an abstract issue: she falls off of the toilet and is alone in her house for hours without assistance, and the lack of accessibility features (like ramps) in her home minimizes her world.

May-Alice isn’t alone on this precipice either, as it turns out that Chantelle has lied her way into her current position, having lost her nursing credentials (and custody of her daughter) after falling in with a man who gave her access to crack cocaine.  It would be easy to dismiss this as another lightweight “inspirational” movie (complete with a problematic trope or two) were it merely about May-Alice overcoming obstacles through the help of a sassy stereotype, and to some I’m sure it comes across as one, but Chantelle is no mere prop for May-Alice’s recovery.  She has her own problems, issues, fears, and even romance — all of which are separate from her relationship with May-Alice as both caregiver and friend, even if those disparate threads sometimes intertwine.  Powerhouse performances from both lead actresses are what push this beyond being some lighthearted pablum for the masses into something truly beautiful, while weaving in various coastal/bayou cultural touchstones like ghost mythology, local folks who are recognizable as people instead of archetypes, and lots (and lots) of zydeco music.

One of the other ways that Passion Fish rises above the rest of the crop is through its narrative throughline.  We start in a New York hospital in which May-Alice awakens to learn that her life has changed from a faceless, impersonal member of the medical staff.  From there, as she falters at adapting to her new circumstances and decides to go home to Louisiana—even as she encounters fans of her work—all of them remain faceless and unseen to us, like specters. Only once she’s back home do those around her begin to exist again, and so does she.  In one of our long-ago MotM reviews of Big Business, I was openly opposed to the trope of “Rural living is simply better to urban life,” and while there’s some of that at play here, I also think that it exposes the facile nature of that assumption as we meet people both shallow and deep from each of May-Alice’s worlds.

I really enjoyed this vignette-style set-up of characters, although I was a little disappointed that some of them never reappeared.  First we meet May-Alice’s closeted(ish) Uncle Max, who at first reads as a parody of a Tennessee Williams character before revealing a depth of character beneath his genteel Southern nature.  From there we are introduced to two of May-Alice’s childhood tormentors who recall their “friendship” with their now-famous(ish) victim very differently, going so far as to attempt to bond with her over the girl they used to bully, not realizing that they are one and the same.  We also meet a trio of women from May-Alice’s soap opera world, including the actress who now plays her role on The Young and the Stupid and her closest friend (Angela Bassett!).  Each of these encounters seems to set up a future interaction or confrontation, but reveal that both worlds have people who have a depth of personality (Uncle Max), those who have a lack of it (her childhood bullies), and those who portray vapidity but actually have a rich internal life (the actresses).

Of these and the other vignettes, there are some that feel like a potential that is unfulfilled, and some that feel perfect in their concision.  Brandon, which was your favorite interaction? Is there a character you wish we saw more of?  Are there any characters who reappear that you feel were too large a part of the narrative?

Brandon:  I can’t say that I was especially invested in the either of the male love interests that drift in & out of these women’s lives, and by the end I don’t think the movie was either.  The story doesn’t conclude with the two leads settling down for a humble Southern-fried life on the bayou with new respective husbands in tow, so the men’s presence mostly felt like a means to draw the women out of their shells.  I wouldn’t have minded if the men’s screentime had been cut a little short to reflect that eventual unromantic conclusion, either to allow more breathing room for the more engaging relationship dynamics or just to shave the runtime down to under two hours (this is one of those languorous Entire Afternoon movies that’s in no rush to get anywhere in particular).  Whereas the potential bayou beaus mostly feel disconnected from the women’s lives outside this brief retreat from “the real world”, the other side characters that pop in for a single visit do a lot to illustrate what their lives were like before their recent traumas transformed them.  You just have to consider them in contrast with each other rather than in isolation.

I most appreciated the contrast between the visits from the two groups of women from May-Alice’s past.  While her stay at her family’s Lake Arthur home has been restorative (largely due to Chantelle), the film is not at all shy about interrogating why it would be worthwhile to leave that “simple” life behind.  Her smiling, suburban childhood bullies that drop in to snoop & gossip are torturous demons in Good Christians’ clothing.  Consider that unannounced lunch-date in contrast with her chosen family of Big City artists who visit between filming episodes of The Young and the Stupid.  They might be just as flawed as human beings, but they’re genuine & kind in a way that transcends the small-minded, small-town misery the snooping locals represent.  If the two love interest characters add anything to this story, it’s in softening that Small Town vs. Big City divide by demonstrating that there can be genuine, kind-hearted people in even the most toxic of closed-off communities.  Still, the two visits from those distinctly opposed groups of women still say a lot about the urban-rural divide when considered on their own.  It’s a very real, very distinct contrast  that I’ve felt even just moving the short distance from “down-the-road” in St. Bernard Parish to New Orleans proper, a trajectory I never intend to reverse.

On a shallower note, I also most enjoyed the visit from the Big City women because it featured the film’s true centerpiece: the “anal probe” monologue.  It’s an excellent actor’s showcase for one of the visiting soap stars, who explains the never-ending embarrassments of trying to make it in a viciously sexist entertainment industry that would rather her appear nude or ruminate on extraterrestrial anal probes in trashy sci-fi dreck than genuinely pursue her craft.  That monologue is a showstopper on its own, but it also points to what I found to be one of the film’s more rewarding choices: its R-rating.  Passion Fish looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about proud women overcoming sudden adversity, but it pulls that off with an impressively direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the usual bullshit — the same way that the cannibalism & lesbian romance cut through the bullshit in Fried Green Tomatoes.  You can especially feel the effect of that vulgarity in the early scenes where May-Alice is still in her full Rude Soap Star mode, cursing her nurses & her own failing body in a long string of f-bombs — making her simultaneously more Difficult and more Relatable.

