Movie of the Month: Marjoe (1972)

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 Britnee, Hanna, and Brandon watch Marjoe (1972).

Boomer: Well, well, well. Here we are. The world is in utter chaos, and we are a rudderless nation in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic by reopening too early. Meanwhile, a strong and moral resistance to centuries of racial inequality and police violence is being met with more militarized police violence, garnering so much attention that even Uncle Jed is questioning his long-held Lost Cause beliefs and moms and dads across the country are being radicalized against fascism in a way unseen since WWII, calling for the abolition of “policing” as we know it. But why are we leaderless? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the greatest weakness of church-going Americans is that they can be manipulated by a man who espouses their faith but is in fact nothing but a con-man and a snake oil salesman?

Marjoe is a 1972 documentary produced and directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan about the life and “ministry” of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe is (as we are told more than once) the fourth in a line of evangelical pastors, and his parents Marge and Vernon Gortner, were real pieces of work. After spending his entire childhood from age 4 to 14 as a gimmicky “child” preacher, complete with the cadences of the Evangelical movement then and now (“And the wrath-uh of God-uh” etc.), the now-adult Marjoe is on one last tour through the revival-style meetings happening throughout 1971 America, tailed by a documentary film crew. Along the way, he reveals the way that the movers and shakers of the contemporary revival scene scam, guilt, and browbeat their congregants and simple believers in order to rake in the all-mighty dollar.

Marjoe’s life is not all that different from that of any other child celebrity: haunted by child abuse, being used as a source of immense wealth from which he does not directly benefit as an adult, the pressures of maintaining a public persona that supports a certain narrative. He cites examples of being mock-drowned by his mother (so as not to leave marks and bruises on him that might be noticed due to his presence in the public eye) among other examples, which is horrifying. Creating the narrative that God reached down from Heaven to give him a divine mission to convert the unwashed masses (“the teenagers, the narcotics, the dopeheads”), his parents put him in front of an audience before an age most would be in kindergarten. As a result, there was never a time in his life where Marjoe Gortner ever truly believed the message that he was preaching, as he was exposed to the truths of the revivalist circuit as a pit of liars and confidence artists from before he could read.

Horrifying as his childhood is, the doc doesn’t treat Marjoe as a brave exposer of the truth. There’s definitely a human being in there, and he’s humanized to an extent, but when it comes to remorse, he feels more guilty that his rhetoric has to be so laden with fire and brimstone, wishing he could use more love-oriented language than the punishment-avoidance conversion technique of the Southern Evangelical movement. In a lounging position on a waterbed from which he pontificates about the various gimmicks of different religious leaders within the movement, he never seems anything other than at ease with himself, no doubt a result of having to get over the innate fear of public speaking before losing any baby teeth. There’s no remorse when he pours bills out of a brown paper bag and recalls how much bigger the “take” was in his youth. He’s just pulling the lid off of a large scale sleight of hand grift because his particular gimmick is on its last legs. Whether he’s coaching his film crew about how to interact with the True Believers that they will encounter along the way, imitating the way that a particular matriarchal church leader hisses into the microphone in an early form of ASMR, or casually agreeing to go with one of the hosting church families to their Brazilian “farm” (possibly referring to a practice that continues to this day), he’s never not performing, either in his life as Brother Marjoe or Marjoe the narc. There’s a disconnect, always.

Marjoe won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972, but shockingly for a film that won such an award, it was lost for decades. During its original release, the film was never released further south than Des Moines, Iowa, which is ironically where the church behind the Thief in the Night Rapture series was located, and where those films were shot (Thief likewise came out in 1972). Other than a rare (and shoddy) VHS release, the film was largely forgotten until the original negatives were rediscovered in 2002 and released as a DVD in 2005. Although it gets a little thin in parts (sometimes containing long shots of entire church musical numbers), there are some truly great images in this film that imbue it with a fair amount of comedic irony. There’s never any menace, and Marjoe’s outing of not only himself but his cohorts as morally bankrupt scammers convincing little old ladies to send them their “cookie jar money” is never treated as a threat, just an inevitability. And yet, nearly half a century later, this malicious predation on the financial security of middle and lower class people under the banner of their faith is not only still happening, it’s happened at such a scale that it managed to reach the White House. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Brandon, one of the things I noticed on this watch was a similarity between the shooting style of some of the party scenes and the nonsexual parts of the parties in Funeral Parade of Roses. There’s definitely an element of Gonzo documentarianism on the part of the film crew (love the shot of an usher pocketing an offering) as they immerse themselves in this society that runs parallel to but separate from the mainstream. Where do you stand on this kind of punk aesthetic, either in documentaries in general or Marjoe specifically?

Brandon: I don’t know if “punk” is the first cultural touchstone that came to mind here, if only because the movie was so entrenched in the youth counterculture of its own time: hippies. Even Gortner’s desire to shift his sermons away from the language of Fear towards the language of Love feels very much tied to hippie-dippy sentiments, but that’s not to say that the political thrust of the film is toothless or purposeless. One of the most electrifying sequences is the hotel room debriefing early in the film when Gortner preps the documentary crew as if they were going into war behind enemy lines. As he explains they can’t smoke, have sex, or literally let their hair down while attending the tent revivals, you get a clear sense of just how different the two worlds that Gortner alternates between truly are, drawing clear cultural battle lines between The Hippies and The Evangelists as two opposing factions. That rundown also gives the film a genuine thrilling purpose as political insurgency, a reminder that loosey-goosey “Peace & Love” hippie ideologies actually had strong roots in direct, genuine political action through student-movement protests. They were more or less punks with a different wardrobe & soundtrack (and apparently smoked the same abundance of cigarettes), so it makes sense their cinema would share similar D.I.Y. sensibilities.

It’s difficult to be mindful of just how politically incendiary this movie would have been when it was released a half-century ago. Its peek behind the scenes of Southern-fried religious exploitation has become such familiar territory in the decades since that it now has a sitcom version in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. As Boomer mentioned, though, its anti-evangelism subject was considered so taboo at the time that it wasn’t theatrically distributed anywhere in the American South. Even just recording & broadcasting in plain, no-frills terms the financial side of evangelist preaching was met as an anti-social political act that had to be extinguished. Although Marjoe does not touch on our current, global moment of protest in opposition to systemic racist injustice (outside the aforementioned Christian voter base that keeps Trump in office, despite him being the least Christian man alive), that kind of fearless infiltration & subversion of a powerful, corrupt institution very much resonates as an admirable document of political action. That only becomes more apparent as you get a sense of how limited the means & resources of the hippies behind the picture would have been compared to the big-money evangelists they intended to expose, which the film contrasts in Marjoe’s backroom money-counting in church vs. the low-key hippie party scenes he floats through when he’s off-duty.

In terms of style, the gonzo approach reminded me most of the Maysles Brothers documentaries of the era, often referred to as “Direct Cinema.” Given that this was made just a couple years after the Maysles’ landmark door-to-door Bible shilling doc Salesman, I have to imagine Marjoe pulled some influence from their intimate, handheld cinema verité approach to documentary filmmaking. That’s to be expected. What really surprised me as the film went on, however, was how much it also reminded me of a concert film. Gortner was trained (read: tormented) from a young age to be a live entertainer, and once the film settles into its groove it really becomes fascinated with taking in his performances in full, as if this were a document of a charismatic rock n’ roll singer’s farewell tour. Allowing his lengthy, somewhat repetitive sermons play out in full was a risk, as the film might have felt like actually being in church if the audience were allowed to become bored (which is how I remember what it was like being in church, anyway). Gortner is such a peculiarly entertaining presence (especially once you realize he doesn’t believe a word he’s preaching) that the film more or less gets away with that gamble, though. Marjoe ultimately feels like a Maylses-style concert doc with gleefully subversive politics, which is to say that it’s very much of its time in countercultural context & aesthetics.

Since both this movie’s form (1970s direct-cinema documentary filmmaking) and its broader subject (financial exploitation in modern Christian evangelism) have become somewhat familiar to audiences over the decades—however powerful—it seems to me that the most unique factor at play here is Marjoe Gortner himself. It’s easy to see why someone would want to build an entire feature film around him; he’s damn peculiar, truly one-of-a-kind. Hanna, what do you see as being Marjoe’s most distinguishing, most fascinating characteristics? What’s most captivating to you about him, either as a performer or as a latent political subversive?

Hanna: I think the thing I found most captivating about Marjoe is that, despite the fact that he’s a dope-smoking radical who disavows organized religion, he commands attention in the way I imagine a prophet would, whether he’s writhing onstage or calmly discussing the corruption of the holy circuit with the shaggy-maned camera crew. Marjoe’s tender vulnerability in quiet moments is touching; he is completely honest about his relationship with his parents, his movement away from religion, his inclinations towards showmanship, and his own culpability in the exploitation of God-fearing old biddies. In his role as a preacher, he is totally enrapturing and convincing, even when the subject of salvation is a (very confused) black lab. I found myself believing in him in every frame, even when he was praising a God that I knew he didn’t believe in, which was an uncomfortable feeling as a very secular, politically left human. There is some kind of ecstatic divinity in showmanship which, like all things, can be used to gain power over people, and Marjoe was built to harness that from the beginning.

Beyond his natural charisma, Marjoe’s an absolutely effective subject because he’s a true infiltrator into the corruption of the Pentecostal circuit, having lived and breathed the gospel of Godly performance as a child. I’ve seen documentaries that are similar to Marjoe in the past, where an investigative reporter infiltrates a community either as a show of empathetic curiosity or as a straight-up exposé. In the live taping of Darren Brown’s Miracle, for instance, Brown simulates the illusory healing of a gospel revival for his crowd to prove, with a smirk, that it’s all bullshit. This approach is effective, and independent critique of any system is obviously important, but it means something totally different for an insider to step out and expose the rot of a tightly-knit and corrupt community, especially when that insider benefits from the corruption. When Marjoe went into detail about the practices that preachers pushed to get a buck, I felt like I was in a war behind enemy lines.

All of this is complicated, obviously, by the fact of Marjoe’s participation as a preacher all these years, knowing that his paid performances and claims of Godliness are immoral. He even admits to dipping back into preaching when he’s running low on cash, just because he doesn’t really know what else to do. We catch him at just the right time in his life, when his hypocrisy is at a boiling point; he enjoys the showmanship and the spectacle of the Pentecostal church, but can’t reconcile the moral implications of his capitalist evangelism. He says he wants to shed a light on the exploitation of parishioners in these churches through the documentary; Britnee, do you think he succeeds in redeeming himself? What do you think about the tension between his politics and his preaching?

Britnee: My thoughts on Marjoe as an individual constantly changed throughout the documentary. At first, I thought he was going to be this badass who would expose the cruel world that exists behind the scenes of evangelicalism, but that’s not really how it went down. He never showed true remorse for the scamming that he was partaking in during the documentary. In a way, he seemed to be proud of how smart he was for getting away with it. There were moments where I started to think that his followers were foolish, and if they were willing to throw their money at him so willingly, then that’s on them. But then I spent some time reading the crowd. The documentary does focus intently on the crowds at all of Marjoe’s events, and it’s clearly purposeful. The crowds are made up of the elderly, the disabled, and people who show how hard life has ridden them through the expressions on their faces. These are people who are desperate for hope, and Marjoe has no shame in lying to them to take what little money they have to offer. If he was truly trying to expose the crimes of the evangelical world, he would have revealed the truth to his followers at some point during the filming of the documentary. He never really redeems himself in the way that I expected him to.

Being the star of this documentary gave him the same high as being the star of his revivals, and I found this so fascinating to watch. Marjoe loves attention so much that he doesn’t really care what he needs to do to get it. He didn’t agree to do this documentary because he wanted to do something good; he did it because it was a documentary about himself. I’m currently watching The Comeback, and Marjoe definitely has his share of Valerie Cherish moments. This isn’t exactly his fault, since he’s been groomed to be a scamming showman since the age of four. Our early childhood years are so important to the way that we develop mentally, and he was robbed of any chance of being an empathetic human being by his parents. I don’t think that Marjoe is a good, genuine person, but I don’t hold that against him because he never had a chance to be one.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I found Marjoe’s rockstar aspirations to be pretty fascinating, because he does a good job of exuding that raw physical sensuality while yelping his praises to God. Don’t tell me you don’t love those hips, congregation! In another universe, Prince might have been an A+ preacher.

Brandon: I was delighted to discover that Marjoe was able to convert his hammy charisma into a modest career as a B-movie actor in the 1970s, including a starring role in the Italian Star Wars knockoff Starcrash. It’s fun to imagine an alternate reality where his acting career really took off and you could buy official Marjoe® wigs at every Halloween costume store.

Boomer: My favorite (and also most infuriating) visual is from the church near the end, in which the lady preacher is talking about how hard up her church is and is really, really milking the congregation for their tithe . . . only for the camera to zoom in on her jewel-encrusted brooch

Britnee: Other than the occasional Universalist service, I don’t really attend church. I also grew up Catholic, where the services were extremely quiet. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend an evangelical service, but I’m too scared to do it. Mega churches and evangelical preaching have always made me uncomfortable. I get a horrible knot in my stomach just by seeing a picture of Joel Olsteen or passing by a megachurch. Watching Marjoe sparked the curiosity in me again to know what that experience is like in person. Does the charisma of these preachers come across stronger in person than they do in the YouTube videos I’ve watched? I’ve fallen down the Kenneth Copeland YouTube rabbit hole since his wild COVID-19 video was posted, and I am just blown away by the idea of anyone giving a penny to someone like this. I guess not much has changed since Marjoe.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Our current Movie of the Month, the gender-defying whatsit Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), is a chaotic portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast mostly consists of trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in hippie-era Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary-style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself and high-fantasy fables that pull direct, violent influence from Oedipus Rex. Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. It is, without a doubt, one of the most audacious queer films of all time.

There are a couple obvious titles that immediately jump to mind when considering what films to pair with Funeral Parade. As Britnee mentioned in our initial conversation about the film, Stanley Kubrick cited it as a major stylistic influence on his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. There’s also a recent documentary titled Queer Japan that appears to be a vital primer on the Japanese youth culture depicted in the film (even if only as a half-century-later check-in). Neither of those films really fit the bill for me here, though, as Queer Japan is not yet available for home-streaming and I have no real desire to return to Clockwork Orange anytime soon (at least not voluntarily). Instead, here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its sensual, chaotic wavelength (even if their connection to it is less obvious or direct).

Daisies (1966)

Stylistically, the movie that Funeral Parade of Roses most reminded me of was the surrealist Czech classic Daisies, directed by Věra Chytilová just a few years prior. In Chytilová’s film, a pair of young, misbehaving women commit childish, hedonistic acts with seemingly no purpose other than to upset the status quo of Civilized Living. In what feels like an arthouse precursor to Freddy Got Fingered, they aimlessly prank their way through every social encounter, creating a trail of chaos out of sheer boredom. When men attempt to sexualize them, they concoct elaborate dine-and-dash schemes and tauntingly dismember phallic-shaped foods with sharp pairs of scissors. When allowed into a restaurant or banquet, they stomp the food before it can be enjoyed, seemingly in defiance of upper-class excess at a time of national food shortages. By the end of the film, they’re literally hanging from the chandelier, a cartoon embodiment of childish misbehavior. The sex workers at the center of Funeral Parade of Roses are much more insular & subdued in their subversive behavior—having been pushed out of proper society by bigotry not choice—but they share the Daisies brats’ outsider status nonetheless.

The real connective tissue here, however, is in how Daisies allows its characters’ disruptive behavior to dictate the film’s visual language. Chytilová cuts her frames into Cubist shards, wildly alternates between highly saturated color tints, and allows the images & sounds of War to sour the childish pranksterism on display with a deeply sickening undertone. Funeral Parade is equally prone to indulging in new, exciting stylistic tangents from scene to scene, behaving just as wildly as its outsider characters. Both films also share a willingness to allow anti-war protest sentiments to hum loudly in the background, informing the narrative without fully overtaking it. They’re energetically abstract art pieces with little regard for properly Civilized behavior, and it shows in their form just as much as it does in their content.

Jubilee (1978)

Recently watching Derek Jarman’s Jubilee for the first time reminded me a lot of catching Funeral Parade’s 2015 restoration in theaters, in that both films have been around my entire life and are 1000% in tune with my personal interests, but seemingly arrived in my lap out of nowhere. How could two films that speak so directly to the way I internally experience life & art have been floating out in the cinematic ether since well before I was born?

In particular, Jubilee thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk stage dressing & nihilism of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked-concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest.

Funeral Parade of Roses lands much closer to the hippie era of youth culture, if not only because it was released a decade earlier than Jubilee. Instead of thrashing around to Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Slits, its own characters stage their psychedelic, pot-addled dance parties in front of an almighty Beatles poster. Its spirit is punk, though, which carries over into the messy, abrasive stylization that distracts it from telling a linear story in any given scene just as much as Jarman’s work. Both films are gorgeously grotesque portraits of youth on the fringe, and both deserve to be listed at the top of any all-time-greats film canon.

Wild Zero (1999)

I can’t personally name many other films that directly touch on Japanese youth counterculture as a subject, much less any that prominently feature queer or trans characters. Only Wild Zero really comes to mind, mostly because it’s closely tied to the youth culture of my own era and, thus, has earned some notoriety as a cult classic among movie nerds my age. Despite proclaiming itself “wild” in its title, the film is much better behaved than Funeral Parade in a stylistic sense, mostly playing as a straight-forward, retro zombie comedy that happens to have an exciting garage rock soundtrack. Still, despite its lack of arthouse credentials, it shares a certain street-youth cool with Funeral Parade, as well as a refreshing disregard for gender boundaries in sketching out its central romance.

Wild Zero is a rock n’ roll themed B-movie throwback about an extraterrestrial zombie invasion. It’s also a love letter to the Japanese garage band Guitar Wolf (the unlikely inspiration for the legendary Memphis label Goner Records). Wild Zero promotes & worships Guitar Wolf the same way that The Ramones are religiously revered in Rock ‘n Roll High School. They’re essentially a magical force for Good in the movie, guiding our hero (their biggest fan) in his fight against an extraterrestrial zombie horde and eventually saving the world through the power of rock ‘n roll. The plot is frequently interrupted to check back in on Guitar Wolf at a series of nightclub gigs, so that the band’s loud, punishingly fast guitar rock soundtrack is entirely responsible for keeping the audience’s energy up, as opposed to the energetic editing & imagery experimentation in Funeral Parade.

As undeniably cool as their music is, however, where Guitar Wolf really shines as a force for good in Wild Zero is in their spiritual guidance of the film’s hero. When he has a transphobic freak-out after discovering that his femme love interest has a penis, the band magically appears to encourage him that “Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders. Do it!” The movie is generally a fun, playful genre film throwback with a hip punk soundtrack, but none of those merits feel quite as unique as that unexpectedly wholesome, trans-friendly moment of encouragement. Admittedly, Funeral Parade of Roses is much bolder in both its boundaryless transgender sensuality and in its indulgences in violent horror genre tropes, but that’s somewhat of an unfair comparison. There are few films that are as bold as Funeral Parade by any metric. Still, it’s admirable that Wild Zero made a similar effort at all, however small. We could use a ton more movies like either of them.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

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 Britnee, Hanna, and Boomer watch Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

Brandon: When we were compiling our ballots for the Best Films of the 2010s earlier this year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what themes & topics defined the decade in moviegoing for me. Along with our increasingly intimate relationship with technology and the looming threat of total economic collapse, something that stood out to me as one of the major stories of the 2010s was the evolution of our cultural understanding of gender. Some of the most potent cinema of the decade (particularly recent titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and The Misandrists) were the films that reflected our cultural deconstructions & reinterpretations of socially-enforced gender norms, which have been cruelly limiting & embarrassingly outdated for far too long. Curiously, though, the trip to the theater in the last decade that sticks out to me as the most aggressively confrontational in its disregard for traditional gender boundaries wasn’t a 2010s film at all. That honor belongs to the 2017 restoration of Funeral Parade of Roses, which is over half-a-century old and still stands out as one of the most sharply audacious films I can remember seeing on the topic.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast mostly consists of trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary-style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself and high-fantasy fables that pull direct influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the potency of its imagery and in the political transgression of its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex-worker crew hang out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently) at soirees that often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait. Whether picking girl-gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in the mirror, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was subversive, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot-button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We GetTogether” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far-out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

Even half a century after its initial release, Funeral Parade of Roses feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m just really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. Its sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender essentialism or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh-on-flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last-minute tragic downfall. Still, I could see the outdated terminology of the way it discusses gender & sexuality or the way it ultimately conforms to a queer-tragedy cliché with its Oedipal conclusion falling short of modern morality standards. I could also see its highly stylized, aggressively playful visual experimentation distracting from the dramatic empathy at its core, especially on a first watch. You can’t behave this wildly without alienating someone.

Hanna, there is a lot of visual & cultural information here for us to cover in just one conversation. Too much, even. So, I want to start small: Outside its stylistic flourishes & cultural significance, were you at all emotionally invested in this film’s central story? Was Eddie’s Oedipal journey engaging on a dramatic level, or were the film’s other, flashier qualities too overwhelming for you to fully sink into the narrative?

Hanna: Eddie’s arc did engage me, and I was totally immersed in her world, but I can’t say I was fully invested in her story. I don’t necessarily think I was overwhelmed by the rest of the film, although I would definitely be more grounded in her story upon a second viewing; I think that I always felt some distance and un-reality in her narrative because her character was intentionally refracted through the various experimental mechanisms (e.g., the abstract cuts, mask monologues, and the documentarian asides). The way she traveled through the membranes of the movie—in and out of dreams, forward and backward in time, into and out of character—left the impression of a person who is slowly dissolving. The film even includes a (gorgeously shot) interview with Pîtâ about how she feels playing the role of Eddie, which further distances us from the narrative; we are aware that the Eddie is one mask, representative of many people in Tokyo’s underground queer scene. All of that, layered on top of an Oedipal framework, situates Eddie’s story somewhere between a personal and communal context. This actually didn’t take away from the movie for me at all; t was a totally moving, surreal experience, like I was sharing a dream with someone.

Having said all that, Funeral Parade of Roses is also one of the most intensely sensual, wonderfully humanist movies I’ve seen in a long time, especially the scenes outside of the Oedipal plotline. Sex is shot like queer Edward Weston photographs come to life, and parties reverberate with that pure, corporeal 60s euphoria that you can feel (and smell) through the screen. One scene follows Eddie as she gets ready for the day, lingering on her immaculate, deliberate makeup application of eyeliner, then lipstick (in keeping with the surrealism of the film, this scene is almost immediately followed by a bizarre pseudo-shootout between Eddie and her rival, Leda). These moments of tactile intimacy balance out the porousness of Eddie’s experience really beautifully.

I definitely agree that Eddie’s Oedipal descent hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the movie, but the inclusion of Pîtâs interview added some nuance to the ending. Pîtâ muses that her background, lifestyle, and personality are all very similar to Eddie’s, and that she sympathized with the character except for “the incest part.” This snippet allows Pîtâ to publicly disavow the tragic queer narrative, or at least acknowledge that it doesn’t adequately or fairly represent queer life in a film that otherwise “portrays gay boys beautifully.” Boomer, how do you think Funeral Parade fits in the canon of queer cinema? How did you feel about the film’s resolution?

Boomer: A few weeks ago, Brandon posted a link to The Swampflix Canon across our various social media platforms. I took at look at my contributions to that list and realized that, to those who might know me solely by my presence here, I’m a complete weirdo. My additions are, as Brandon put it, “Populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors, and nothing in-between,” and he’s absolutely right, although I would add that my contributions that fall outside of that binary (Head Over Heels, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Citizen Ruth, Queen of Earth, An Unmarried Woman, etc.) add a genre of “women on the verge” to my bizarre palate (and pallet). If you mix my love of women on the edge, Euro horror, and queer cinema, you get the above-mentioned Knife+Heart, which probably explains why it ended up being my number one movie of 2019 and the 2010s. So you would think that the main throughline of Funeral Parade of Roses, of Eddie’s violent streak and the mythologically influenced finale would be really up my alley, but honestly, my favorite part is actually the “women on the verge” element of Leda’s plotline. The fear of being replaced is strong with me, and that was much more resonant to me than Eddie’s story; I sympathized with Leda from the start, and Eddie didn’t have my sympathies.

If you distill the Oedipus story to its two core tragic points, the marquee moments are Oedipus killing one parent and having intercourse with the other. The former isn’t a huge part of queer culture, luckily, but in a metaphorical way, the latter is, in a way that makes this film seem less dated to me than other elements. Compare the nonthreatening lead performance in Love, Simon (parodied here) to the queer people on parade here, which is much grittier and soaked in blood, literally at times. Queer men often grow up having difficult relationships with their closed-minded fathers, and as a result often seek out the guidance of older gay men as they come of age, and strange quasi-paternal relationships form out of these bonds, and those relationships are not entirely asexual. Metaphorically speaking, Eddie finding and fucking the father that he never knew strikes me as being a core part of many queer men’s earliest relationships; it’s only nonrepresentational when it’s literal, which is basically film in a nutshell. There have been many attempts to pathologize why so many young men out there are looking for their “daddy,” and the going theory is that they are looking for someone to initiate them into adulthood the way that a father figure would but that a straight father can’t, because he doesn’t belong to that world. I don’t know what it is, but Eddie’s journey has the ring of truth to me, putting it pretty squarely in the queer canon, even if the incestuous nature of the plot, borrowed from Western mythology, is icky.

Britnee, I guess this is becoming a pattern for me: I don’t seem to enjoy the experimental parts of the experimental films that we watch. I found the sped-up footage annoying (I know that the music used in multiple undercranked scenes is “The More We Get Together,” but when I reply it in my mind it’s always “Yackety Sax”), and the interviews with the actors and filmmakers were more distracting to me than anything else (although I found the interviews with street queens to be meaningful and to contribute something thematically), but I know you usually find them more digestible. Is that the case here? Did you find them to contribute or distract? Were there any that you like more than others?

Britnee: I actually enjoyed the experimental parts of the film more than anything that followed a clear storyline. The sped-up scenes with “The More We Get Together” blaring in the background were my favorite parts of the film! The carnival sounding tune had a way of making the subject matter seem darker than it already was, all while forcing me to hum the tune while doing my daily tasks for days after watching the movie. Perhaps my current mental state has something to do with my appreciation of all thing wacky in this film (thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic). I’m finding myself enjoying art that is more on the eccentric side more so than usual because nothing really makes sense anymore, and I kind of don’t want to make sense out of anything for the time being. The experimental components of Funeral Parade of Roses did prevent me from focusing on the film’s plot (if there really was one), but they also pulled me into a wild gender-queer universe that I loved so much. I honestly only grasped bits and pieces of the plot (mostly the Oedipus story), but I still feel a though I got just as much out of the film than if I would have been 100% focused on the story.

The opening scene really had me hooked on whatever the film was going to throw my way. The grainy black and white close-ups of two bodies making love without any detail to indicate if those bodies were male or female was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve seen in a long time. The other scene that I found to be really striking was the big finale, where Eddie gouges out his eyes Oedipus style. The way that the world around him reacts to such a violent act was bone chilling. The stillness of the people on the streets, watching Eddie without offering assistance or making any commotion really sat with me for a long while after the film was over. The opening and closing scenes were like the brioche bun on a Popeye’s sandwich, holding the spicy chicken that makes up the rest of the film together beautifully.

Lagniappe

Hanna: Honestly, I would recommend this Funeral Parade of Roses on the imagery alone; I wish I could make this movie into a quilt. Over the last few weeks, my mind has repeatedly drifted back into the black-and-white dreamland, running its fingers over the masks and roses and blood and wigs. Plus, it was totally refreshing to the Japanese version of a stoned-out record orgy.

Britnee: I was surprised by how many parts of Funeral Parade of Roses reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. I was very much into A Clockwork Orange in high school, partially due to some of the cheesy punk music I listened to that was inspired by the film, like Lower Class Brats. The sped-up scenes with loud, well-known instrumental music and the up-close focus on Eddie’s eyes with those heavy lower lashes are just a couple elements that were very Clockwork-like. I was not surprised to discover online that Stanley Kubrick was heavily influenced by Funeral Parade of Roses while making the film.

Brandon: As I’m looking at my own contributions to The Swampflix Canon that Boomer referenced—especially my Movie of the Month picks—I’m finding that a lot of these severely low-fi experimental works that punch far above the weight of their resources to approximate arthouse prestige on a shoestring budget: Jubilee, Smithereens, Born in Flames, The Gleaners & I, Girl Walk//All Day, Local Legends, etc. I hope this strand of D.I.Y. outsider art is not becoming a nuisance to the rest of the crew, because I apparently can’t help but be inspired & energized by it. The best aspect of punk is its anyone-can-do-this democratization of art production, opening the gates for people without proper funds or training to have their own voice in a cultural space that normally locks them out. Funeral Parade of Roses would never be able to tell this story this wildly if it were made through proper production or distribution channels, so I have to admit one of the things I admire most about it is that it’s a volatile, dirt-cheap experiment that’s likely to alienate, confuse, or annoy a significant portion of its audience at every turn. That very same quality makes it something of a risk to recommend to friends.

Boomer: About two years ago, I met someone on Tinder. I won’t deadname her or risk outing her by using her current name, so let’s call her Veronica. At the time, Veronica was still figuring herself out, and although we weren’t compatible romantically, we became good friends, and I introduced her to the Austin Film Society, where we attended a screening of On the Silver Globe. Veronica started going to more screenings there, including Funeral Parade of Roses, although I didn’t make it to that one. Seeing the film transformed her, as she went from identifying as a cisman, to an occasional self-described cismale cross-dresser, to genderfluid, to finally coming out as a transwoman in 2019. I may not be the biggest fan of Roses, but it sparked a fire in my friend Veronica that burned away the untrue parts of herself, and that’s fucking rad.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Playtime (1967)

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 Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Playtime (1967).

Hanna: My taste in film—especially comedies—was heavily influenced by the movies my dad watched.  He seemed to be especially enamored with movies about men successfully and improbably bumbling their way through circumstances that are totally beyond their comprehension with fantastic bouts physical comedy (Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers The Pink Panther are notable favorites).  Those films helped foster a love for absurd comedy in general, especially in relation to everyday helplessness in the face of bureaucracy (I am a big fan of The Trial and Brazil) and our attempts to convince ourselves that the world isn’t totally confounding most of the time.  About a year ago I stumbled onto Playtime (1976) while perusing through the Kanopy website, and it managed to unite all of those wonderful threads—a hapless man shuffling through confounding obstacles, the unsettling prospect of navigating inhuman systems, and the natural delights of an good old-fashioned goof—into a gorgeous comedy that shimmers up into my mind at least once a month.

Playtime, directed by Jaques Tati, follows an assortment of characters—namely, a Parisian in his mid-50s named Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) and an American tourist named Barbara (played by Barbara Dennek)—ambling through a variety of settings in a grayscale Kraftwerk version of 1960s Paris. The film begins in an airport (which is so devoid of identity that I mistook for a hospital for the first few minutes) as groups of tourists leave and enter Paris, and follows them into an absurd rendering of downtown Paris, a giant gray set populated by tourists and businessmen and an sea of monolithic steel and glass structures. It is here that we meet Hulot, who seems to be in the city on some sort of business, but is so completely baffled by the city that he’s not really capable of accomplishing much of anything.  Next, we follow Hulot into a bizarre gadget trade show, then out of Paris’s commercial center and into a domestic one; he runs into an old friend, who invites him to see his “ultramodern” apartment complex, a sleek set of gray cubes with glass walls facing the street (very modern, and a voyeur’s delight). Once Hulot leaves the apartment, we follow a group of young American tourists to the disastrous opening of The Royal Garden, an upscale restaurant and club with such shoddy and poorly planned construction that it begins to fall apart before the guests arrive. The film ends on the morning of the following day, as tourists prepare to leave for their homelands and Parisians prepare for work.

These distinct environments, which connect to form the absolute heart of the film, were part of an elaborate set built for Playtime called Tativille, which covered six acres of land in southern France; its construction added significantly to the film’s production period (three years) and budget ($15.4 million euros today), and was burned down after production ended.  Tativille radiates a kind of colorless disorientation through its impenetrable grayness, its blocky monotony, and its perpetual electric buzz that perfectly illustrates the surreal experience of living in a world that opposes organic engagement.  The comedy in Playtime rests on the tension between existing in and navigating vast technological and bureaucratic systems, which are both unnecessarily complex and hopelessly illogical. In an early scene, for instance, Hulot carefully considers a map containing absolutely no helpful information in an attempt to orient himself in an office building, only to find that he is standing in an elevator that is quickly rising many, many floors away from the man he’s supposed to be meeting.  In one of the film’s most iconic moments, he witnesses a terribly inefficient file transfer in a perfectly arrayed rat maze of cubicles.

What I like most about this tension, though, is that human connection does persevere sometimes, especially in the latter half of the film: restaurant patrons sing old songs together amid the restaurant’s wreckage, pipelayers collaborate to sneak a glass of beer in the morning, and life goes on.  It’s nice (and naïve, given the current moment) to imagine that technological, bureaucratic, and capitalist systems around us might just be baffling, as opposed to actively toxic and harmful.  Britnee, how did you feel about the environments in Playtime?  Do you think the world Tati built is still relevant?  How do you think those environments would have changed if Playtime was made today?

Britnee: It took me a while to realize that the film wasn’t set in a hospital, so I was relieved to read that you got the same hospital vibes in the first scene.  Everything about each environment felt so sterile.  I would usually find nothing but discomfort in such plain and ultra-clean environments, but given the current COVID-19 circumstances, I felt at ease.  I’m also surprised by how interesting the each environment turned out to be.  I was fascinated by the restrooms in the airport (Confession: I love exploring different types of public restrooms in general).  They were built just like an office cubicle, and offered no privacy for the men walking in to use it.  That’s the thing with the cubicle structure that is ever so present in this movie.  While it seems like a cubicle offers privacy, it really doesn’t.  It gives you just enough privacy to think you’re hidden, but you aren’t.  Parts of you are still seen and your movements and discussions are still clearly heard by others.  You’re just contained in a place where everyone knows where to find you, sort of like a lab rat in some sick experiment.  I work in a cubicle, so I’m speaking from experience.  It’s the worst.

I’m also just finding out about Tativille, and I’m so blown away.  An entire city built from scratch, only to be burned to the ground and never seen again.  RIP Tativille.  Whether Tativille would still be relevant today is a tricky question.  Modern office spaces are moving towards having more open work spaces, with no more cubicles and glass walls and doors.  Even modern homes are typically built or renovated with an open floor plan, where walls are being torn down to create more opportunities for togetherness.  The separated style of the airport, business office, and trade show of Tati’s world would be a bit different today.  However, the minimalistic look of the building’s interior and exterior would most definitely be relevant.  I can’t help but think of the overpriced, cheaply built homes, apartment buildings, and office buildings popping up all over New Orleans.  They appeal to many—mainly newcomers to the city—with their modern, lifeless look.  So much so that a plain three-bedroom shotgun home can easily go for half a million dollars within a week of popping up out of nowhere.  Even modern restaurants popping up around New Orleans are similarly styled to the one in Playtime, with a bar that looks like a science lab instead of an actual bar.  I truly think that a modern day Tativille would not look that much different than the one from 1967.  It would be a little more open but still just as soulless in design.

I found a lot of humor in the group of American tourists. It made me think about my trip to Paris a few years ago that I took with a group of people. There was a time where the majority of the group almost passed out with joy at the sight of a Starbucks, which I couldn’t understand at all.  Why would anyone go to Starbucks while in Paris, surrounded by so many unique cafés that aren’t found anywhere else in the world?  These were the same folks who were amazed by the huge steel buildings in the business district while bored with the charming cobblestone streets of Montmatre.  This is one of the many reasons why I travel solo nowadays.  Brandon, were there any particular characters or groups that you found to be funny?

Brandon: Honestly, judging Playtime‘s merits as a comedy is where I struggle most in my appreciation for the film  overall.  It reminds me a lot of over-budget American comedies of its era like What’s New Pussycat? & It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that packed gigantic casts into sprawling runtimes, drowning out their intended madcap humor in a flood of flop sweat.  As a comedy, I am not convinced that Playtime is as screamingly funny as it needs to be to justify the effort that went into constructing it (or the effort that goes into watching it).  Every single gag is precisely designed & picked over so that no hair is left out of place, yet the overall comedic payoff amounts to the polite chuckles of recognition that East Coast Intellectuals get out of reading New Yorker cartoons.  On one hand, I do believe that was the intended effect of the piece — to stimulate the intellect of its viewers by drolly poking fun at the absurdity of Modern Living.  After all, Chaplin had already utilized the same cinematic slapstick medium to attack the same satirical target decades earlier for full-bellied laughs in Modern Times; it makes sense that Tati would want to push the artform into a new, exciting direction in his own revision.  Still, I found myself struggling to adjust my personal metrics of what makes a successful comedy while watching Playtime, since I’m trained to expect laugh-a-minute gags from the genre — something this movie isn’t particularly interested in providing.

If there is any one sequence that I found especially funny, it’s the hip, modernist restaurant’s disastrous opening night.  There is something incredibly satisfying about watching a pristinely mapped-out, designed-to-death space gradually break down into drunken chaos as that sequence progresses.  As Hanna mentioned, it is one of the few instances of the film where the natural disorder of humanity actually breaks through the monotonous control of technology that makes most of the film feel so sterile, and that payoff was a huge relief.  I don’t know that any one character within that sequence stuck out to me as a favorite, because this is a film that generally follows the progress of commotion rather than following the progress of particular characters.  Monsieur Hulot himself doesn’t enter the restaurant until well after the wheels have already fallen off among other diners and the staff, and he’s ostensibly the film’s protagonist.  I did find a lot of humor-of-recognition chuckles in the predicaments of the anonymous restaurant staff, however: the bartender having to work around an ornamental wall hanging that impeded the practical motions of his job; the waiter whose uniform gradually breaks down as the unfinished jobsite slashes at his armor; the doorman who continues to pretend that nothing is amiss hours after the glass door he is in charge of shatters, etc.  The restaurant sequence reminded me a lot of the specific indignities & absurdities of my own years working in the service industry, which combined with my general thirst for unstructured chaos to elicit most of the film’s biggest laughs.

I might struggle with assessing Playtime as a comedy, but as a dystopian vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell, the movie is absolutely genius — undeniably so.  Although most of the film’s characters are playing tourist throughout Paris, we only see famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower & the Arc de Triomphe in the reflections of mundane skyscrapers’ endless grids of windows.  The sterile airport’s lobby advertises travel posters for other exotic, romantic destinations — each with the same uniform super-buildings waiting to bore & confound visitors in a new climate.  There are many ways in which technology is incredibly helpful in connecting the world as a communication tool, but it’s also aiding capitalistic forces that would prefer the world entirely homogenized so that it’s easier to control & market to.  In some respects, this dystopian vision of Paris is no different than would be if it were set in Tokyo or São Paulo or downtown Houston, Texas.  All distinguishing cultural features have been effectively, systematically erased, which is a loss that all major cities’ populations are currently fighting to prevent — lest their communities transform into endlessly repeating grids of skyscrapers & condos.  If this is a work that relies on the humor of recognition, it’s a success in how it reflects my own fears of New Orleans’s trajectory towards corporatized monoculture in the post-Katrina years (a disturbing trend Britnee already noted earlier).  Except, I feel just as much frustration & despair in this seemingly inevitable arc towards global singularity as I do humor in its relatable minute-to-minute absurdities, if not more so.

Boomer, how did you find Playtime‘s balance between humor and despair?  Were you more affected by its dystopian vision of a globally homogenized future or by its optimistic assertion that the quirky disorder of humanity will always find a way to burst through the seams (as in the chaotic restaurant opening)?

Boomer: I like that Hanna mentioned Brazil in her introduction, because that was the first thing that came to mind during the scene in which Hulot waits as one of the people with whom he is meeting walks towards the camera from very far away, moving at a rapid place but taking a nearly interminable time to reach the foreground destination.  This film is dystopian, but I never would have defined the film that way if the pump had not been primed, so to speak.  I tend to conceptualize dystopias—Oceania, Panem, the Cardassian Union—as monolithic and oppressive by nature and intention; the bureaucratic nature of dystopia is an effect and not a cause, a consequence of the indifference and pragmatism needed to prop up and propagate malice, to give it credibility through structure.  Playtime is the story of the opposite, where bureaucracy gives birth to depersonalization rather than the other way round.

As for the humor . . . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is (not quite accurately) cited as the first feature-length animated film, and the Disney-propagated narrative is that the majority of resistance to the film’s creation was the idea that no one would want to watch a feature-length cartoon.  To an extent, Playtime is that feature-length cartoon that a standard audience would find difficult to complete — cutesy sound effects accompanying the movement of actors filmed on a Synecdoche, New Yorkian labyrinth film set that evokes a depressed Tex Avery.  At nearly two hours, it’s perhaps slightly too long for me to enjoy.  Unusually for me and my normal tastes, the film’s narrative actually acts against it, as I enjoyed the individual vignettes well enough in and of themselves (give or take a few), but forcing an interconnectedness between them extended the length unnecessarily.  For a film that foregoes “plot” so much as it does, what filaments of story that exist strangle much of the comedy for me.  I would have preferred if we had cut straight to Hulot’s visit with this old friend in his ultramodern exhibitionist apartment rather than having the two run into each other and Hulot having to be convinced.  There are so many fun and enticing images in that section: the different television sets bathing two households in identical light, the way that each family and their guest(s) seem to be starting at each other at certain moments as if in a conversational lull, the framed, boxed-in portrait of home life that may be a commentary on the banality of the domestic sitcom, for which it could easily be mistaken.  But the bracketing of this sequence with Hulot’s reluctance to arrive and his desperation to leave reduces it to be less than the sum of its parts.  So I was equally affected by its quirky humanity?

I don’t want to be down on Playtime or unnecessarily critical, because I’m glad I’ve seen it.  My favorite gags were the aforementioned filing sequence, Hulot and his colleague seeing each other reflected in the glass of a different building and mistaking their positions despite being within feet of each other, and every time poor Barbara got harassed by her clingy friend while just trying to enjoy Paris (there’s not that much dialogue in the film, but 25% of it consists of “Come on, Barbara! C’mere, Barbara!”).  I just feel like I got shuffled about in it, which I suppose could be the point.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I was terribly disappointed that the electronic broom only had headlights. I was imagining a Roomba on a stick.

Britnee: The Royal Garden restaurant scene is both one of the longest and one of the funniest scenes in Playtime. A turbot à la royale is being prepared and seasoned tableside for several diners, but it never gets eaten. It’s wheeled around the restaurant while getting salted and peppered numerous times, and for some reason, I found it to be so funny while also being very anxious about it at the same time.

Hanna: There’s a moment in the beginning of Playtime where an American tourist essentially forces an older woman selling flowers on the street to pose for a photo. The woman’s flowers are one of the only sources of organic color in the movie, and the photo-op is ostensibly an attempt to capture the rustic essence of Paris. The shot is repeatedly interrupted by other tourists, businessmen, and young Parisian ne’er-do-wells walking through the frame. When they’re finally gone, a man in military garb approaches the two women and asks them both to pose in his photo. This scene reminded me so much of tourists in the French Quarter, especially in the context of the city’s gentrification and the homogenous gutting of shotguns across the city; people will continue to document the vestiges of a city’s cultural identity as if they’re ubiquitous, even when they’ve been reduced to purely cosmetic touches on an anonymous backdrop.

Brandon: The only other Tati movie I have seen to date is his debut feature, Jour de fête.  It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags.  It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own.  Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.  If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, it’s a wonderfully funny film from start to end.  It’s just not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime, so it’s not nearly as essential.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Brandon presents Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
July: Boomer presents Marjoe (1972)
August: Britnee presents Three Women (1977)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.

Crazy in Alabama (1999)

In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).

If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.

Now and Then (1995)

This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.

Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.

Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.

The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: True Stories (1986)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1986’s True Stories, is a one-of-a-kind oddity. David Byrne’s directorial debut is part sketch comedy, part music video, part essay film, and part experimental video art. Mostly, though, it’s just a 90-minute visit inside the Talking Heads frontman’s wonderful brain as he puzzles at the basic nature of rural Texas and—by extension—America. Only Byrne could have written & narrated the picture as it is; its worldview is fine-tuned to a frequency only his mind operates on. Watching humble, everyday Texans interact with Byrne’s exuberant, wonderstruck POV is like watching Fred Flintstone chat with The Great Gazoo. He practically functions as a figment of their imagination, which is essentially how his eternal-outsider Art Punk spirit feels in the real world too.

Because True Stories is so specific to Byrne’s idiosyncratic worldview, it’s exceedingly difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films like it. Luckily, it’s not the only film around that heavily involves Byrne’s peculiar input. Nor is it the only film in which a left-of-the-dial auteur attempts to construct an abstracted portrait of American culture. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its bizarro wavelength.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

The biggest no-brainer endorsement for a True Stories double feature is to pair it with the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. A collaboration between the band and beloved director Jonathan Demme, the concert doc covers four live dates from the Stop Making Sense tour in 1983, when Byrne & his art-punk buddies were at the height of their national popularity. While some of Byrne’s engagement with the everyday common folk of America is lost as he’s distanced from the audience on a barricaded stage, much of the visual language & thematic concerns that would later snowball into True Stories are present here. The video-art displays, consumer culture iconography, and puzzled fascination with the modern Western world that abstracts Byrne’s version of Americana in True Stories are all present in Stop Making Sense; they’re just filtered through song & dance and other collaborator artists’ POV. You even get a small taste of how Byrne’s peculiar presence clashes with the aura of Normal People in Demme’s last-minute choice to turn the camera on dancing members of the audience.

Not for nothing, Stop Making Sense is also worth a watch because it happens to be the pinnacle of the concert film as a medium – regardless of its tenuous connections to True Stories.

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (2019)

Until Stop Making Sense is updated with a spiritual sequel in David Byrne’s upcoming American Utopia concert tour doc (directed by the over-qualified Spike Lee, of all people), its closest substitute might be a sketch comedy showcase hosted by John Mulaney. Overall, the Netflix comedy special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch doesn’t have much to do with Byrne’s peculiar persona in True Stories. Most of the special involves Mulaney interacting with semi-scripted children in a post-ironic spoof of Sesame Street era children’s programming – like a softer, more sincere Wonder Showzen. One of the special’s stand-out sketches just happens to feature Byrne: “Pay Attention,” a song the musician performs with a small child.

The playful number is about children’s frustrations when performing artistic songs or skits they’ve worked really hard on in private but adults ignore as frivolities when presented to “the public.” Byrne & his pint-sized bandmate chastise a living room full of dull, middle-class adults for ignoring children’s art as if it were background noise, even when it clearly means the world to the performer. Not only is the song funny & endearing on its own terms, but it’s also another chance to see Byrne interact with normal, aggressively un-special people as a kind of ethereal outsider who’s confounded by their behavior.

The Straight Story (1998)

Of course, David Byrne isn’t the only erudite Art Freak of his era to attempt an abstracted portrait of modern Americana. Laurie Anderson’s United States Live series even paralleled his New Wave video-art aesthetic while tackling roughly the same topic in the same year as the Stop Making Sense tour. What’s really hard to come by in works of this nature, however, is Byrne’s wholesome enthusiasm for the subject. While Anderson’s similar work can be often eerie or sinister, Byrne mostly comes across as genuinely fascinated with modern American culture as a curio.

The only other film I can think of that adopts that same wholesome outsider’s fascination with America as a people is a Walt Disney Pictures production . . . of a David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a simple retelling of a reportedly true anecdote about an ailing man travelling hundreds of miles to visit his dying, estranged brother via a John Deere tractor. It’s an incredibly patient film that hides away all the horror & obfuscation of Lynch’s typical nightmares until all that is left is his fascination with humbly eccentric Characters. The resulting film is just as bizarre as anything you’d see in Eraserhead, but somehow still carries the endearingly wholesome exuberance as True Stories.

Lynch’s film is not as excitingly paced nor, frankly, as good as Byrne’s Americana masterpiece. Few films are. When looking for supplemental material to approximate the heights of True Stories‘s singular accomplishments, you invariably have to settle for slightly less than the ideal.

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Loveable Scumbag

On of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movies about men. Her prestigious war dramas aren’t exactly jingoistic love letters to American patriotism, but they do appeal to a kind of macho sensibility that helps explain why they would be praised over women-led projects with a quieter, more introspective bent. I don’t believe this is some calculated, cynical angle Bigelow chose in order to earn Awards Circuit accolades, though. The nature & textures of masculinity (and masculine violence) have been an auteurist preoccupation for the director dating all the way back to her early career as a genre film toughie. Her breakout success Point Break is a passionate bromance between an undercover cop and a dirtbag adrenaline junkie. Her cult classic vampire Western Near Dark follows the seduction & indoctrination of a macho farm boy into a subservient role among a clan of ghouls. Her Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—follows history’s greasiest anti-hero’s exploits in worming his unwanted, uninvited way back into his ex’s life. Masculinity is the thematic through-line throughout Bigelow’s decades-long career. It’s even one that concerns her debut feature.

Bigelow’s debut feature as director, The Loveless, is an early 60s motorcycle gang pastiche. It essentially remakes the Brando beefcake classic The Wild One as in introspective art piece (as opposed to Cool as Ice, which remade it as a breakfast cereal commercial). A young Willem Dafoe stars as a tragically beautiful biker brute in his first lead role. Unlike the mouthy charmer Ralph Fiennes plays in Strange Days, Dafoe hardly speaks a word in his leather biker get-up. Rather, his classic machismo is communicated though intense stares and hardened body language. Occasional poetic voiceover about how “the endless blacktop is [his] sweet eternity” suggests there’s a poet’s mind behind his stern eyes and supermodel cheekbones, but that suggestion of vulnerability only makes his machismo more dangerous. When Dafoe’s biker gang parks in small-town middle-America on their way to the races at Daytona, his pronounced male beauty inevitably captivates local women – leading to their ruin at the hands of jealous, abusive townies. Dafoe’s biker beauty isn’t as actively malicious as Fiennes’s scumbaggery is in Strange Days or Patrick Swayze’s hedonistic thrill-seeking is in Point Break, but his leather jacket & rockabilly lifestyle is still a destructive force for those seduced by his allure. His masculinity is both a pleasure & a bane, something Bigelow would expand upon in later works.

Fortunately, her sense of filmmaking craft & narrative purpose would expand as well. The Loveless is visually sumptuous in a way Bigelow’s later features consistently are (reflecting her formal education as painter). However, it’s also frustratingly inert – often feeling like a nostalgic fashion magazine shoot rather than a proper feature film. Willem Dafoe is so goddamn beautiful to gaze at in his leather get-up that it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s narrative shortcomings, but its 82min runtime still manages to linger for a relative eternity. The closest the film comes to exhilarating action is in a climactic, crazed shootout at a townie dive bar. However, it’s a violet display Bigelow later perfected to a very similar effect in Near Dark – making this early trial run feel trivial in retrospect. The entire point of the film, then, is the visual seduction of Dafoe’s macho posing & posturing. It was Bigelow’s very first film and she was already fixated on what masculinity means, what it looks like, and what effect in manifests in the world. There can be a debate as to why that fixation is rewarded in critics’ and awards institutions’ circles over the preoccupations of other women auteurs, but it’s clear to me that the impulse in Bigelow is at least personal & genuine. Like Angela Basset in Strange Days, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, and Marin Kanter in The Loveless, she can’t help but fall for a loveable scumbag.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017), and last week’s comparison of its police brutality themes to those of Blue Steel (1989).

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.

As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.

Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.

There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet