Glen Pitre vs. Hurricane Katrina

There are many large-format movie screens spread across the city’s too-plentiful AMC multiplexes that profess to be “IMAX” theaters. It isn’t until you visit the city’s only true IMAX screen at the Aquarium that you realize how blatant of a lie those faux-MAX screens are by comparison. I was most recently confronted with that contextual reminder myself at a New Orleans Film Fest screening of the gross-out romantic body horror Are We Not Cats?. Watching the full hideous majesty of that film’s trichophagia & self-surgery on a skyscraper-scale movie screen was a memorably horrific experience, one that makes me wonder why that cinematic resource isn’t put to better use more often. Instead of regularly projecting similar artsy-fartsy monstrosities like The Neon Demon, Climax, or We Are the Flesh on the city’s biggest movie screen, it’s a resource that’s wasted on bullshit nature documentaries produced by tech nerds like Greg MacGillivray. Having developed three new cameras specifically designed to optimize the IMAX format himself, MacGillivray is seemingly more personally passionate about technical accomplishments than cinematic poetry. His movies boast titles like Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Arabia 3D, and Greece: Secrets of the Past. They’re more concerned with format than they are with content, using the IMAX tech he helped develop more as an amusement park attraction than a theatrical tool. To me, the biggest offense in this waste of local theatrical space is that our one IMAX screen is regularly used to relive the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for visiting tourists, as if that event were just another Coral Reef Adventure, ripe for entertainment. It’s also an offense that directly concerns our current Movie of the Month.

When Glen Pitre directed Belizaire the Cajun in the mid-80s, he seemed poised to graduate from making low-budget, Cajun-French “gumbo Westerns” for local markets to directing much bigger indie affairs for legitimate festival distribution. Belizaire the Cajun’s presence at high-profile festivals like Sundance & Cannes offered a much wider platform for Pitre’s Cajun-fried indie movies, and you can find pictures of the former Cut Off resident rubbing elbows with the likes of Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch while working that circuit. Those bigger productions never materialized, though. After a couple ignored thrillers & made-for-TV productions, Pitre retreated from the narrative feature format and sought to preserve & promote Cajun culture in a different way: by making documentaries. Pitre has dedicated the last few decades of his career to documentaries on local Nature & local culture, with a special focus on the dangers of wetlands erosion. That’s how Pitre found himself in collaboration with California tech nerd Greg MacGillivray. With funding from The Weather Channel to produce a program on Climate Change and funding from The Audubon Institute to educate tourists on the dangers of wetlands erosion, Pitre wrote and co-directed a 40-minute documentary for MacGillivray titled Hurricane on the Bayou. If the documentary short were made at any other time in Louisiana history, it would have been forgotten by now – no more worthy of discussion or easy to access than any of Pitre’s other nondescript local docs. Unfortunately, it began filming three months before the coast was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it’s been playing in constant rotation in the city’s only legitimate IMAX screen for almost fifteen years now. Hurricane on the Bayou is, for worse or for much worse, the most easily accessible Glen Pitre film in terms of both theatrical and home video distribution.

Hurricane on the Bayou was originally conceived as a hypothetical “what if” scenario, warning gravely of the damage a high-category hurricane might cause without a healthy wetlands barrier protecting the coast. From what I can gather from the “Making Of” featurette produced by The Weather Channel, the film was already in post-production when Katrina hit. What had previously been filmed for IMAX theater distribution was a tidy educational film in which a baby-faced, Disney Channel-ready Amana Shaw took the audience on a tour of our actively disappearing wetlands inbetween narrating a fictional familial drama played out by real-life alligators and staging awkward fais do-do jam sessions with fellow local musicians Tab Benoit & Alan Toussaint (R.I.P.). Besides its large-format Nature footage, the other major showcase of IMAX tech lied in its Rescue 911-level dramatic reenactments of a 1950s Hurricane disaster, complete with CGI simulations of what a modern storm might look like – which is what I assume drew MacGillivray to the project in the first place. After Katrina hit, the tasteful thing to do would’ve been to abandon the project entirely and eat the loss. Instead, the crew retuned from Los Angeles to fight past local blockades and sneak their way back into the city to shoot large-format misery porn. Where MacGillivray’s projects would usually capture the majesty of swimming dolphins or some other screensaver bullshit, he instead hauled expensive, ginormous cameras around a flooded New Orleans to capture a city in emotional turmoil (including a now emotionally devastated Amanda Shaw). He then slapped a few paragraphs of narration from Meryl Strep on top to afford that exploitation an air of prestige. It’s gross. The project never should have been completed, much less have been allowed to play on continuous loop for fifteen years so that drunken tourists have a place to escape the sun for an hour of passive, air-conditioned entertainment.

I don’t think any less of Pitre for participating in this NOLAsploitation documentary. Watching the ”Making Of” featurette, it’s clear his heart was in the right place. Pitre gets incredibly choked up recounting the hell of filming in post-Katrina floodwaters, describing the roadside corpses & decimated cityscape as if he had navigated a warzone. The stated purpose of the documentary was to promote “good stewardship of our habitat” in the context of preserving wetlands (this was before Katrina floods were recontextualized as a man-made infrastructure disaster, another reason why this film should disappear forever), but Pitre is much more truthful about its actual effect. He explains that “people need to see it” on the biggest screen possible, since Katrina’s full impact isn’t truly felt on small-screen TV news reports. The way that documented misery clashes with the cutesy Amanda Shaw tour of the city & CGI disaster porn filmed before Katrina doesn’t sit right with me at all, but I at least empathize with his motivations to see the project through. Still, catching a glimpse of Pitre sporting a Belizaire the Cajun promotional t-shirt while guiding his Los Angeles collaborators through the swamp makes me incredibly sad. Why isn’t that the kind of movie being screened at the city’s only IMAX theater, along with other underserved local productions like Dirty Rice or Cane River? At the very least, this far out from Katrina we should have a more updated, nuanced documentary on the wetlands erosion topic screening in that format. Or, better yet, MacGillivray could supply us with a localized version of his Coral Reef Adventure frivolities – maybe one where gators & turtles swim around in swamp water for 40 minutes to zydeco music (which is exactly how Hurricane on the Bayou begins). After recently seeing A Real Movie in that impressive venue, it’s just such a shame to know that this miserable, exploitative dreck is what’s eating up its screentime – almost exclusively to the benefit of tourists. It also being the only readily available Glen Pitre film, as opposed to something like Belizaire the Cajun, is only the bitterest of lagniappe.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997).

-Brandon Ledet

Finding Belizaire in the Modern Cajun

The biggest shift in onscreen Cajun representation achieved by Belizaire the Cajun, our current Movie of the Month, is that it was a film written & directed by a member of the Cajun community. Previously, most Cajun representation on the big screen came in two forms: documentaries about Cajun culture filtered through the eye of an outsider and as dangerous backwoods yokels that spooked the protagonists of thrillers who wandered too far outside the safety of the big city. Belizaire marked a shift from there only being movies about Cajuns to there also being movies by Cajuns. Writer-director Glen Pitre had already been making self-funded “gumbo Westerns” for local markets before Belizaire, but that film was a breakthrough in budget & distribution thanks to financial & creative support from The Sundance Institute. Still, Belizarie the Cajun was somewhat of an educational drama about the history of Cajun culture; it did not do much in the way of representing what contemporary Cajun culture looked like in modern times. That update didn’t arrive in any significant way for another decade, represented in a film by fellow local director Pat Mire.

Dirty Rice didn’t reach quite as far or wide as Belizaire the Cajun, but it did see its own international distribution thanks to its inclusion in the 1997 London Film Festival. The film was also an extremely localized hit – breaking records for the longest running movie to play in Lafayette theaters, thanks to what ended up being a five-month engagement. It’s been largely forgotten in the decades since. Currently, the only official means of distribution for the film is for libraries to order DVDs from Pat Mire directly, for $100 a copy. The copy I borrowed from my own library was a VHS transfer with no closed captions tracks or special features – just a barebones home video release with zero fanfare. Considering the movie’s lowkey romantic & crisis-of-faith conflicts, this lack of prestigious distribution does make some sense, since there isn’t much of interest on the screen for anyone who’s not especially fixated on cinematic representations of Cajun culture. However, since there are so few narrative feature films in the Cajun canon (not to be consumed with Bobby Hebert, The Cajun Cannon), Dirty Rice is a significant work worthy of study & discussion – one that’s even more lost to time than Belizaire.

In the film, Benjamin Mouton plays a big-city architect who abandons his corporate life in the middle of a major development deal to save his family’s struggling rice farm on the Bayou. The divisions between his rural Cajun hometown and his corporate New Orleans world are about as broad & cliché as you would expect. The architect leaves behind his blueprints & business-woman girlfriend for shrimp boots and an old-fashioned Cajun girl; it’s a kind of reverse crisis-of-faith narrative as he rediscovers his Cajun roots and leaves behind the atheistic temptations of big-city hedonism. His new Cajun girlfriend challenges his prejudices against the community where he was raised, balking at his distrust of old-world holistic medicines with the retort “It’s not superstition if it works.” His big-city ex become increasingly villainous as he comfortably backslides into his old Cajun ways, eventually exiting the film to a chorus of “boos” when she calls him a “coon-ass” in a local dive bar. Meanwhile, he struggles to transform the farm into a profitable business despite its poor rice yield by distilling homemade rice wine & selling crawfish from his fields in city markets. Both the romance & bank repossession crises work out exactly the way you’d expect, but narrative surprise was never Dirty Rice’s focal point anyway. This is a film that’s merits are defined entirely by local flavor.

The depictions of Cajun culture you’ll see in Dirty Rice aren’t all that different from what’s onscreen in Belizaire the Cajun despite the century’s difference in their respective settings. It’s difficult to decipher exactly how much of that overlap is true to historical accuracy and how much is due to the national popularization of Cajun culture around the time of the two films’ releases. Zydeco music & Cajun chefs like Paul Prudhomme saw an unusual uptick in pop culture attention in the decade between these those films, which is likely what helped them get greenlit in the first place. As such, both films pay particular attention to the local musicians featured in their soundtracks (in the case of Dirty Rice, Wayne Toups & Zydeco Cajun), and the local specialties of their cuisine. This is the first narrative film I can remember ever seeing stage a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, complete with newspaper-lined tables and a Tony Chachere’s salt bath for the little buggers when they’re fresh out of the pot. Fried catfish, gumbo, and conversational Cajun-French flavor the air around the film’s barebones romantic & financial conflicts, so that it gradually amounts to more than the sum of its parts. There’s even a sequence that thinks to document the costumes & rituals of Courir de Mardi Gras, which is a major aspect of Cajun culture that isn’t touched in Belizaire.

Belizaire the Cajun is a better movie than Dirty Rice, especially when considered only on its dramatic merits outside the context of Cajun culture documentation. Both films are important works for bringing the basic tenants of Cajun culture to the world at large, though. They’re rare examples of Cajun creators representing their own culture onscreen on their own terms. That localized culture preservation leads to some great people-watching among the extras in both films too, which might be the one area where Dirty Rice has Belizaire the Cajun beat in terms of quality. It’s one thing to see local extras restaging age-old Cajun rituals in period garb in Belizaire, but it’s almost even more substantial to see those customs & mannerisms continue into the blue jeans & sunglasses era represented in the modern setting of Dirty Rice. Both films are substantial in their allowance for Cajuns to control their own cinematic representation in legitimate movie productions, but only Dirty Rice can claim to show how that community’s traditions ­still looked & thrived in modern times.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

I Lived It: Matt Farley Wrote a Song About Me

One of the major reasons I believe Local Legends to be the definitive masterwork of backyard microbudget filmmaker Matt Farley is its total, self-aware sense of honesty. Having recorded nearly 20,000 novelty songs & filmed roughly a dozen backyard horror comedies with his New England community over the last two decades, Farley is a daunting artist to get into as a new fan. The reason I presented Local Legends as a Movie of the Month entry-point instead of more typifying works like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! or Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is that it serves as a kind of crash course overview of everything Farley has attempted to accomplish with his Motern Media brand. It’s a brutally honest self-portrait of an amateur artist’s life in the self-publishing digital hellscape of the 2010s, as well as a shameless informercial peddling Farley’s entire back catalog of CDs & DVDs. The only problem is that if you’re not already familiar with Farley’s body of work or online persona that honest self-portrait can read as too preposterous to possibly be true. Watching Matt Farley leave free DVDs for strangers to find around his Massachusetts neighborhood like Easter eggs, obsessively Google himself hourly for potential feedback about his work, give out his real-life cellphone number in his songs (603-644-0048) in case anyone wants to contact him about his work, and filibuster every possible social event to bloviate about his own creative genius can feel outlandish for anyone unfamiliar with Motern Media. Personally, I know everything onscreen in Local Legends to be true – not only because of my own experience as an amateur blogger, podcaster, and zinester in the 2010s, but also because of how it is impossible to post anything about Matt Farley online without interacting with him directly.

As soon as I posted a review of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! last summer, Matt Farley was promoting & retweeting the post to his minor, dedicated cult of Motern fans. Since that first interaction, my own gradual indoctrination into that cult has been aggressive & overt. Matt Farley has continually reposted every piece I’ve written about his work. He has even branched out to take an apparent interest in our projects that have no direct relation to his own, especially when our interests overlap: reviews of Kubrick classics, a Movie of the Month discussion of The Pit (a major inspiration to the backyard horror comedies he makes with creative partner Charles Roxburgh), our movie podcast’s usefulness in soundtracking his miles-long urban walks, etc. Beyond any personal entertainment Farley might be gaining from these exchanges, this direct, active engagement with individual members of his audience is ingenious from a self-promotion standpoint. I have purchased physical copies of movies & albums from Farley directly in the last year (despite most of his media being readily accessible in all the familiar online streaming haunts) mostly because he keeps himself on my mind as an amateur artist who could use the support. I’m even strongly considering traveling to an upcoming Motern Extravaganza (a five-hour annual concert Farley holds in Massachusetts to celebrate his own media empire) which feels like being summoned by my new cult leader for an official induction ceremony. Practically speaking, this personal engagement also makes it extremely difficult to critique any of Farley’s work negatively, no matter how silly or casually tossed off. People say cruel & harshly critical things about celebrity artists online all the time; that’s essentially what Twitter is for. I doubt that would be true if every filmmaker or songwriter directly responded to each cruel Tweet as just a fellow human being doing their best. Matt Farley’s direct online engagement with his audience & critics removes the veil of the Internet’s online anonymity to create a more truthful picture of what it means when you slag a stranger’s art in a public forum.

Of course, directly recruiting a dutiful audience one fan at a time would be an absurdly labor-intensive mode of self-promotion for most artists, but that’s what makes Matt Farley so remarkable. We here at Swampflix are a lowly, amateur crew of Louisiana film nerds with virtually no online clout as a self-published collective. A filmmaker we admire directly interacting with and even promoting our work is a huge deal for us, which in turn means that we end up amplifying our own promotion of Matt Farley & Motern Media when we share these experiences with friends elsewhere on social media. Farley went even further than that level of typical interaction with his audience, though, when he posted a song about me this past Ash Wednesday, titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently.” In Local Legends, Matt Farley is radically honest about how he uses search engine optimization techniques in choosing topics to write songs about: celebrities, gluten, kid-popular terms like “poop” & “fart,” etc. Each streaming play of these songs earns Farley fractions of pennies, which accumulate over tens of thousands of tracks to a living wage. It’s a next-level form of self-promotion genius to include amateur bloggers & dedicated fans like myself on his Papa and the Razzis shout-out songs among actually famous names like Ava DuVernay & Rian Johnson. By appealing directly to my vanity, Farley was guaranteed some of those, sweet, sweet penny-fractions as I would no doubt dutifully share the song with family & friends. I did. Several times. And I’m doing so again here in this piece so that I can possibly contribute to more films like Local Legends & Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! getting made in the future (and, by all reports, his next film Metal Detector Maniac is already on its way). Also, since Matt is 100% certain to read this article, I’d also just like to thank him for the uncanny experience of directly interacting with an artist I admire so much in such a personal way. If nothing else, it’s been yet another affirmation that the self-published artist’s self-portait in Local Legends is 100% real, no matter how bizarre it may initially seem.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, Matt Farley’s satirical self-portrait Local Legends (2013), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at our Motern Media zine, and last week’s podcast episode on our favorite Matt Farley films.

-Brandon Ledet

Spreading Motern Awareness at the Final NOCAZ

Once or twice a year I make zines versions of movie reviews we’ve written for Swampflix to distribute at local festivals & events (with immense help from CC in printing & tabling them). So far, we’ve never sold zines outside the festival environment, so they’re a kind of special-occasion treat for the site – a natural extension of our low-fi, high-effort movie blogging aesthetic. I was inspired to start this ritual when I attended the very first New Orleans Comics and Zines festival at the New Orleans Public Library in our own early stirrings as a blogging collective. Surveying dozens of tables of amateur & semi-professional art in the library was an inspiring, communal experience that really helped put into perspective what Swampflix was even doing as a lowly, localized movie blog. We will never be a legitimate, lucrative film criticism website (or even a self-sustaining one, to be frank; this is a money-losing hobby of an operation), so I sensed an instant kinship with the amateur art-for-art’s-sake vibe of the event. Our high-contrast black Sharpie illustrations that accompany our movie reviews even already looked like classic Xeroxed zines, something that came naturally to me from self-promoting ancient punk shows in hand-drawn flyers for long-dead bands I was in over a decade ago. That first NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. We’ve been tabling handmade Swampflix zines at every NOCAZ festival since (and even branched out to distribute zines at other book fairs & library events); it’s one of the more energizing highlights of our calendar. That’s why it’s so sad that this year’s NOCAZ will be the last.

The fifth & final NOCAZ fest will be staged at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library on Saturday April 6th and Sunday April 7th, 2019. I’ve already been preparing for the festival for months, making zines & buttons in my free time between writing movie reviews, producing The Swampflix Podcast, and just trying to live a normal life besides. It takes a lot of work to finish the zines on-time every year, not least of all because I make it hard on myself for no reason at all. Instead of merely printing the text & images we’ve already posted on the site, I transcribe that work by hand in careful, but microscopic Sharpie lettering. I also make sure to include bonus illustrations beyond the ones we’ve already published. It’s a needlessly labor-intensive task. Not only does it require weeks of manual labor to produce every new zine, but my handwriting is so small, uneven, and littered with delirious typos that the end result is a bit of an eyesore. I could be wrong, but I highly doubt anyone’s ever successfully read a Swampflix zine from cover to cover, no matter their level of interest in what we’re writing about. That doesn’t mean that there’s no point in making them, though, as delusional as that may sound. I get so much out of tabling at NOCAZ every year. One of the main reasons we review movies for the site is because we love to discuss & recommend films to people, which NOCAZ allows us to do tangibly, in person. It’s also the world’s most ineffective, labor-intensive form of self-promotion, but I like to think that it does make at last a new handful of locals aware that we exist every year, which is a plus. Mostly, though, the zines are worthwhile just because it feels good to make anything. The act of amateur art creation is its own reward.

According to their About page, “NOCAZ is an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and [they] hope bringing multiple perspectives together under one roof can create dialogue and inspire more people to express themselves though print.” I can report that, for us at least, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on these terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest.

I don’t think there’s a more appropriate note to end our time with NOCAZ on than the new zine we’ve printed for this year’s fest: a collection of movie reviews I wrote about backyard filmmaker Matt Farley last summer. For the last two decades, Farley has been making microbudget horror comedies and recording tens of thousands of novelty songs with his family & friends around his New England neighborhoods to little outside fanfare. There’s nothing especially “punk” about his work or his demeanor, but Farley’s Motern Media brand is still a microcosmic D.I.Y. operation that feels entirely in-spirit with the NOCAZ tabling experience. I was thinking a lot about Matt Farley last summer when exhibiting Swampflix zines at the American Library Association’s national conference. I spent four consecutive days in a massive convention hall peddling zines to librarians from all over the country. Out of every dozen or so people who actually stopped to talk to us about our zines (or to learn about zine culture in general), there were only one or two who enthusiastically got what we were doing and found great joy in talking about movies with a stranger. It was the exact high-effort, low-payoff amateur art lifestyle Farley details in our current Movie of the Month, 2013’s Local Legends. Tripling as a narrative comedy, a documentary, and an infomercial selling Farley’s various CDs & DVDs, Local Legends is a stunningly bullshit-free, self-aware summation of the minor joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the self-publishing digital hellscape of the 2010s. It’s Farley’s masterpiece, and I see so much of my own experiences blogging, podcasting, and making zines in its cruel self-satire. Just as much as NOCAZ opened my eyes to Swampflix already being a kind of online zine before we were ever in print, Local Legends helped clarify exactly what I was feeling putting all this effort into go-nowhere art projects with no clear goal beyond the act of their own production.

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I initially wrote a Motern Media fanzine to help spread the word that Matt Farley exists out there, making amateur art for his own amusement (and minor, self-sustaining profit). Since printing the first few copies, NOCAZ has announced that this year’s festival will be the last, which already makes me feel like I’m living out the opening scenes of a Local Legends sequel. I can’t think of a more appropriate note to close our NOCAZ experience on than trying to convince strangers to purchase a zine about a microbudget filmmaker they’ve never heard of before, so that more people might experience the amateur joys of Motern classics like Local Legends, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. In true Local Legends sprit, we’ll also be selling older zines we printed far too many copies of years ago and could never fully get rid of at past festivals. Still, distributing the Matt Farley fanzine will be our top priority. NOCAZ & Motern are easily the two most revelatory influences I’ve had in understanding exactly what I’ve been doing with Swampflix over the last five years, so I’m glad I could find an opportunity to experience them in tandem before that window closes forever.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, Matt Farley’s satirical self-portrait Local Legends (2013), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Local Legends (2013)

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, Brandon, and CC watch Local Legends (2013).

Brandon: Last summer, I became unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Even after reviewing a dozen or so Motern movies for Swampflix, I found myself compelled but unable to fully communicate the value of Farley’s novelty songs and horror-comedy parodies to anyone who had the misfortune of listening to me babble offline. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that consistently populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies & Dr. Demento-style novelty songs around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a vast wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching or listening to, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley is accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting recommendation, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).

It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production & novelty songwriting through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.

The only thing that complicates my love for this self-portrait of an outsider artist its blatant debt to known sexual abuser Woody Allen. As this is one of his select few productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct Local Legends himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, verbally acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that has aged horrifically in the last six years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes in-dialogue references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. This high-brow aesthetic is amusing in contrast to Farley’s aggressively unpretentious novelty songs about poop & microbudget rubber-monster horror comedies, but it’s still a cringey impulse all the same. I like to think of Local Legends as the perfect Matt Farley introduction because it encapsulates so much of his peculiar personality & day-to-day amateur art production, but recommending someone watch it means asking them to think about Woody Allen, which spoils the mood at best, potentially triggers the viewer at worst.

So, Boomer, were you able to look past Local Legends’s Woody Allenisms enough to get a feel for Matt Farley as his own distinct, persona? How effective of an introduction (if not an outright infomercial) was this film to the Motern Media empire for you as a previously uninitiated viewer?

Boomer: I had never heard of Farley before watching this gem, but I found the unpretentious absence of pomp and utter lack of any kind of self-deception in his compartmentalization of his art charming and refreshing. When the first season of Star Trek: Discovery premiered a while back and I signed up for CBS All Access in order to watch it (if you think I wouldn’t pay $10 a month for Star Trek, you don’t know me), my roommate grew temporarily (thankfully) obsessed with The Bold & the Beautiful, and when I couldn’t figure out why, he explained that he was attracted to art that felt like he could have made it, and the overall cheapness of the early seasons of that soap opera made him feel better about his level of cinematic skill. Local Legends is much the same: it feels like a movie that a group of friends could have made, because it is exactly that. At first, I was a little turned off by this, as the early scenes of Farley’s non-comedic stand-up were accompanied by sparse laughter and painful silences, and I wasn’t certain if this was supposed to represent that Farley thought he was a great comedian and that he simply didn’t have the budget to project his own image of himself. Once the film starts moving along and you realize that the “legends” in the title is self-deprecating and not self-aggrandizing, it’s a more pleasant experience. It wasn’t until he’s singing the name “Theodora” repeatedly that I really got my first belly laugh, but from that point on, it was chuckles aplenty. That was the moment that I felt like I really understood Farley, both as a creator and as a persona, and perhaps as both.

I really loved Local Legends. As an introduction to Farley’s overall body of work, I assume that it gives one a pretty clear picture of his other films; I particularly liked the use of footage from Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! and the explanations of how each person in Farley’s life played a role in his productions, and what that role was. You also get a pretty clear picture of Farley, down to his habit of walking around town while listening to Red Sox games and even occasionally raising his hands in order to let the blood that’s pooled there drain back into his body, which is so specifically odd that I have to believe Farley the person shares this trait with Farley the character. My favorite scenes were those between him and his bandmate Tom in their practice space, discussing the way that Millhouse’s showcase went from museum to bar to home basement, laughing at the absurdity of it all but recognizing the familiarity and inevitability of this devolution (Millhouse himself is a great character, with his clipart promo flyers and indestructible optimism).

Overall, this is a pretty optimistic movie, and strangely uplifting in its way. I certainly felt effervescent upon completion. The Woody Allen references struck me as odd, since it’s not as if the allegations against him aren’t exactly new (as with Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, and others, concerns crop up and are well-publicized, then they recede beneath the waves as the news cycle moves on, only to reappear years later to the apparent sudden surprise of the internet, a pretty ample demonstration of our society’s pathologically—even criminally—short attention span), but it’s not really a surprise as I’ve often found that—and this isn’t intended as an insult to Farley personally—that straight white men find it easier to separate the art and the artist than people who’ve experienced marginalization in their lives. That said, I wasn’t terribly happy with the way that Abby was presented as “crazy.” As an appellation, this is so often applied to women for absolutely no reason other than behavioral double standards. Although she did ultimately demonstrate that she had a couple of screws loose, her immediate demonization for no other reason than that she misrepresented the extent of her Billy Joel collection seemed like gatekeeping gone awry, which made me side against Farley, at least at first, which may be the reason it took me longer than normal to warm up to him as a protagonist. CC, what did you think of the character of Abby? Was she deserving of the scorn she received? Does her comparison against Genevieve feel weird to you?

CC: Abby’s characterization bothered me as well. I recently saw her same overly-clingy girlfriend type included as a character on the Hulu show Pen15 and I didn’t care for the trope there either. It’s time for the stalker-ish, emotionally manipulative, “crazy bitch” stereotype to die completely (unless we’re talking about outliers like Isabelle Huppert’s role in Greta, since at least she has nuance and motive outside her relationship to a male character). I also think cultural gatekeeping and derogatory humor hinging on another person’s inability to appreciate “good” culture (which are inherently rooted in misogyny and cultural & racial chauvinism) need to end. Abby represents both of these things.

Farley portrays Abby’s intense version of attention as suffocating. At the same time, he’s releasing movies and music about himself, so he seems to crave attention. Those two impulses are self-contradictory. I don’t know why her character was included in the film in the first place, since her presence is not especially important to the plot other than for him to complain about her clinginess. If Local Legends is a parody of movie tropes and character types, it would have been better off to either poke fun at the trope instead of participating in it or to just remove Abby from the picture entirely.

I think I need to note, for transparency’s sake, that I have felt a lot of angst and anxiety writing this response. It makes me deeply uncomfortable writing anything remotely critical about Matt Farley’s work (even if my criticisms are also directed towards a larger cultural milieu) knowing that he will definitely read this, as evidenced by his admission in Local Legends that he routinely Googles himself daily, if not hourly.

Britnee, does the knowledge that Matt Farley is for sure going to read this conversation change how you respond to and write about his films?

Britnee: The fact that Matt Farley will read our conversation does linger in the back of my mind as I’m getting ready to write about my thoughts on Local Legends, but that doesn’t make me feel weird or uneasy about discussing this film in the Swampflix world. The internet is a pretty intense place to exist as a public figure and Farley really puts himself out there, so I’m certain that he’s already come across lots of praise for his work while suffering his fair share of harsh critiques as well. He honestly seems like the kind of guy who thrives on those negative comments about his art and uses them as inspiration to make even more films and songs. I’m feeling pretty chill about him creeping on our conversation at this point, even if it’s not all positive.

I remember Brandon recommending Farley’s films in a “What Have You Been Watching Lately?” segment on an old episode of The Swampflix Podcast. Even though I had no idea who or what he was talking about, his enthusiasm while discussing Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! was enough for me to add the film to my movie watchlist (and yet I still haven’t seen it yet). When I realized that Local Legends was a film about Farley’s art projects, I was interested to see what he was all about. It was not at all what I expected. I was expecting rowdy guys with long hair and rock band t-shirts (sort of like Jackass without all the stunts), and I was so wrong. The cast of Local Legends is pretty much a group of average white suburban guys doing pretty basic, ordinary things in the weirdest way possible. For example, Farley walks around his sunny, all-American town while leaving free CDs of his bizarre music in random places on the street for strangers to find. It made me laugh so damn hard. The style of humor in Local Legends is very particular. It pokes fun at the everydayness of life while exuding tons of awkward energy, and I’m totally into it.

I’m still not quite sure if the film was supposed to be a comedy, a true documentary, or a mix of the two. Brandon, did you have a hard time deciphering reality from fiction in Local Legends?

Brandon: Conveniently enough, Matt does frequently point out in real-time the few instances where he has to stretch the truth to fit the means of his budget. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes set in his rent-paying “day” job wiping old men’s butts at a nursing home; Matt informs the audience in-narration that he did not have permission from his employer to film on-site, so the scene was staged in his parents’ basement instead. A major part of the genius of Local Legends is the total lack of vanity in those types of admissions. Of course, this film is more a half-fictionalized reenactment than it is a true documentary, but I do personally believe every anecdote displayed onscreen to be blatantly honest recollections of things that actually happened. In fact, I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends is true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted our reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas last summer, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes, which rings true to his confession in the film that he obsessively Googles himself for amateur reviews of his work. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in Poetry) through the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. The world of amateur art production on display in Local Legends is radically ordinary & relatable in a way you don’t normally see from the more glamorized, curated social media profiles of self-promoting hobbyists like myself & my small-time artist friends. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless the effort of running the site may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s something truly refreshing & inspiring about his transparency in explanations of how he keeps that ship afloat.

As a comedy, Local Legends does filter this radical honesty through a layer of irony & self-deprecation, which can be a little difficult to read if you aren’t familiar with Farley’s very particular brand of humor. I just can’t believe that someone this self-aware doesn’t see the irony in spending every waking hour of his day scheming to make movies & music, then repeating the phrase “I hate artists,” so often that it’s effectively a personal mantra. There’s also a hilarious disconnect between Farley’s aggressive lack of pretension and his demand that people stop still when he enters a party so that he can hold court & talk about himself at length. He wants to be recognized as both a relatable everyman and The World’s Greatest Living Artist, to the point that his milquetoast appearance and his self-obsessed narcissism are both a kind of exaggerated performance. I even read a little irony & self-deprecation in his deplorable treatment of Abby in the picture. I have no doubt that sometime in Matt’s life some girl somewhere (somewhere in New England, at least) really did proclaim to have “all of Billy Joel’s albums” when she only had his Greatest Hits. Instead of the healthy “Who cares?” response most people would have in that situation, it was an encounter that frustrated Farley so much that he held onto it long enough to restage it in a fictionalized movie just to dunk on her one more time. Even within the picture, it’s a frivolous “slight” that he just can’t let go, recounting it over & over again to friends like a lunatic. It’s not something that makes him look cool or superior, not least of all because his snobby gatekeeping in the film involves the most basic-taste shallow cuts imaginable: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, The Beatles etc. When you get to the core of what really bothers Matt about Abby, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s discography; it’s that she’s not especially interested in his own. Abby can’t sit still through a screening of his slasher film Freaky Farley, doesn’t find any value in his novelty songs and, worse yet, dares to have her own artistic ambitions that Farley himself doesn’t understand (costumes that are designed for art gallery display, not to be worn). I totally agree that his characterization of Abby as “crazy” is gross (and uncomfortably participates in a myriad of misogynist tropes), but it culminates as an ironic, comedic bit when Matt defines that craziness to his bandmate Tom as her being obsessed with herself. All Matt Farley wants to talk about in this picture is Matt Farley; truly no one in the world is more self-obsessed. So, I can only read that complaint as a self-deprecating joke.

Beyond its function as a documentary & a comedy, Local Legends is also a straight-up informercial. Farley not only gives publishes his phone number and mailing address in the film for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, but he also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He even builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work to increase his profits (and, thus, make it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity. It’s maybe the only example of shameless commercial cynicism I could think to call admirable, if not outright heroic.

Speaking of Farley’s Corporate Asshole doppelganger, it’s the only element of Local Legends I can recall that could be described as a break in reality. Matt continually shatters the fourth wall in his narration to the audience (which he does out of spite because a screenwriting how-to explicitly advised against it), but something about Corporate Asshole Farley feels like a fantastic outlier in the film’s general relationship with reality. Boomer, what did you make of Farley’s dual role as the businessman version of himself? Is that device justified in the context of the film, even though it is such an in-universe anomaly?

Boomer: I like it. So much of the film’s runtime is centered around an apparent lack of self-awareness: about the repeated pattern of Millhouse’s unrealistic dreams inevitably spiraling into a performance in which there are more participants than spectators and the implication that this is not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last; about the marketability of his and Pete’s collaborations (which I love); about Abby’s clear inability to recognize her failings. We of Swampflix are a pretty savvy bunch, but even I find myself sometimes deciding whether I like something based upon whether or not I think the media in question is “in on it” with regards to a character’s unlikeability or its awareness of how ridiculous it is (see: Syfy’s The Magicians), and it can be a deciding factor for me. Were it not for the presence of Business Asshole Matt, I don’t think we’d be arguing over whether or not Matt Farley is self-aware, since he clearly is, but I for one would definitely have taken a little longer to be certain about that. It also allows for the most truly surreal part of the movie, when the creepy man who always asks Matt for directions and then offers him a ride apparently gets what he wants, as Business Asshole Matt rides off with him into the monochrome sunset. It textualizes the subtext of Matt’s interior monologue, and that really works for me on a comedic level, even though it makes no sense on a realistic one. It’s like the scene in which Matt’s bandmate pulls up and they joke about why there’s a woman in the backseat, and it’s clearly for continuity so that they can have the camera in the front for reverse shots, but it draws attention to itself in a way that I like.

CC, of all the odd characters who populate Matt’s town, who was your favorite? I had a fondness for the creepy man in theory, but I also really liked Soup.

CC: I was also fond of Soup. It was a pleasant surprise to discover late in the film that his name was literal after getting to know him for so long only as Matt’s basketball partner. Anytime you need soup, Soup is there to offer it for you. He has a fridge full of it just ready to go. Be warned, though. Soup is under the impression that soup is a useful thing for everyone on all occasions, when it’s actually very limited. Most people only need it when it’s cold outside or they’re sick, which makes his bottomless soup fridge an absurd service. Soup’s only negative trait was that he tells Matt to stop being so hard on Abby, even encouraging her more stalkerish behavior because Matt should find it flattering.

Millhouse was also very funny in that he is insanely optimistic, to a pathological degree. As the comedy show he is promoting is downgraded from a legitimate venue to his mother’s basement, he just continues on chipperly as if everything’s going great. He’s basically the human version of that “This is fine.” dog from the burning-house comic panel. The only time he loses his cool is when he’s shouting at his mom for doing laundry and not keeping her dog quiet during the basement comedy show. Keep in mind that he’s in his 50s. It’s pathetically funny.

Speaking of the movie’s portrait of a local stand-up comedy scene, it seems like that’s not what Local Legends is really selling as an infomercial. The amateur stand-up community is mostly just the setting, and what Matt is actually selling here is his movies and music. Britnee, which were you more enticed by after seeing the film? Did Local Legends do a better job as a commercial selling Matt Farley’s novelty music or a commercial selling his backyard movies?

Britnee: The film sold me on his music much more than his movies. The part of Local Legends that made me laugh until my face hurt was when where Matt explains his career in novelty songs. I absolutely love silly songs (Weird Al, Tim and Eric, etc.), so his music immediately grabbed my interest. I even wrote down “Look up The Toilet Bowl Cleaners!” in huge letters in my notepad to make sure I wouldn’t forget to delve into the world of Matt Farley poop songs. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners have since completely taken over my morning drives to work. Why just this morning I listened to “I Pooped in Santa’s Lap” as I pulled into the parking garage, and it was just what I needed to start the day off on the right foot.

While listening to The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, I discovered another one of his musical projects, The Singing Animal Lover. Thankfully, The Singing Animal Lover has over 80 songs about animal poop. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more poops songs, I was blessed with poop songs at a whole new level. I just find so much comfort in knowing there’s a neverending supply of silly songs for me to listen to from Matt Farley alone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really connected with the whole Billy Joel situation. In the past, I used to get so annoyed with people who claimed to be superfans of an artist/band, but only had their greatest hits albums. I now know that is such an incredibly dumb way of thinking, but I was once that douchebag.

CC: I know I’ve already compared Millhouse to one meme cartoon, but besides the “This is fine.” dog he also reminds me of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons. Think about it: He lives at home with his mom. He’s overly loyal to his friends. And no matter how much everything is failing around him, he always maintains that “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” attitude.

Brandon: Since we initiated this conversation about a month ago, I’ve had my most surreal interaction with Matt Farley to date. While I was recovering from the sunshiny haze of Mardi Gras this past Ash Wednesday, Matt posted a song about me titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently,” which you can listen to at any time on platforms like YouTube & Spotify. It was truly an honor, albeit a mildly terrifying one that made me briefly question reality in my dazed state. The only way I can think to repay him for the experience is to continue sharing the song in places like this so that the effort will contribute to the fractions of pennies that correlate to his streaming statistics, so that maybe more movies like Local Legends can get made in the future.

Boomer: Originally, I was going to suggest that we call Farley and see if he would write a song for us, but as it turns out, he already wrote one for Brandon, so I’m not sure what else I can contribute, other than to note that I am extremely curious about the yearlong album-a-month project that he did.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

Obsession, Whimsy, and Mayhem in the Early Aughts Romance

Our current Movie of the Month, the menacing twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, fits a story template I never tire of seeing repeated in entertainment media: the paired couple of doomed souls whose violent attraction to each other is discouraged by and dangerous to the world at large. As in other properties like Sheer Madness, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds, and Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare profiles a young couple who are harmless enough in isolation but whose mutual, near-supernatural obsession with each other causes widespread mayhem. If there’s anything that distinguishes Love Me If You Dare from other examples of its ilk, it’s how it attempts to adapt this template to a cutesy romcom aesthetic. Early-aughts, Amélie-flavored twee whimsy starts the film off as a kind of romantic fairy tale, where a childhood game of escalating dares & pranks causes adorable mischief in the rigidly structured lives of adults. It isn’t until the central couple grows into adulthood themselves that the scope of their mayhem is truly alarming. For a glimpse at what that same story might look like if their dynamic were immediately off-putting from their childhood beginnings, there’s no better place to look than the 2001 stage play adaptation Disco Pigs. Featuring a young Cillian Murphy acting like a total creep in a thick Irish brogue, Disco Pigs is a little too nasty to match the twee-whimsy romance of Love Me If You Dare; it functions more as a drunken, sadistic melodrama than anything resembling a romcom. Still, it follows Love Me If You Dare’s exact story structure: introducing us to two mutually-obsessed weirdos who are menacingly inseparable until puberty hits and love complicates their peculiar relationship. The only difference is that it wastes no time making these strange creatures off-putting, whereas Love Me If You Dare holds off until they are adults.

It’s not fair to say there is no whimsy or romance to Disco Pigs’s central relationship. The film starts in the same realm of youthful fantasy as Love Me If You Dare, stretching even further back in establishing the childhood bonds of its treacherous pair. The story opens in the womb, narrated by a character we come to know as Runt. She explains that she was born in the exact same hospital at the exact same moment as her next-door neighbor & obsessive partner in crime: Pig. There’s a whimsy to the way their dual lives on opposite sides of their bedroom walls are synchronized, like a horrific Busby Berkeley routine, complete with matching pajamas. The film opens with the standard fairy tale greeting “Once Upon a time . . .” in its in-utero prologue, promising a much sweeter picture than what’s ultimately delivered. The childhood fairy tale fantasy element of their relationship continues into their adulthood, represented in mental escapes to a mystical Palace where Pig & Runt reign as The King & Queen of Everything (recalling the Kingdom of Borovnia escapes in Heavenly Creatures and the Adam & Eve pop-up book fantasy of Love Me If You Dare). As Disco Pigs opens, these unsavory twins from different mothers are 17 days away from celebrating their 17th birthday on the 17th day of the month – the most golden of birthday festivities. It all sounds as if it would be in service of a cutesy romance, but Pig & Runt’s dynamic is more grotesque than idyllic. They spend most of their teen years staging increasingly dodgy pranks, just like the lovefools of Love Me If You Dare: pantsing strangers in dance clubs, robbing liquor stores, singing British karaoke songs to the IRA, etc. As their self-given names suggest, they also develop unsavory forms of communication with uncomfortably childlike phrasings like “We man and woman now. We ain’t babbas no more,” and telepathic exchanges that don’t even require that base of a level of spoken dialogue. Much like Love Me If You Dare, Disco Pigs is the kind of fairy tale that invites you to bite into a pristine apple only to find that it’s mostly made of worms.

Besides sharing the false promise of fairy tale whimsy, Disco Pigs also uses the same device to separate its once-inseparable protagonists: the pangs of love & lust that accompany puberty. Almost as soon they reach sexual maturity, Pig crosses an unspoken boundary by kissing Runt in an alleyway behind a nightclub, mistakenly assuming that the impulse is mutual. It’s a rejection that disrupts their synchronicity permanently and the world around them is increasingly in danger the more violently Pig attempts to jolt them back into sync. The main difference between that dynamic and the trajectory of Love Me If You Dare is that the synchronized menaces of Disco Pigs are off-putting long before the pangs of lust harsh their vibes. Yes, it’s even more grotesque when they intone childlike half-English as adults in lines like “Why I kiss the honey lips of Runt?,” but even as children their privately shared language reads as deranged & unhealthy. There’s no true-life violent crime to attach to that sensation to either, like in how Heavenly Creatures ultimately results in an infamous from-the-headlines murder. It’s a more abstract, subliminal menace in this case – the way stage plays are often psychologically troubling without having to state their menace in-dialogue. The contrast of the fairy tale whimsy and unsettling romantic undertones is apparent here as soon as the characters announce themselves under the names Pig & Runt. Even their shared fantasy of ruling the world as The King & Queen of Everything feels oddly sinister, as long as you take a second to imagine what the world might be like under their rule. In Love Me If You Dare, by contrast, the central relationship doesn’t really become a menace until the couple refuses to give up their childhood game of dares once they become adults. It’s the difference between immaturity being the culprit vs. the kids themselves being a menace through the violent reaction of their chemistry.

There are some unfortunate indulgences in early-aughts aesthetics that keep Disco Pigs from joining the upper echelon of titles in its mutual-obsession genre (namely cheap techno & some unfortunate choices in choppy frame-rates). Much of the psychological menace of its stage play source material shines through in the production, though, if not only through Cillian Murphy’s slack-jawed, dead-eyed (and, honestly, still kind of hot?) portrayal of Pig – a character he originated onstage. Anyone with a fondness for stories of this ilk – Heavenly Creatures, Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare, etc. – should find plenty of delicious menace in that performance, which paves over a lot of the film’s more glaring faults in craft & budget. If nothing else, we can all take solace that we don’t live in a world where Pig & Runt are crowned The King & Queen of Everything. It’s difficult to imagine many hells worse than the one we currently dwell in, but that one sounds like it might qualify.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993), and last week’s look at its prankish twee predecessor Amelie (2001).

-Brandon Ledet

Romantic Pranks in Parisian Twee

In our initial conversation about our current Movie of the Month, the maniacal twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, CC suggested that one of the reasons she had such a strong affinity for it as a teen is that she happened to catch it before she saw Amélie. That stipulation is a reasonable one to note if you consider the films in tandem. Arriving two years before Love Me If You Dare and achieving much more visible international acclaim (including five Oscar nominations), Amélie provided a blueprint for much of the latter film’s basic quirks & structure. An ungenerous reading of their parallels could even define Love Me If You Dare as a direct Amélie rip-off, given the alarming overlap of their broader details: the intense absinthe-green color correction, the whimsical fairy tale romance that starts in childhood, the tragically deceased mother lost in that childhood, the emotionally distanced father who miserably stayed behind, the female leads’ waitressing jobs at Parisian cafes, etc. Even the coincidence of these overlaps could be dismissed as being the basic building blocks of early-aughts French twee (an aesthetic partly established by Amélie director Jean-Pierre Juenet in general, not just in that picture in particular). What really links Love Me If You Dare to Amélie, though, is the two films’ shared premises of profiling chaotic, prankish adults who hide their romantic feelings for each other behind a childish game that goes on for far too long. However, watching the two films back to back, I do believe Love Me If You Dare manages to justify its own existence beyond merely echoing the accomplishments of Amélie before it. Only, it does so by reimagining a version of Amelie where the central couple aren’t good natured pranksters, but rather total monsters whose romantic games endanger the world around them.

In Love Me If You Dare, the young couple at the center avoid expressing their romantic vulnerabilities for each other by instead focusing on The Game: a lifelong competition of one-upmanship where they trade a cookie tin back & forth that gives them authority to issue an escalating set of dares to each other. As they get older, the dares become increasingly destructive to the point of being lethal, a trajectory that challenges the most extreme boundaries of the romcom genre. The titular character of Amélie similarly hides her feelings for a mysterious beau through a prankish game of one-upmanship; the difference is that her version of mischief is largely harmless to the other citizens of Paris. The young lovers of Juenet’s film play their flirtation as a quiet, mostly private game involving trading discarded photobooth strips left around the city by strangers instead of directly talking to each other. Amélie herself does pull pranks on other, unsuspecting people outside this game – but mostly to their benefit. She helps her father break out of his hermetic life by sending him traveling photos featuring his stolen garden gnome in exotic locales. She helps lonely, elderly people outside her family rediscover their connection to larger social worlds by unearthing precious objects from their past: lost childhood relics; forged letters from dead lovers; homemade VHS montages of found-footage cinema; etc. She even plays matchmaker for an unlikely couple in her café, extending a kindness to others that she won’t afford to herself. The most harmful her pranks get is in her gradual, repeated gaslighting of one local merchant – swapping his shoes for smaller sizes, salting his whiskey, replacing his toothpaste with foot cream – as righteous retribution for his abuses towards his disabled employee. The juvenile pranksters of Love Me If You Dare are so obsessed with each other & themselves that they cause widespread, horrific damage to the world around them without hardly taking notice. By contrast, Amélie spends too little time focusing on herself and instead pranks the outside world with absurdist kindness. These are directly opposed paradigms, making for two drastically different tones – no matter the overlap in details.

Even though Love Me If You Dare & Amélie overlap in a significant portion of their broader details, the specificity of Amélie’s more minuscule, microscopic touches are so manicured & specific that they could never be copied outside a direct remake. The film has a fetish for specificity, zooming in on mundane human experiences like the indent lines pillows leave on faces, the feeling of plunging fingers into cool sacks of grain, and the nervous release of cracking knuckles & popping bubble wrap. By contrast, Love Me If You Dare revels in the broad & the external, following a bombastic, ill-advised relationship’s exponentially violent escalation to the point where it feels like the entire world might end if no one puts a stop to it in time. It’s clear to me, then, that Amélie is the superior film of the pair, whether or not it’s the one you happen to catch first. There’s a very peculiar, detailed, dark-magic energy to its fairy tale rhythms that’s enduringly endearing, trafficking in a hyper-specific, hermetic world that still feels unique & intimate no matter how often it has been echoed in its twee-tinged decedents. Love Me If You Dare’s chaotic misanthropy doesn’t allow for such intimacy, but rather terrorizes its audience by perverting the twee romcom template into something cruel & unpredictable. It’s less a photocopy of Amélie than it is a darkest timeline inversion of that film’s romantic-pranks premise into something deeply sinister. These two films use their respective love-game antics to show what it’s like when twee French whimsy is used for Good vs. when it’s used for Evil. They may exist in the same color-saturated, overly-manicured, early-aughts Paris, but their philosophical worldviews are polar opposites, making for two drastically different experiences.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993).

-Brandon Ledet

Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Love Me If You Dare (2003)

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 CC made Britnee, Brandon, and Boomer watch Love Me if You Dare (2003).

CC: When I was a culturally starved teenager, it was incredibly rare for me to program my own media intake. I desperately wanted to watch pretentious art films and feel like an intellectual, but at the time I was living in a FoxNews and Tim Allen comedy world, stifling my artsy-fartsy dreams. However, I do remember one pivotal weekend when I was around fourteen or fifteen where I got to indulge myself on those impulses. Left alone to set my own schedule, I spent an entire few days’ vacation from others’ control sunbathing and eating bagels all day, and binge-watching the Sundance & IFC movie channels all night. I don’t remember most of the movies I watched that weekend, but a few really stood out to me as gems, including the 2003 French romantic comedy Love Me If You Dare. Something about Love Me If You Dare‘s subversive tone (and bizarre ending) struck me as extraordinary and, importantly at the time, sophisticated. This is before I had even seen Amélie, so I had truly not experienced anything like this unconventional, artsy, French romcom before.

Love Me If You Dare is the story of a boy and girl duo (Guillume Canet and Marion Cotillard) who are locked in a life-long game of romantic oneupsmanship. They first meet as children when the girl is being bullied and the boy cheers her up with the gift of a cookie tin. From there they develop a mischievous game, where whoever possesses the cookie tin can issue a dare the other has to complete, no matter how outrageous. They pass the tin back and forth this way with each completed dare, with no end to the game in sight. Told from the boy’s POV, the story follows this game’s escalation from relatively harmless childhood anarchy to catastrophically destructive mayhem as they hit adulthood and sexual maturity. The film is set up like a traditional romcom, but it’s weirdly antagonistic towards its audience in a way that genre usually isn’t. Its sweet setups usually lead to sour payoffs, subverting expectations established by traditional romcom patterns.

Brandon, given this film’s devious deviations from genre, would you even consider this a romcom? Is there any other genre that would be a more apt description?

Brandon: I don’t think I would readily describe Love Me If You Dare as a romantic comedy, but I’m not exactly sure why. It’s romantic; it’s (darkly) humorous. Yet, classifying it simply as a romcom feels no more accurate than it would be to describe Heathers or Heavenly Creatures as such. This is, at heart, the story of two adrenaline junkies whose violent attraction to each other’s mischievous spirits only leads to destruction. Something about the volatile clash of their thrill-seeking energies (and overactive imaginations) is a Biblically destructive force, crushing the lives of any innocent bystanders in their vicinity who are just trying to get through the day while they are daring each other to tear the world apart. It’s like visiting a world where two Bugs Bunnies are anarchically attempting to out-Bugs Bunny each other, when one is already far more than enough. Sure, the hetero romance at its core (where two characters who are obviously made for each other eventually find a way to be together forever) is a textbook romcom dynamic, but the devilish details veer so far off the rails that its romantic beginnings are a faded memory by the time we reach the life-threatening oneupsmanship of the bonkers third act. We’ve covered romcoms for Movie of the Month before with similarly subversive escalations of unromantic danger: the Hitchcock-riffing Head Over Heels & the noirish Mrs. Winterborne, to be specific. Those examples feel like extreme outliers in the genre, however, and Love Me If You Dare‘s own maniacal self-escalation might even best them in its sheer audacity.

If I had to ascribe Love Me If You Dare to a single genre it might be this: twee mayhem. In general, twee is a much more difficult genre to recommend (or even to define) than the romantic comedy, as it was specific to a very distinct time & sentiment. As I was also a culturally-starved teenager in the early aught, I’m personally predisposed to being helpless to twee pop culture. Where more cynical audiences were revolted by the whimsical imagination, visual fussiness, and cutesy musical cues of twee, I found a desperately needed respite from the grotesque, macho muck pop culture was stuck in for the nu-metal end of the late 90s & early 00s (not knowing at the time that I was mostly watching ideas repurposed & repackaged from French New Wave artists half a century prior). I’ll concede that a lot of twee has aged horribly in the last couple decades; I’ve rolled my eyes at many a Zooey Dechanel project & Etsy store as the years have trudged along. However, I don’t think the loosely-defined genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just below its meticulously curated surface. Artists like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet often handle topics like depression, abuse, dead pets, and terminal illness with childlike vulnerability & outsized emotions – crafting art that looks pretty but is often surprisingly sinister. That’s exactly where I see Love Me If You Dare fitting in. It’s a darkly romantic comedy that starts with themes like cancer, poverty, and nationalist bullying before escalating to full-blown torture, murder, and suicide. How sweet! Even considering similarly morbid twee romances like Pushing Daisies or Amélie, this film reaches a level of destructive mayhem that feels remarkable for its cutesy tone of childlike whimsy.

Boomer, how does Love Me If You Dare fit into the twee romance template for you? Does it feel at home with how you typically experience the genre or does its level of destructive mayhem make it as much of an outlier in that context as it is as a romcom?

Boomer: It’s funny that you mention Wes Anderson, a director that I love; while watching Love Me if You Dare, my roommate got up and left the room twenty minutes in, saying “This is what I see when I look at a Wes Anderson movie” (he’s not a fan). I think that I might have a slightly different idea of what comprises twee filmmaking; my go-to example of the genre is God Help the Girl, the 2014 film project of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch starring Emily Browning, Olly Alexander (of queerpop band Years & Years), and Hannah Murray (Skins, Game of Thrones, Bridgend) – a musical featuring songs from Murdoch’s 2009 concept album of the same name. As much as I love Belle & Sebastian – they’re one of my top 5 all time bands – when I finally found a copy of God Help the Girl I hated it for the first fifteen minutes before realizing that I could just give into it and have a good time, and a good time I had indeed. I would also note that I, too, am generally disposed to be forgiving of tweeness when I find it, and for much the same reasons, and I’d add Stranger than Fiction, I ♥ Huckabees, and the most recent TV version of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective to that canon. It’s fine to enjoy things. I even spent this last New Year’s Eve watching a Friday the 13th marathon on TV with my best friend while we listened to Françoise Hardy records she brought back from France; since those films are mostly young adults wandering through the woods, skinny dipping, and angsting about getting laid, having Le premier bonheur du jour play on while little Corey Feldman watched the horny teens next door get down to business turned the whole film series into a franchise of French coming-of-age films that just happened to have a hockey masked murderer show up from time to time (relax Mrs. Voorhees “well, actually” purists: they were only showing III-VII on a loop). So you could say that even when there is no twee, I might end up adding it in myself.

You also mentioned Heathers, and around these parts it’s no secret that it’s my favorite movie of all time. I’ve never really imagined that it fell into the “twee” category (the musical version notwithstanding) simply because it’s so weirdly and unabashedly dark (“Corn. Nuts!”) and even its lighter elements are still part of an all-encompassingly nihilistic worldview, even with Martha doing a little doughnut on the scooter in the hallway of Westerberg High at the end. I understand where you’re coming from, though, as Love Me if You Dare has a lot of the same hallmarks, and I think that the difference for me comes from the fact that, ultimately Veronica recognizes that her suburban dissatisfaction and the town-wide ignorance of parents and school administrators alike has led her to go all-in on J.D.’s menacing plans for the future. It feels right, in the same way that if Julien and Sophie had pulled back from their life-and-death game of dares it would have felt wrong. Any cutesiness that arises from their ever-escalating dare tag is belied by how utterly committed they are to the whole thing: even the first dare endangers a school bus full of children (granted, they were a bunch of racist little shits who deserved a good scare if nothing else). If that level of intensity had ever been subverted, it would be a different story, but by starting with that platform of playful malice and going from there, there’s never a moment where you really question how cute the whole thing is, until the leads are buried in concrete (or are they?). As it stands, I’d say that it’s just as much a subversion of romcom standards as it is of performative cuteness, so it’s equally an outlier for both but the gentle ribbing it gives to both genres is born out of fondness and affection, rather than something like Heathers (which specifically aims to undermine the supposed harmlessness of eighties teen romances à la John Hughes) or my dearly beloved trash masterpiece Head Over Heels (which asks the question: what if the misunderstanding that separates the two romantic leads involved a murder, maybe?).

Britnee, with regards to romances that take themselves more seriously than Love Me if You Dare, they often have a lot of the same tropes that are present here: the angelically perfect parent with vaguely defined medical problems, resentment from the remaining living parent, economic and/or social stratification between the two romantic leads, etc. Do you think these work here, or do they undercut the smirking self-awareness that the movie has? Are there any that I’ve missed or that you felt should have been present here?

Britnee: Love Me If You Dare had a way of making the basic tropes of romantic films very unsettling. Were we supposed to laugh when Julien was being an insanely rambunctious kid while his mother was dying in her hospital room? Was his relationship with his dad supposed to break our hearts or make us roll our eyes and chuckle? I’m still not sure what the answer is. I love how the film challenged my emotions and really got me to question my humor and sensitivity.

Another romance trope that the film pokes fun at is the reunited lovers living happily ever after. Both Julien and Sophie marry other people and have completely different lives with their significant others. Once the two get together for real without prolonging the game, they don’t run off to start a new life. Instead, they drown in cement at a construction site while making out with each other. It’s so wonderful and silly.

What I enjoyed the most about Love Me If You Dare is the beginning of the film that focuses on Sophie and Julien’s blossoming childhood friendship. Their childlike imagination is brought to life on the screen with whimsical visuals and slanted camera angles. Some scenes even looked like they were taking place in a lifesize pop-up book. Their innocent shenanigans (for the most part) were quirky and adorable, but once the two were pulling the same crap as teenagers and adults, they seemed like total monsters.

CC, did you find young Sophie and Julien to be more likeable than grown Sophie and Julien?

CC: Absolutely! If a teacher lectures a child and said child starts to pee themselves, it’s hilarious. If another adult pees on you, it ruins your day and both parties feel a great deal of shame. Sophie and Julian were two troubled children who used their game as a means of coping with poverty and emotional isolation, respectively. As adults we expect them to either “grow up” and stop playing the game or to get professional help. I’m not saying that children aren’t capable of daring each other to commit heinous crimes, but in the context of this film, the crimes Sophie and Julian commit as adults destroy the lives of everyone in their path. It’s one thing to utter a string of scatological expletives during class in elementary school; it’s another to frame someone for attempted murder and call the French equivalent of the SWAT team on them as a prank.

I think what is most frustrating about their relationship as adults is their refusal to admit their feelings for each other. Neither one is brave enough to declare their love and end the game so it just drags on and on, destroying everything in its path.

Brandon, this film feels very French to me, but do you think it had to be set in France to work? Would it have read as “twee” if it were set elsewhere?

Brandon: It’s more than a vague cultural sensibility or sense of morbid whimsy that makes Love Me If You Dare feel distinctly French. It’s that the film feels so in line with French Cinema of its era. The sickly green digital palette of its early 00s aesthetic is unmistakably akin to the look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s works. The artificial hand-built theatrical sets of the early childhood fantasy sequences are pure Michel Gondry (who was mostly popular as a music video auteur at the time). It’s like a Greatest Hits collection of early aughts twee aesthetics in that way, except that the limited scope of its CGI budget and the . . . moderate visual talents of debut filmmaker Yann Samuel sometimes make it feel like the kind of Greatest Hits collection you find in a grocery store checkout line or gas station CD rack. What truly makes the film special, then, what distinguishes it among its French cinema peers, is the increasingly morbid nature of its central romance. You can see its absurdist dynamic of two volatile minds who are unavoidably drawn to each other reflected in works from other countries: Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds – films far outside the realm of twee. Clashing that inevitably tragic relationship dynamic with the overactive imagination of childhood whimsy does feel distinctly French to me, though, even beyond its adoption of twee visual tropes specifically.

Of course, twee has been exported globally to the point where it is no longer explicitly French, if it ever was. Michel Gondry made most of his iconic works in America. Wes Anderson, a hipster Texan, is a cornerstone of the aesthetic. 2010s twee devotees like the Australian dreamworld comedy Girl Asleep and the aforementioned Scottish musical God Help the Girl are twee as fuck, undeniably so. I’d like to think you could export Love Me If You Dare to practically any urban setting without losing what distinguishes it as twee. What I’d be more concerned about losing in that translation is one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does and one of the defining tropes of artsy-fartsy French cinema at large: the bleak ending. It’s almost a cliché to say that Hollywood productions are more inclined to have a happy ending than their French film counterparts, but I could very easily see an American remake of this film sidestepping or undercutting its tragic conclusion while maintaining the twee whimsy free of morbidity, zapping it of its magic.

Boomer, am I being my own worst nightmare (a pretentious art film snob) by assuming that this quirky French romance must have a tragic ending to succeed on its own terms? Is there any satisfying way you can see this story about two thrill-seeking hedonists who express their affection through torturous dares concluding without them dying in each other’s arms, locked away from the rest of the world? Would a traditional “Hollywood ending” have ruined the appeal of the film’s otherwise sinister romance dynamic?

Boomer: If I’m being completely honest, at the moment that Julien (supposedly) crashed into that truck while speeding away from the police and apparently died, I thought the film was over. When it continued and there was more to it, I thought to myself, “Oh, how French.” It’s not that the French are without morality, of course (I saw enough Earth Day demonstrations in Lyonne last year to know that there are things about which they care deeply and passionately), but their different viewpoint on the relativistic ethics of sexpolitik are pretty different from ours (or at least mine; I’m not trying to project onto anyone else in this group). For me, I kept expecting a more American moralistic standpoint to leap out of the shadows and take over this viewing experience; as a result, I expected that this purely hedonistic joy that Julien declared to be better than [insert your drug/sex position/adrenaline junkie activity of choice here] to be his last moment, and that we were being treated to a Hays-lite moralization that “This may look like fun but it is bad and you will be punished.” And to be honest, I wasn’t entirely opposed to that? Interpreting from a purely American perspective is tricky; while I was watching the scene of Julien’s mother’s death, which Britnee mentioned above, I found myself consciously thinking that this would be treated differently in an American film. Here, I think it demonstrates that Julien is deeply unaware of just how unwell his mother really is, and reflects the way that children fail to understand the articulation of the adult world, and that tragic failure to read the situation may even be the instigating factor in his inability to navigate the adult world with any kind of joy outside of his game with Sophie. That’s not explicit (although it would be in an American film), but it gets to the heart of your question: is there anything tragic in this film (like, as you asked, the ending) that is treated with the deference due to tragedy? Even if death at the bottom of a concrete pylon is a tragedy in theory, the film doesn’t treat it this way, instead acting as if living to a ripe (and ribald) old age is just as emotionally satisfying a “happy” ending as being buried alive. Honestly, seeing the elderly Julien and Sophie together is the Hollywood ending, and it’s not nearly as thematically resonant or tonally consistent as (what I assume is) the real ending. That’s not necessarily being artsy-fartsy to say so, but it does underline all of the ways that this differs from the mean.

Britnee, you mentioned above that you found the first act which took place during our leads’ respective childhoods to be more endearing than the rest of the film. I agree, although I wasn’t as cold to the rest of it as you were. How would you have preferred to see this play out? What changes would you have made?

Britnee: The romcom-loving side of me would want to see Julien and Sophie get together for good in the dinner scene when he fake proposes to her. That was probably the most upsetting scene in the entire film. The secondhand embarrassment was so bad and made me hate Julien so much. After the proposal, the rest of the film would be a quirky journey to their wedding day. Julien’s father would have a come-to-Jesus moment and embrace his son on his wedding day, letting him know how proud he is of him and how much he loves him. Sophie’s sister would give a heartfelt toast at the reception explaining how she forgives her sister for ruining her wedding cake. Their families would just come together in the comic style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Basically, I want My Big Fat French Wedding to be a thing.

I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate the darkness of Love Me If You Dare, because I do. I just have to be in the right mindset to watch two people lose their minds on a path of destruction.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Man, Julien’s father is such an asshole.

Britnee: Part of me still doesn’t think that Julien and Sophie really died in the end. It’s very unlikely that they lived, but based on all the other times I thought they died when they didn’t, I just don’t trust them.

Brandon: I do think this movie’s greatest asset is the unpredictability of its storytelling, which makes it feel as if anything is possible from minute to minute, as long as that anything is emotionally cruel. What impresses me most about that unpredictability is that the storyline still manages to maintain a clear, logical progression in its tone & aesthetic; it’s not all chaos. The dreamlike pop-up book sequence Britnee described feels totally in tune with the characters’ childhood imaginations, which later give way to the visual tropes of action thrillers, romantic melodramas, and wedding ring jewelry commercials as they grow into adults. I also greatly admire the trajectory of its central romance, which does not shy away from the impossible scenario these two characters have set up for themselves where “Happily ever after” cannot be achieved without a few casualties, if not the end of the world. For all of the film’s visual showiness as an excited director’s dressed-to-impress debut, its value as an off-kilter feat in morbid, fluid storytelling is what really makes it a gem.

CC: I’m really glad this film held up! Once I saw Amélie a couple years later, it obviously replaced Love Me If You Dare as my favorite darkly whimsical French film, but this still holds up on revisit.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Brandon presents Local Legends (2013)
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

-The Swampflix Crew

Divorcing Paul Mazursky

New Hollywood auteur Paul Mazursky built a career on honest, daringly frank discussions of sex & romance, an ethos he established as early as his 1969 Free Love breakout drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Although that film’s exact themes of marital fidelity & intensive psychotherapy continued throughout his work as his career developed, he did adapt those preoccupations to the changing times as he aged. Our current Movie of the Month, Mazursky’s late 70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, for instance, depicts the fallout of the Free Love movement once lauded in his previous work, demonstrating how the breakdown of traditional marriage & sexual fidelity left many women socially & financially isolated in desperate need for feminist independence in their new sexually “liberated” world. Even that update could only remain fresh for so long, however. As America entered “The Age of Divorce” in the 1990s, the dissolution of the traditional marriage became more of a norm than an anomaly, and Paul Mazursky updated his own ruminations on the subject accordingly. Whereas the jump from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to An Unmarried Woman marked an advancement in Mazurksy’s maturity, though, the next chapter in this reflections on the evolving nature of divorce found him devolving in the opposite direction, both as an artist and as a thinker.

Admittedly, the declining allure of Mazursky’s fidelity dramas is somewhat attributable to the real-time aging of his characters. The turn-on sexual energy of performers like Natalie Wood & Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even the confident adult sexuality of Jill Clayburgh ten years later in An Unmarried Woman only enhance those films’ themes of sexual & romantic experimentation. By the time Mazursky aged along with his characters into the 1990s, his work stopped being a relatably prurient rumination on a tantalizingly taboo topic and started to feel like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. In 1991’s Scenes from a Mall, Mazurksy updates his divorce-drama template with the middle-age players Woody Allen (a known sexual abuser) & Bette Midler (who is always fabulous, but still). Watching Natalie Wood talk her uptight hipster friends into an impromptu orgy or watching Jill Clayburgh dance alone in her underwear to Swan Lake is one thing. Watching Woody Allen go down on Bette Midler in a public movie theater is something else entirely. The only small consolation of this updated dynamic is in finally seeing Allen pursue a romantic partner who is somewhat age-appropriate a concession that’s only soured by watching Midler be degraded by sharing the screen with the monster and the gag-worthy visual of the two performers making out at length in remarkably thin underwear.

Lack of genuine sex appeal is only one small factor in the declining quality of Mazurksy’s divorce-drama ruminations, though it is a glaring one. The larger problem is the broadening of his humor and the erosion of his search for honesty. There’s an impressively subtle, delicate irony to the hipster parody of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that carries over into An Unmarried Woman (although broad caricatures like the sausage-gnawing caveman artist Charlie does test its boundaries). By the time Scenes from a Mall arrives, Mazursky is deploying all the subtlety & restraint of a feature-length All That sketch. Wood Allen’s midlife crisis in the film is signaled by a ponytail, a surfboard prop, and an affair with a 25-year-old. His main comic foil is a recurring mime gag performed by Bill Irwin. Cross-eyed nutshot reactions, a rapping Greek chorus, and Marusky’s own cameo as a Freudian pop psychologist are all distinctly broad & cheap in a way that feels below the director’s stature. That line of easy, goofball humor is also directly at odds with the literary stage play structure of the piece, as Scenes from a Mall is largely a Before Sunrise-style indie drama following a single, complex marital argument over the course of one afternoon, practically in real-time. The result is an incongruous tone one that demands you both take its romantic & sexual conflicts dead seriously but also bust a gut when the LA douchebag punches the mime for being a pest.

For what it’s worth, Mazursky does maintain a sliver of the honest, daring discussion of marital fidelity he established in previous works, even if Scenes from a Mall is an inappropriate vessel for the exercise. Staging one extensive, uncomfortable argument between a long-married couple in a Californian shopping mall is, at least in the abstract, a very promising conceit. Plenty of couples have marriage-ending meltdowns in parking lots, Wal-Marts, Bourbon St. dive bars, and other mundane public spaces that would make for similarly ironic backdrops. Midler’s initial reaction to hearing of Allen’s affair with a younger woman is also disarmingly believable. She starts in a place of quiet acceptance, then erupts into a seething, vengeful anger in a well-written, well-performed estimation of genuine heartbreak. As grotesque as watching Woody Allen go down on her in public feels, the overall back & forth between burning bridges to the past & sexually reconciling in wild passion does feel true to life & the messiness of the human heart. It also says a lot that the frank discussion of sexual infidelity that pushed buttons in Mazursky’s 1960s work was still taboo in the 1990s (not to mention the 2010s), at least enough to justify his continued needling at the topic. It’s just a shame all that honesty couldn’t have been funnelled into more appealing performers & a better considered tone.

It is unclear whether the broadening of the comedy or the compromising of the honesty were a choice of Mazursky’s or a sign of the changing times. It’s entirely possible that it was simply much easier to successfully pitch a broad comedy where mimes get punched & scrotes get kicked by the time that Scenes for a Mall arrived than it was to properly fund the serious, adult dramas of Mazursky’s distant New Hollywood past. Either way, Mazursky has much more rewarding divorce & fidelity dramas in earlier works like An Unmarried Woman, which sustain Scenes from a Mall‘s brief flashes of disarming honesty with confidence & bravery the latter work never fully musters. The only saving graces for Scenes from a Mall, then, are in its value as a novelty: documenting early-90s shopping mall excess; casting Woody Allen as a New Age Los Angeles twerp in tracksuits instead of a nebbish New York twerp in tweed; the aforementioned horrors of public cunnilingus; etc. Of course, those minor pleasures only fade the more unpleasant (if not outright traumatic) it’s becoming to watch Woody Allen onscreen, and Paul Mazursky’s marital fidelity oeuvre would ultimately be much better off if it could somehow divorce itself from Scenes from a Mall entirely.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our profile of its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff, and last week’s look at the director’s most iconic work, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

-Brandon Ledet