Britnee, how different do you think this movie would be if it had toned down that vulgarity for an easy PG-13 rating?  Do you think you would have appreciated Passion Fish any more or less if you caught an edited-for-TV version where they replaced the word “fuck” with “frak” in those early scenes (Battlestar Galactica style, in honor of Mary MacDonnell)?

Britnee: How did I go all this time without knowing about Passion Fish?  Late 80s and early 90s dramas revolving around Southern women are always a treat, and Passion Fish did not disappoint.  And to top it off, Alfre Woodard is one of my favorite actresses.  She was, of course, amazing as Chantelle.  I’d say this was one of her top performances, putting it up there even with her role as Betty Applewhite in Desperate Housewives.  Passion Fish is a film about one of the most important things that a woman can have: female friendships.  The connection built between Chantelle and May-Alice came off so strong without feeling over-acted, making me shed a tear or two at the end of the film.

May-Alice’s potty mouth made me connect with her character right off the bat.  Her frustration with her being a paraplegic and having her world upended would not have come across the same way if her language was toned down.  I think the film would still be enjoyable without all the more R-rated parts, but it just wouldn’t be the same.  And I also shared the same enthusiasm for the “anal probe” monologue, which television (at least at the time the film was released) would have most definitely cut out.  Passion Fish without the anal probe bit would be like Christmas without a Christmas tree.  It’s just plain wrong.

What Passion Fish did so well was balance the two stories of Chantelle and May-Alice without allowing one to overpower the other.  There was something so heartwarming watching both women who’ve hit rock bottom find their way back up while stuck with each other on Lake Arthur.  Hanna, did you also think that Chantelle and May-Alice’s stories were balanced?  Or was focus placed more on one character than the other?

Hanna: I thought that May-Alice and Chantelle’s stories were pretty well balanced, especially for a plot that could have veered into Driving Miss Daisy territory.  Movies about Black people rehabilitating white people can come off a little gross, especially when their identity is defined by their role as a caretaker for the white character in need of some personal growth.  I do think there was a touch of that in Passion Fish.  I learned a lot about May-Alice throughout the film; she was an outspoken Joan Baez fan in rural Louisiana, she’s a gifted photographer, and she’s an excellent cook.  Other than Chantelle’s history with drug addiction and estrangement from her father and daughter, I only know that she can’t cook and she doesn’t like the swamp, which are both negations of May-Alice’s characteristics.  I enjoyed the interruptions May-Alice’s visitors (her gay uncle, southern Louisiana frenemies, and New York art friends), who all help to paint a richer picture of her character and life up until this moment.  Meanwhile, Chantelle’s visitors are strict reinforcements of her history with drugs: the boyfriend who got her addicted, and the father and daughter she lost in the process.  Both May-Alice and Chantelle were given equal weight and both are portrayed as strong women with complex inner lives, but May-Alices’s story felt a little more expansive than Chantelle’s.

I think the difference can be mostly explained by the nature of the two women’s recoveries rather than a narrative disinterest in Chantelle’s story.  May-Alice learns that she can create a rich and valuable world for herself being paraplegic in southeastern Louisiana.  Meanwhile Chantelle is rediscovering her personhood in the wake of an addiction that stole her life, and has just reached the point where she can trust herself enough to nurture her life and relationships in the last stages of recovery.  We get to see Chantelle relax into herself a little with her love interest, but I wish we had the chance to see that happen more fully, and I wish her world could have expanded in a direction that didn’t involve May-Alice or another man.  In the end, I think Alfre Woodard’s performance was a godsend for this role; she brought incredible depth to a Chantelle’s character, which could have easily tipped into flat stereotype in an otherwise powerhouse drama driven by two utterly compelling women.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m tickled by how this film’s behind-the-scenes pedigree contrasts its seemingly ordinary surface details.  This not only includes an early cinematography credit for industry legend Roger Deakins, but also the fact that it was written, directed, and edited by John Sayles – a respected novelist & returning Movie of the Month champ who also penned our beloved urban creature feature Alligator (1980).

Boomer: I love Brandon’s identification of this as an “Entire Afternoon” movie (trademark that).  That’s precisely what it is, although I would also say it falls into that genre of “Your Mom Rented This in the Nineties.”  For your enjoyment, here’s some local coverage of the 20th anniversary of the film in Jennings, where it was largely filmed.

Britnee: I normally get annoyed when actors have horrible Cajun accents in movies, which Passion Fish did have in abundance, but the plot was so wonderful that the slow Southern drawl that Cajuns do not have didn’t bother me one bit.  I actually found it to be super funny when Rennie would slip in and out of his accent and would sometimes sound like a suburban dad from Connecticut.

Hanna: The Anal Probe scene was also a favorite of mine; it was desperately professional, heartbreaking, and funny.  It reminded me of “The Actress”, an SNL skit where Emma Stone plumbs the dramatic depths of “mom that finds her husband cheating on her with her godson” in a gay porno.  I’ve filed both of these bits under my file of female actors authentically dedicating themselves to the tiny scrap of material they’ve been afforded.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew