The Fame-Economy Afterworlds of Wings of Fame (1990) & The Congress (2014)

It’s become a kind of unofficial tradition that I find an excuse to rewatch & write about the 2012 sci-fi film The Congress every year of blogging. I first reviewed the film in our inaugural year as a website. I then returned to it to explore its continued relevance in the shifting Hollywood landscape last year, finding it just as potent it as I had the first time, if not more so. Now, in year three, Boomer has introduced a Movie of the Month selection to us with unignorable thematic connections to The Congress, though its approach to the same topics is much more subdued. The 1990 Dutch film Wings of Fame presents a version of the afterlife where immortality is determined by cultural longevity; dead historical figures & celebrities mingle in a shared, surrealist space where their level of adoration among the living determines their status on the other side. The Congress alters that formula by allowing the living to buy into & borrow that fame immortality, essentially ruining their lives on Earth by assuming the guise of a celebrity in a fantasy space. Both works are wonderfully bizarre, though I’d argue The Congress is both flashier & more complex in its reflections on fame economy surrealism.

Part of the reason The Congress feels more memorably bizarre than the delicately philosophical Wings of Fame is that it leans heavily into the surrealist juxtaposition of seeing many incongruent celebrities onscreen at once. Where Wings of Fame notably stocks its cast of “famous” dead celebrities with archetypal placeholders instead of real life historical figures, The Congress overwhelms the audience with multiple copies of Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe and anyone else you can imagine. It accomplishes this by setting its fame economy afterworld in an “animated zone,” a brightly colored Max Fleischer fantasy space that posits the film as a Cool World/Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style live-action/animation hybrid. The live-action lead-up to that surrealist free-for-all can be just as measured as anything in Wings of Fame, though, with Robin Wright starring as herself in the not too distant future as introduction to the world (not unlike Peter O’Toole playing a Peter O’Toole type in Wings of Fame). Hollywood executives pressure Wright to sell her likeness so she can be digitally inserted in any part they choose, even long after she’s dead, sealing her immortality as a movie star. Just a few decades later, “regular” people can buy into that celebrity themselves, taking on her identity in the “animation zone, extending the film’s celebrity-outliving-your-body themes into even more bizarre, speculative territory that feels increasingly relevant to modern celebrity culture every passing year.

In Wings of Fame, being an unfamous nobody means you fade into a greyed-out mist of anonymity, drifting directionless for eternity. The Congress, being made in a time where a celebrity’s digital likeness can be sold & recreated independent of a physical performance, puts a lot more thought into how the unfamous nobodies among the living could pay to participate in the glamorous luxury of fame. The Congress is the flashier, more currently relevant film of the pair, but Wings of Fame is more philosophically reflective on how fame can outlast the body. The Congress only introduces that concept briefly before focusing on the intricacies of how fame has evolved as in industry, a commodity that co be bought, sold, rented, and loaned. I’m not sure that I’ll return to Wings of Fame as often as I apparently feel compelled to return to The Congress, since its broader approach to the fame economy afterlife feels a little less relevant to our specific relationship to modern celebrity as a 2010s audience and more tied to a larger philosophical provocation. In tandem, the pair offer an unlikely surrealist fantasy that visualizes fame’s function as immortality currency in literal terms. The difference is that Wings of Fame’s version of that dynamic is reflective on how fame has functioned through all of history, while The Congress depicts a future we still haven’t fully arrived at, but inch closer to every passing year.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint, and last week’s look at the strange ways its meta Shakespeare & romantic rivalry themes extend into Shakespeare in Love (1998).

-Brandon Ledet

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Colin Firth, Peter O’Toole, Romantic Competition, and the Immortal Bard

I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.

It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.

John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judy Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.

This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.

-Brandon Ledet

Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Wings of Fame (1990)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BritneeAlli, and Brandon watch Wings of Fame (1990).

Boomer: Wings of Fame is an odd little film that at first appears to be about the nature of life and death, or perhaps celebrity or love, but makes no real statements about any of these big concepts. Instead, it is itself a “high concept” film with a singular conceit: the afterlife of the famous is different from that which awaits you or me (if anything other than floating for eternity on a foggy and dismal sea awaits us), and their accommodations are equivalent to the fame that they retain in the waking world. When a famous actor (Peter O’Toole) is assassinated in Europe, his accidentally-killed murderer (Colin Firth) immediately follows him into this strange new world beyond the veil of mortality, having gained notoriety equivalent to the actor’s as a result of having dealt his death blow.

Within this world, Cesar Valentin (O’Toole) struggles to discern what drove Brian Smith (Firth) to want to see him dead, as the two rub undead elbows with a roller-skating Einstein and scientists, politicians, and artists of various disciplines. Other than Einstein, none of them actually exist (there is a Rose Frisch who was a scientist, but she died 25 years after the film was released, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to be in this world), but you wouldn’t know that from the film itself. Cleverly, Wings shows you people that you believe existed, even though they didn’t, like Bianca the sad pop star and Zlatogorski the Soviet poet, who actually ascends from the basement back to a stateroom as his work gains popularity in the living world as the political situation changes.

Brandon, what do you think about this conception of the world that is to come? Do you think that it was a smart choice to generate unreal celebrities to populate this surreal world? How does this contribute to that air of surrealism?

Brandon: I’m honestly conflicted over the introduction of fictional celebrities to this dreamworld scenario. Not only are they a little distracting (I initially felt like a dolt for only recognizing names like Einstein, Hemingway, and Lassie before realizing many of these characters never really existed); they also partially drain the premise of some of its potential surrealism instead of adding to it. Titles like The Congress, Celebrity Death Match, Clone High, and Mr. Lonely have similarly generated absurdist humor out of juxtaposing celebrities we’re not used to seeing interact in a shared, impossible realm, but are each more fully committed to evoking a surrealist effect out of that Famous Person overlap. Wings of Fame is something of a pioneer within this post-modern enclave, however, predating many of those titles by a decade or two. The only example of absurdist gathering-famous-people-throughout-time-in-a-single-space media I can think of that predates it is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure from just a year earlier and that film spends its entire runtime going out of its way to make that juxtaposition possible. I think Wings of Fame would’ve been a much more jarringly surreal work if it had populated its eerily sparse stage play sets with more recognizable historical figures, at least as background characters. (There’s a moment featuring a generic “rocker” in particular that easily could’ve been punched up with a Hendrix-type). I’m also not convinced that the film was ever intended to be an aggressively surreal picture in the first place, unlike the similar works that followed. A lot of its charm rests in its subtle, underplayed execution of an over-the-top premise and the creation of fictional celebrities is an essential part of that approach.

As Wings of Fame is the sole feature credit for Dutch filmmaker Otakar Votocek as a writer-director, it’s difficult to get a full estimation of what sensibility he was attempting to convey here. I do get the sense, though, that he was more interested in the mechanics of how this Celebrity Limbo works rather than how his characters’ inner lives are affected by their artificial environment. Wings of Fame is mostly a philosophical piece about how legacy translates to currency in this afterlife of luxury, setting up a kind of class war between tiers of celebrities who enjoy different levels of fame, and how our only chance of (temporarily) avoiding fading into oblivion is to leave a lasting impact on pop culture or history while we’re still breathing. It makes total sense for the film to use archetype placeholders instead of real life historical figures in that way, but the characters’ absence of pre-loaded personalities does cause the central story to stumble a bit when it switches its interests from philosophy to psychology. The mystery of why Firth’s assassin takes out O’Toole’s pompous actor in the opening sequence is never as interesting to me as the details of the space where that decision lands them. Similarly, the contentious love triangle they form with the gloomy pop singer Bianca feels more like a necessary evil plot structure than a dynamic the film is genuinely interested in (although I am often tickled by the way Bianca continually shrugs off their confessions of deep, unending love for her, since she presumably hears those kinds of things all the time). Part of the reason those conflicts feel a little empty to me is because I don’t know the characters well enough as people to recognize what they’re going through (as opposed to their much more fascinating, heavily detailed surroundings). Using real celebrities whose personas we’re already familiar with might have fixed that.

Britnee, what do you make of the film’s balance between telling a compelling story and establishing the rules of its supernatural, fame-obsessed afterworld? Did the mystery of Firth’s murder motivation or the outcome of the Bianca-centered love triangle mean as much to you as the mechanics of the Celebrity Limbo premise?

Britnee: I had a difficult time focusing on any of film’s central plots because I was more interested in figuring out how the Celebrity Limbo works. The idea of a hotel for dead celebrities is fascinating, so of course, that’s what I focused on. The idea of celebrities getting downgraded to shittier rooms as they become forgotten in the living world was so smart and hilarious. It’s hard not to think about recent dead celebrities in that scenario. For instance, when Bill Paxton passed away earlier this year, there was an influx of people watching Twister and Big Love, so there’s not doubt that he initially would move into a luxurious suite. As time moves on, this will begin to decline, so up to the attic he goes. It really made me think about the craze that occurs after famous musicians and actors die, but how it all starts to dwindle as time goes by. They’re never really “forgotten;” they just aren’t topping the charts anymore.

Also, the film sort of forced me to feel that way because it doesn’t really do much as far as storytelling goes. Caesar has a short-lived confrontation with Brian, but it’s not very aggressive or emotional. The love story between Bianca and Brian is very bland, and there’s not much passion between the two of them. Yes, they make love and she cries in his arms from time to time, but there’s no real connection. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all (I actually enjoyed it very much), but it drove me to really not care too much about any of the film’s main plots.

What really struck my interest was the lottery system that allows Brian and Caesar to be released back into the real world. I wish the film would have spent more time following the two on their journey back into the world of the living.

Alli, would you have liked the film to be half about Brian and Caesar’s journey in limbo and half about their return to the real world? Why or why not?

Alli: I think it would have been nice to see slightly more of Mr. Valentin’s journey in a world where he’s been dead and gone. Would he have ended up being an impersonator of himself or would older people and movie lovers on the street just make comments about how much he looks like himself? Obviously, Caesar is used to a certain standard of living and now he’s suddenly penniless on the streets, so I think it could have been a depressing peek into the world of washed-up celebrities. There’s always a place for him in community theater, though, so maybe he’d end up in the acting world again. I’m a big Peter O’Toole fan. He’s always great. I think his chemistry with Firth wasn’t the best, but he’s enough of a character to carry it along. It would have been fun to watch them navigate the world and team up. After all, Brian is the only person Caesar has that understands what he’s been through and wouldn’t think he’s crazy for telling his story. Basically, I want more O’Toole screen time in general.

I didn’t really understand exactly why Brian chose Caesar in the climactic lottery. He was Caesar’s murderer, so maybe felt indebted that way, especially watching the death authorities usher him onto a transport into the mists. But while we know that the logic of this world is obviously nonexistent, there could have been a resurgence of interest in Valentin’s work. That’s the thing about being famous: you’re constantly shifting from being in an out of the public consciousness. I’d like to have seen a point about that made with the tide rolling in with some of the left-for-obscurity celebrities walking back ashore.

Boomer, do you think the movie would have benefited from people being able to check back in once their fame resurged? Or just more logic to the way the hotel works in general?

Boomer: I’m not really sure. I like that there’s a bit of dream logic to the way that this afterlife works, although I admit that I often go back and forth on my feelings about the concreteness of the “magic” (for lack of a better term) in the films that I watch. I will say that my personal favorite subplot in the film is the story of the fall and rise of Zlatogorski: he finds himself in the bowels of the hotel as a semi-forgotten Russian poet, but his poetry finds a new life in the hearts and minds of a nascent group of Soviets, leading the attendants of the hotel to force him against his will to ascend back to a stateroom in accordance with his fame in the world of the living. He rejects this elevation (as one would expect of a person whose works touch the hearts of hopeful communists, he is not a fan of this social striation) and ultimately tries to return to the sea of obscurity on whose shore the hotel sounds, but is unable to slip blissfully into the anonymity (and post-death rest) that he so desires. It’s a fascinating character study in miniature, both of an individual character and, in its own way, of a nation, but it also gives us the most revelatory information we have about the “rules” of this afterlife: we know that your accommodations are determined by your notoriety among the living, but you also cannot end this cycle even if you want to fade away into the night.

So what happens if someone becomes so insignificant that they are rejected from the hotel, but there is a resurgence in public interest in them? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but one which I’m not sure can be adequately satisfied. Perhaps they are spat back up on shore just as Zlatogorski was when he tried to leave, half-drowned and soaked to the bone, as you suggested. Maybe there’s no resurgence, just the echoes of their memory in the minds of man. One could even argue that those people who experience this complete absence from cultural relevance only to be remembered are those despairing faces we see floating in the open water amid the mists, begging to be saved. Or maybe that’s what really happens to the people who win the “lottery” and get to return to life for a second chance, and the lottery itself is all a sham. After all, it’s not as if Valentin has been completely forgotten by the world at large, as his film work seems to be experiencing (an admittedly minuscule) revival. Maybe it’s really Brian who is along for the ride and not the other way around, like how no one ever thinks about William Alexander or Richard Burbage until the next wave of “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?” madness comes along.

Every element of this world could be nothing more than a facade, but I don’t think that making the mechanics of this afterlife more specific and transparent would better serve the film. Its strengths lie in being a work that evokes this kind of discussion, and making the rules more explicit would undoubtedly take away some of the magic, for me at least. Part of what makes the narrative so strong for me is that we often think of that which lies beyond the veil in terms of absolutes or absences: heaven or hell, or perhaps nothing. Instead, Wings of Fame posits a place that is both heaven (for many) and hell (for people like Zlatogorski) and is thus neither. If death takes us to a heaven, a hell, or merely oblivion, the one thing that all these conceptions shares is an understanding that there is a finality, in either a just reward or quiet nothingness. The hotel is all and none of these things, but most significantly it is a place that is just like the world we live in now, full of anxiety, a desire for more, and a place in society that is largely determined by the opinions of others, over which we have little, if any control.

Brandon, how did you feel about the escape clause/lottery that results in Brian and Valentin being returned to life? How do you interpret that event in relation to the film’s themes? What do you make of the fact that they re-emerge as adult men, not reborn (although there are very few narratives like this one in film, I feel like the end of What Dreams May Come, in which the protagonist’s wife escapes her personally created hell to be reincarnated anew as an infant, is the standard finale of the few narratives that explore death and what follows it in this way)?

Brandon: The lottery system conclusion of the film was more confusing than satisfying for me, mostly because it was a previously unmentioned idea that completely upends the afterlife’s core dynamics at the very last second. The lottery’s not exactly a deus ex machina, since it merely shifts the goal posts for victory instead of saving the day, but it does leave the movie with the feeling of a hastily-written comedy sketch without an ending that goes out on the weirdest note possible out of desperation. I do appreciate that the mystery & the melancholy of the film is carried through the conclusion as Brian and Valentin return to Earth as the literal undead, but I’m not sure that the denouement has any thematic significance to how the afterlife works or how fame can make a person relatively immortal. The worst possible ending would have seen the two men come to in a hospital room after the opening assassination attempt in an “It was all a dream” reveal, but I’m not sure this version wasn’t at least a slightly similar disappointment. To be honest, a reincarnation-as-babies ending might have even been preferable, since this one felt so thematically disconnected & hazy.

I don’t think the ending does much to lessen the impact of the philosophically stimulating reflections on fame that come before it, however. Like I said before, the layout & the mechanics of the fame-economy afterlife Wings of Fame envisions is much more interesting than the interpersonal character dramas it contains, since the characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out or detailed as the (after)world they inhabit. I’m less interested in the lottery system escape that releases the characters from this realm than I am in the question of whether the realm itself is hellish or heavenly. The idea of history’s most infamous personalities coexisting in a kind of eternal artists’ salon is initially far more appetizing than the fading-into-oblivion alternative, but Wings of Fame does a good job of complicating its allure. Described as a limbo ruled by “jealousy, fantasy, and boredom,” there’s a kind of psychological torture inherent to an eternity spent in a mansion with mismatched, egotistical celebrities that might be . . . less than ideal.

Britnee, do you think the hellish or heavenly aspects of Celebrity Limbo ever outweigh each other or did this movie’s version of the afterlife register as entirely neutral to you? Is “living” in this post-mortem mansion a prize for a life well-lived, the punishing price of fame, or ultimately neither?

Britnee: I found Celebrity Limbo to be a very hellish place. The idea of being confined to living in a bland hotel until the lottery system works in your favor makes me want to cry. All the silence, dull colors, and obnoxious dead celebrities would drive me insane!  It’s possible I would feel differently if the hotel wasn’t so boring. Perhaps being trapped in a hotel that was similar to a Disney resort wouldn’t be so bad. All those huge pools, funky colored walls, and bowls of free ice cream don’t seem like a bad deal to me. There’s just something about the hotel in this movie that makes me really uncomfortable. Also, the idea of being downgraded to a crappy room or upgraded to a fancy room based on something completely out of your control is absolutely nerve-racking. I can’t help but imagine myself getting comfortable in a decent room and then being forced to move to one of those dirty rooms on the upper floor where I would spend my time anxiously waiting for a change in my popularity. Because of the hellish vibes that I get from Celebrity Limbo, I would have to say that it’s more of a place of punishment than a reward for fame. The rich and famous are known for always doing what they want and getting what they want, and that’s not a possibility in this realm. Their money and power means nothing in limbo, and they rely on the world of the living to keep their memory alive. Honestly, I kind of like the idea of celebrities getting a taste of the reality they avoided in the living world once they enter the afterlife.

Alli, if Wings of Fame was a current film, what do you think Celebrity Limbo would be like?

Alli: I think a current day Wings of Fame would include a lot of self-created celebrities, along with more pop stars, mentions of drugs, and probably an overwhelming soundtrack. So basically even more hellish.

Although, I think it would be a completely different sort of strange. The current era certainly has had more time to reflect on the nature of celebrity, and we even have a whole different idea of what a celebrity is. You can be a YouTube star, a “reality” TV star, have a sex tape scandal, or just run a popular blog, and that’s extremely weird. (It’s especially strange considering that so many of these self-created celebrities are teenagers.) The way you can go from a regular person on the internet to instant fame with a single viral video is really disorienting to think about. It also means that just as quickly as you rose you can fall back into obscurity once another person gets the spotlight. In the era of internet fame and noise, there would be so much changing of rooms that I don’t think the staff would be able to keep up. I do like to think about the amount of internet-famous cats would be there, though. Colonel Meow is not forgotten amongst the legions of cat ladies.

All those teenagers, self-absorbed adults, and bursts of general chaos would probably devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type scenario: tribes of kids just looking for some validation and ways to fit in, claiming the entire ball room or hedge maze. It would be interesting, but definitely lack the slow-paced meditation that Wings of Fame accomplished. I think a lot of the themes of the film would suffer because of our current era’s transparently shallow celebrities. I think we as a culture have embraced the meaninglessness of fame way too much for a contemporary film to be anything but fake-deep and maybe even edgy.

Lagniappe

Alli: Part of the way Wings of Fame avoids coming across as trying too hard is the surrealist and absurdist humor. I know we’ve talked about the lottery scene being sort of an out of nowhere type thing, but I just loved the oblivion S.W.A.T. team swarming in and the juxtaposition of the game show atmosphere.

I had also a lot of moments during this movie thinking of the French New Wave classic Last Year at Marienbad, which takes place at a mysterious hotel filled with ghostlike guests who seem to lack direction. It’s almost the serious, Peter O’Toole-less version. It doesn’t have any thoughts on the ideas of fame, but it certainly has a similar surrealist feel.

Britnee: I felt like I was watching a episode of a televisions series, not a full blown movie, when viewing Wings of Fame. The film didn’t feel like it was complete once it finished. I really think the movie would have benefited from spending a little more time focusing on “life” after the lottery win.

Brandon: As much as I was fascinated by Wings of Fame‘s world-building, I really do believe that it was a mistake to not indulge in filling the characters’ ranks with real life historical figures & pop culture celebrities. The biggest missed opportunity in that dynamic might have been to take Peter O’Toole’s snobbish Shakespearean actor down a peg by having the actual William Shakespeare either insult his talents or offend his posh sensibilities with some Al Bundy-style slobbery. O’Toole doesn’t get much in the way of comeuppance by the movie’s conclusion and it could have been amusing to see him briefly have his balloon deflated by a (dead) celebrity he admires.

Boomer: Thanks for indulging me in this one. I know that I normally recommend movies that are bizarre in a different way, with style but little artistic depth (Class of 1999), flicks that are very genre but with an unusual twist (Head Over Heels), or dark comedies that maybe take it too far (Citizen Ruth), so it was nice to share this one with all of you.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Episode #44 of The Swampflix Podcast: Timmy “Sexy Sax Man” Cappello & Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)

inaworld

Welcome to Episode #44 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our forty-fourth episode, we exhume some forgotten rock n’ roll oddities from their VH1-era burial ground. Brandon and Britnee celebrate the brief cinematic career of multi-instrumentalist Timmy Cappello, best known for performing (shirtless & oiled) with Tina Turner & Bob Dylan and inspiring several “Sexy Sax Man” parodies. Also, Brandon makes Britnee watch the feminist punk milestone Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Who Is Fiona?

A young, passionate musician will stop at nothing until she fulfills her dream of becoming a rock star.  This sounds a lot like Molly McGuire, played by leading lady Fiona Flanagan in November’s Movie of the Month, Hearts of Fire, but this is also Fiona’s story in real life. Flanagan was a young girl from New Jersey with a dream of becoming a rock singer. After hearing Aerosmith for the first time at the age of 15, she fell in love with Steven Tyler’s vocals and decided she would stop at nothing until she was a successful vocalist herself. In the early 80s, an 18-year-old Fiona moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a famous singer. She played shows in small clubs until she landed a record deal in 1985. Her debut album, self-titled Fiona, contained her first hit single, “Talk to Me,”  and the album’s sixth track, “Love Makes You Blind” was featured in the soundtrack for the film No Small Affair (a lesser known film starring Demi Moore and Jon Cryer).  She may not have gained mainstream success with her first album, but she was definitely off to a good start considering how difficult the 80s music scene was. Pop-rock musicians were a dime a dozen, and one hit wonders were more abundant than ever.

Her second album, Beyond the Pale, came shortly after, and it achieved mediocre success. My favorite Fiona song, “Living in a Boys World,” is featured on this album, but most importantly, the music video for the album’s second track, “Hopelessly Love You,” is probably the strangest 80s music video I’ve ever seen. In the video, Fiona models several outrageous outfits, smashes cake before grabbing a goldfish with her bare hands, and bites a taillight on a pink car (among a number of other bizarre acts).  At this point, Fiona was really making a name for herself, so it’s no surprise that she was scooped up to star in 1987’s Hearts of Fire.

Brandon explored Bob Dylan’s feelings (or lack thereof) about his role in Hearts of Fire in his article, Bob Dylan’s Indifference towards Hearts of Fire (1987), The Press, and Life in General, and I thought it would be interesting to know how Fiona felt about the movie. Of course, she was far more enthusiastic about her involvement with the film than Dylan, but she, like most people, overall thinks Hearts of Fire was a terrible film. In a 1998 interview with Bob’s Metal Show, she refers to Hearts of Fire as “that movie” in an attempt to avoid discussing her involvement in the box office flop, but eventually makes a couple of positive comments about the film. She even owns several copies! Her first try at acting involved a small role in a Miami Vice episode, but Hearts of Fire was her first major acting gig. She admits in the Bob’s Metal Show interview that she was very unprepared for such a huge role, but honestly, she was hands-down the most talented actor in the movie.  In another interview with Jen Dan of Adequacy.net , she stated “Rupert, I think, hated me.” referring to Rupert Everett, her love interest (other than Dylan) in the film. That statement broke my heart a little since she seems like such a sweet, down-to-Earth person, but Everett has a reputation for being a douche bag, so it’s his loss if anything.

Her most successful album, 1989’s Heart Like A Gun, was released post-Hearts of Fire, so thankfully, the film’s reputation did not impact her music career. She would go on to release one more album, Squeeze, three years later before taking a break from the music world.  She received a degree in accounting at UCLA and had a very short career with PricewaterhouseCoopers before taking some time off to start a family.  But because music runs through her veins, Fiona jumped back into the music scene with her 2011 album, Unbroken. I listened to a few tracks, and they were all pretty good! She sounds like she’s singing what she wants to sing, how she wants to sing it. Even though she’s currently active in the music scene, it’s highly unlikely that she’ll give acting another shot. Although I enjoyed her performance in Hearts of Fire, this seems like a wise choice.

Fun Fact: Fiona did background vocals for Roger Daltrey’s cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which was featured on The Lost Boys movie soundtrack. Interestingly enough, Timmy Cappello, the “Sexy Sax Man” who appears in one of the early scenes of The Lost Boys performing “I Still Believe,” plays Nico, one of Rupert Everett’s band members in Hearts of Fire!

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the Bob Dylan rock n’ roll disaster Hearts of Fire, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at Dylan’s behind-the-scenes apathy.

-Britnee Lombas

Bob Dylan’s Indifference towards Hearts of Fire (1987), The Press, and Life in General

The only reason to ever dig up our current Movie of the Month, the 1987 rock n’ roll melodrama Hearts of Fire, from its VHS format burial ground is to gawk at how baffling Bob Dylan’s presence is in the film. Cast as a washed up rock n’ roller with an attitude problem & Bad Boy sex appeal, Dylan is insanely wrong for the role. Every mumbling line reading of flirtatious cynicism & every moment of tough guy macho posturing plays like an unintended joke. Dylan consistently fails at the basic task of pretending like he cares about the young woman he’s meant to seduce or the hotel room furniture he lazily smashes as he sleepwalks through the whole ordeal as if he were a man twice his age. It appears as if Dylan’s presence in Hearts of Fire was entirely a marketing decision cooked up by his agent and the music industry legend himself had zero interest in fulfilling the project’s basic requirements. Dylan needed an image rejuvenation after his 80s gospel period pleased no one, but was entirely indifferent to any opportunities presented to accomplish that turnaround. He simply didn’t give a shit.

If you need any confirmation of Bob Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire, there’s a BBC-produced documentary about the making of the film, titled Getting to Dylan, that should make his total lack of interest in the film crystal clear. 1980s press organizations were just as baffled by Dylan’s decision to star in the film as we are now, looking back. It had been decades since Dylan had appeared in weirdo art movies like Don’t Look Back and Renaldo & Clara, so no one could parse out why he chose to revive his nonstarter cinema career with a love triangle music drama where he plays a washed up rocker archetype clearly written for Mick Jagger. Determining the answer to this question was no easy task, since Dylan’s indifference to Hearts of Fire extended to his feelings on speaking to the press and, seemingly, being a living human being. It takes producers of Getting to Dylan almost halfway into their hour-long runtime to get their subject to even speak on what drew him to the project. His answers are, to be expected, mostly a series of cryptic mumbles. When asked what his favorite scenes in the movie involve, he shrugs, “I don’t even know the scenes in the movie, to tell you the truth. They’re all good, I guess.” The only time he seems like he cares about or even knows what’s going on in the movie is when he jokes that he’s being standoffish with reporters because he’s “getting into character.”

As easy as it is to have a laugh at Dylan’s indifference towards the press & his craft as a dramatic actor, Getting to Dylan does offer some insight into why he feels that way. The cynics & sycophants of pop media journalism are grotesque monsters in the BBC doc. First of all, although they’re professionally tasked to ask Bob Dylan questions about Hearts of Fire, they care even less about the movie than he does. While he’s sitting directly next to a stone-faced Fiona (the actual star of the film) he’s asked why he’s debasing himself with such lowly pop culture material when a writer of his talents could presumably have penned a better movie himself. Journalists use Hearts of Fire as an excuse to get close enough to the notoriously reclusive Dylan to ask questions about what the really want to know: the details of his heyday in the 60s & 70s folk scene. Dylan shrugs off the praise heaped on him by music journalists in the film, shyly making self-deprecating nonsense like, “I just write [songs] because nobody tells me I can’t write ‘em.” He shoots down grandiose statements about his work with mumbled repetitions of “Not really,” until the reporters who’ve desperately tried to get him on the mic the entire film ask questions that have nothing to do with his work at all, searching for tabloidish info about his family life & potential assassination attempts. The press is just as gross in their coverage of Hearts of Fire as Bob Dylan is aloof.

There’s nothing especially significant or revelatory about Getting to Dylan. The short-form TV doc is mostly amusing for watching the BBC attempt to cull together scraps of interviews & promotional clips for a movie its subject has less than zero interest in promoting. They have to meet Dylan more than halfway to produce something that resembles a finished product, which is more or less just desserts considering the way they chose to cover his involvement in the film. The most animated Dylan becomes in the doc is in an out of nowhere tangent where he (idiotically) complains that modern, synthesized pop music has “no roots” & “no foundation.” For that brief moment real life old fart Bob Dylan resembles the old fart he was hired to play in Hearts of Fire, a character who similarly turned up his nose at 80s pop & new wave. It’s kind of a shame he couldn’t translate that passionate distaste for modern music into an authentic performance in the film, but it’s still entertaining in its own way to watch him half-heartedly trash a hotel room & seduce a woman half his age with nearly inaudible mumbles and a profoundly stupid earring.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the Bob Dylan rock n’ roll disaster Hearts of Fire, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Hearts of Fire (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon & Boomer watch Hearts of Fire (1987).

Britnee: Known as the film that killed critically acclaimed director Richard Marquand (Return of the JediEye of the Needle, etc.), the 1987 musical drama Hearts of Fire has somehow managed to disappear from the cinematic landscape. It’s so strange for a film with such a well-known director and big name actors (Bob Dylan & Rupert Everett) to not achieve even cult status. I’m not going to beat around the bush here. Hearts of Fire is terrible. It’s so terrible that it went straight to video after spending a very short time in theaters. Until this day, it’s difficult to get a hold of a physical copy because it was never released on DVD, and it doesn’t look like it ever will be.  All of this negativity aside, I wholeheartedly love this movie. It’s a lot of stupid fun without trying to be funny, and that’s why I just had to make the Swampflix crew watch it for Movie of the Month. The film stars music legend Bob Dylan as a washed up rock star turned chicken farmer named Billy Parker. Billy develops an uncomfortable romantic friendship with a young musician, Molly McGuire (Fiona). Molly plays small gigs with her band at her hometown bar (somewhere in Pennsylvania) that’s filled with some very interesting characters, including a barmaid who looks like a combination of Large Marge and Dolly Parton. Billy stumbles into the bar and quickly develops an interest in Molly.  He sort of becomes her mentor, but it’s also obvious that he wants to get in her pants super bad. It’s so hard to watch middle-aged Bob Dylan flirt with a teenager, and it gets even worse when she flirtatiously calls him names like “Dirty Old Man.” Billy is performing in London, and he takes Molly along for the ride. Almost immediately after landing in London, Molly runs into her all-time-favorite singer, James Colt (Rupert Everett), the hottest name in modern music. It doesn’t take long for Molly to be caught in a love triangle between these two men while also striving to achieve her dream of being a superstar. The chemistry between the three main characters is perfect. Dylan moves like a zombie and mumbles truckloads of nonsense, Fiona is a bubbly teen with a great raspy singing voice (Bonnie Tyler meets Laura Branigan), and Everett is the stereotypical 80s pop star. When the three interact with each other, it’s pure entertainment.

The character Billy Parker was initially written for Mick Jagger, but he turned down the role because, well, the script was crap. I’m so thankful he did because Dylan is hilarious in this movie without even trying. He literally mumbles all of his lines and pretty much sleepwalks throughout the entire movie. Dylan was obviously not very excited about starring in Hearts of Fire, and it shows through his acting. He must’ve been very desperate for cash at that point in his life.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dylan’s acting in Hearts of Fire? Was he attempting to portray a tired, old rock star or was he actually a tired, old rock star?  How different would this movie be if Mick Jagger had taken the role of Billy?

Brandon: The originally intended, Mick Jagger version of Hearts of Fire at least makes more sense. Billy Parker is a hard-drinking, fast-loving rock n’ roller, a lifestyle Jagger had genuinely been living for decades by the time this film was released. I don’t necessarily believe that Jagger’s rock n’ roller energy could have saved the film’s embarrassingly lifeless script (which was co-written by Showgirls/Basic Instinct coke monster Joe Eszterhas, of all people), but he could at least have afforded it some authenticity. As Britnee suggests, part of what makes Hearts of Fire so memorably bizarre is that Bob Dylan is absurdly miscast in the role. First of all, unlike Jagger, Bob Dylan does not fuck. Not that he’s a 76 year old virgin or anything, but he’s more of a music industry legend for his rambling, radical politics poetry than he is for pure sexual charisma. Second of all, 1980s Bob Dylan especially does not fuck. Fresh off a creative slump where the singer-songwriter churned out several little-loved gospel records as a Born Again Christian, Dylan was as soft & as unsexy as ever. That’s why it’s so weird to see him don the leather-clad costuming of a rock n’ roll toughie; nothing in his past as an indignant hippie folk singer or a mediocre gospel enthusiast suggests he had earned the right (give of take a recording or two with The Band). The conceit of the film requires Dylan to be playing himself, but not quite, so that he credibly turns heads when he saunters into rock clubs unannounced. Instead, he’s playing a version of himself that never actually existed. This is made doubly strange by the fact that Dylan has the energy level of a man twice his age. He’s less than 50 years old in Hearts of Fire, but he has the charisma of an ancient geezer, to the point where when he smashes a hotel room in a moment of supposed rock n’ roll excess, all the audience can do is laugh at the labored, slow-motion movements in his old man body. Dylan was tasked with making Hearts of Fire cool. Rather than achieve that impossible task, he turned it into a joke.

As fun as it is to gawk at a past-his-prime Dylan slowly seeping out of his range as a dangerous rock n’ roller romantic lead, I do feel really bad for Fiona here. I have to assume Hearts of Fire was even more damaging for her career as a VH1, Pat Benatar-era rock n’ roll singer than it was for the director’s, if not only because I’ve never heard of her before. She’s actually super charming as the film’s lead, Molly McGuire (except maybe when she’s performing the lifeless radio rock that poisons the soundtrack), which makes it a total shame that she’s asked to act circles around a cardboard cutout of Bob Dylan, a man 20 years her senior. With Mick Jagger in the opposite role, there might have been more of a chance for an erotic spark between Molly & Parker to earn film’s baffling R rating, despite Jagger being roughly the same age as Dylan. Instead, we watch an old man leer at Fiona through drooped eyelids between nonsensical, patronizing mumblings about the dangers of the music biz. Her younger, more viable option for a romantic partner is a synthpop twit played by Rupert Everett, who’s essentially laying out a roadmap for Russell Brand’s career as a public nuisance two decades later. He’s no better than Dylan’s old fart, has-been rocker, really, and the men in Molly’s gradually appear to be two versions of the same asshole on different ends of a shared career trajectory. Their patronizing treatment of Molly as a muse & a protégé instead of a professional equal is exemplified even by their respective choices for a “first date” location: an ice cream parlor and a carnival. They treat her like a little kid (just one they happen to want to sleep with). What’s extra gross about this dynamic is that the movie leers right along with them. Rock n’ Roll was very much still a Boy’s Club at the time of Hearts of Fire‘s production (maybe even more than ever, thanks to the groupie-exploiting hijinks associated with hair metal) and the film obliges the male gaze’s interest in Fiona’s body just as often as it allows her to play music. The camera drools over her as she skinnydips, sleeps pantsless, and forgoes a bra in her sound booth recording sessions. Fiona not only deserved a better pair of rock scene buffoons to lust after her; she deserved a better movie overall.

Boomer, what did you make of Fiona’s performance and her positioning at the center of this bizarre rock star love triangle? Was the Boy’s Club perspective of the film’s version of rock n’ roll at all offset by details like her ultimate decision to choose neither man as a lover & the one lovemaking scene that focused on Everett’s naked flesh for a change? Or was the movie just as limiting of her potential as the leading man-children who populate it?

Boomer: I thought Fiona was quite charming, actually. For the first 45 minutes of the film I found the scenes that focused solely on her to be the best part: her deprecating interactions with her shitty boss, her short but sweet scene with her roommate, even her objections to joining her bandmates in their new gig (despite her objections that she doesn’t play lounge music being bratty in a Reality Bites way). But every time Dylan was on screen, all of my good will just got sucked right out of me. It wasn’t just his performance (which was, make no mistake, terrible), but also his overall look and demeanor. Young Dylan was a cutie pie, and the elder Dylan now is like a noble statesman in his appearance, but a shudder ran down my spine when Molly asked him to go skinny dipping with her; she’s young and effusive and adorable and he looks like someone took 60s Dylan’s face and turned it into a tanned and cracked handbag. All I could think about was this exchange between Bart and Marge in “A Fish Called Selma”: “Why did they make that one Muppet out of leather?” “That’s not a leather Muppet, that’s [Bob Dylan]!”

Which is not to say that Everett serves as a better love interest. His sex scene with Fiona may have focused more on his flesh than hers, but it is to the film’s detriment, as the scene itself is the least erotic love scene that I’ve born witness to since Argento’s Phantom of the Opera. Everett is not an ugly man (I’d argue that his shower scene in Cemetary Man could make any receptive audience member, wombed or not, pregnant), but he’s never been more unappealing than in this greasy mullet and untweezed unibrow. He only barely manages to be more attractive than Dylan by virtue of the fact that he’s not sporting Dylan’s embarrassing earring, which was as distracting as it was pathetic.

Despite being surrounded by so much poor decision-making in the way of casting, costuming, and everything else, Fiona manages to be likable and ebullient. I did spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop with regards to her fame, however. In a film like this, when a semi-naive country girl is dropped into the lap of a more experienced performer and explores his world of fame from the inside, you expect there to be a certain kind of turning point. Although Colt is subtly inferred to drink too much, Molly never falls into chemical dependence or is forced to confront the fact that her lover is a rock star with a libido to match and he “needs” more than one woman, nor does she have any real failings. The suicide of one of Colt’s fans is the only real obstacle in her life or career after she leaves Pennsylvania, and she’s really only involved tangentially as a witness. Her decision to take neither of her proposed love interests as her endgame partner suggests a kind of feminism, but ultimately feels more like the screenwriter didn’t expect women to experience fame and all of its accompanying temptations and pitfalls the same way that men do, or even at all.

Britnee, do you think that there was a faded rock star in 1987 who could have played the Billy Parker role without it coming off as creepy and weird? Would it have been a better choice to hire an actor who could sing instead of a singer who could(n’t) act? Who would you have cast instead in the roles of Parker and Colt, and why?

Britnee: The thing about washed up rock stars is that they are usually highly unattractive and just hard to look at in general (Bret Michaels immediately comes to mind), so the idea of any real-life, washed up rock star successfully playing the role of Billy Parker seems close to impossible. Most of the musicians that I immediately thought of were still big names in 1987, but their careers are over and done in this day and age. Honestly, I think that 1987 Iggy Pop would have been the best choice. Bob Seger would come in as a second choice, but he’s got a dad vibe to him that isn’t sexy at all. He’s got a very interesting personality and he definitely knows how to work his sexuality, unlike Dylan. Iggy Pop would probably make the unavoidable creepiness of Parker’s character much easier to stomach, but the idea of casting an actor that can sing in the Billy Parker role makes a lot more sense to me. It’s a film after all, not an album. Take a look at James Colt. Everett’s singing wasn’t amazing, but his acting was pretty good. Come to think of it, having a real-life musician in the role of James Colt would have been a better choice, if a musician had to be in the film. Even if the younger musician sucked at acting, more people would have seen this movie and it wouldn’t have flopped so hard at the box office.

In my fantasy recasting of Hearts of Fire, I’m imagining Chris Sarandon as Billy Parker. I recently watched Fright Night and was reminded of how he really does own the screen. As for James Colt, I would cast my favorite 80s music bad-boy, Billy Idol. He’s just so much fun! He’s got some decent acting skills as far as music videos go, and his charisma is out of control. His personality is so vibrant compared to the blandness that is Everett, and it’s what the role of James Colt desperately needs. This is a guy who is the biggest name on the music scene, so lets give him some flare.

Sometimes when musicians take on acting, it does work in their favor. For instance, David Bowie, Cher, and Barbra Streisand had many successful roles in major films. However, most of the time, it just doesn’t work out.

Brandon, after all of the flops that feature musicians attempting to be actors, why do you think this is still such a prominent occurrence in film? Why don’t they just give it a rest? Is there some sort of method to the madness?

Brandon: I have to assume that most acting turns from musicians are  marketing decisions, not artistic ones. When David Byrne directs a weirdo art film like True Stories, it’s obviously coming from a place of artistic passion, but it’s a different story altogether when, say, Vanilla Ice stars in a rap-oriented remake of a Marlon Brando motorcycle picture. Vanilla Ice likely didn’t get into the rap game thinking the best way to purely express himself would be as a leading man in a high-fructose romantic comedy. That decision had to have been made for him through a series of boardroom meetings over marketing data that suggested Cool as Ice would boost his album sales & cultural cachet. I can’t speak for Bowie, Cher, or Streisand’s respective movie industry success stories as either passionate work that happened to pay off or marketing decisions that stuck because of natural talent, but Hearts of Fire is most definitely seeped in the desperate cash grab end of that dichotomy. Fiona’s marketing team was likely invested in catapulting a rising star with a hit motion picture, while Dylan’s own publicity team was attempting to borrow some Mick Jagger edge to forgive the sins of his thoroughly un-cool gospel period that immediately preceded the film. I’m pretty sure that Hearts of Fire proved to be an embarrassment & a failure for both musicians, but it’s especially cringe-worthy for Dylan, whose prematurely senile mumblings in the film did absolutely no favors for his dangerous rock star street cred.

Most marketing decisions are a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition made while a pop star is Having a Moment. To hammer the comparison home, I have to assume that Cool as Ice was greenlit when “Ice Ice Baby” was endlessly looping on the radio. By the time the movie hit theaters, however, Ice’s moment had more or less passed and audiences’ thirst for him had, um, cooled. Hearts of Fire feels similarly late to the table. The late 80s was admittedly a strange, stagnant time for radio rock. Nirvana wouldn’t break through until a few years later (as immortalized in the documentary title 1991: The Year Punk Broke), so most genuinely subversive rock n’ roll movements at the time (punk, sludge, thrash, etc.) were largely invisible to mainstream audiences. Still, even a cheesy hair metal soundtrack would have been more cutting edge than the stubbornly old-fashioned 70s arena rock and post-Benatar VH1 rock Fiona & Dylan were tasked with selling as cool here. Even the Soft Cell & Human League style of new wave pop Everrett’s character is supposedly a sell-out for playing would have been years & years stale by the time Hearts of Fire was released. They might as well have made fun of him for singing disco. Casting Bob Dylan as a dangerous, sexy rock star isn’t the only way Hearts of Fire fails to keep its finger on the pulse of modern rock either. When Fiona & company play “aggressive” rock meant to rile up the British punks pogoing in the London audience, it plays like an unintentional joke. In a real life 1987, those kids would have laughed them off the stage for performing the music their parents listen to.

Boomer, I get the general sense that punk & metal aren’t entirely Your Thing as much as other music genres. From that outside perspective, was Hearts of Fire‘s version of dangerous 80s rock n’ roll as noticably, laughably out of date for you or could you more easily excuse the inauthenticity of the youth culture it was selling?

Boomer: Untrue on the count of the first, but correct with regards to metal. I think you’re probably thinking back to this passage from my Shock ‘Em Dead review, and you’re remembering it correctly: “I’m not here to pass judgement on Metal as a genre—after all, as far as devotees to a particular musical style are concerned, metalheads are some of the most aggressive, fanatical, defensive, and insular, and I’m not looking to get my head bashed in by a guy […] who has willingly and purposefully refused to listen to anything that came out after the demise of Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Metal fandom is a mostly misogynistic miasma of guttural throats, thrashing, and toxic masculinity, devoted to a musical subculture that was most successful during a decade where everyone was coked out of their fucking minds, but it’s also the genre that features some of the most amazing and mindboggling musical feats ever performed on guitar, and that fact is not lost on me.” So, yeah, as with some things that I like, there’s a bit of personal backlash against the devotees rather than the thing itself; I think that this feeling is evident in the way that I’ve written about Christianity in my The Late Great Planet Mirth articles as well. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with my roommate, who pointed out that he’s always associated Star Trek and the Grateful Dead with each other in his mind, because they’re both works of art that are as famous for their fandoms as they are for the text itself; as much as I would like to enjoy metal, the fandom is simply too toxic for me to enjoy.

My obvious punk days are behind me (it’s hard to show your commitment when you no longer have enough hair to die or ‘hawk), but that doesn’t mean I’m not still a fan of the music or the ethos, although I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the slow infiltration of nationalism into the punk scene (admittedly not as deep in the bone as it is in some pockets of the metal scene, where it seems to breed like a weed) disturbing and disconcerting. Like, seriously, Nazi punks fuck off.

Overall, I found the film to be laughable in its attempt to be “hard” or “edgy,” although I credit that feeling more to simply being a person and not a punk fan. I mentioned it before, but I found Molly’s insistence that she doesn’t play lounge music to be the complaint of a contemptuous brat. I’m reminded of a story I read about a flautist who had been coddled and fawned over from an early age and reached high school as a prodigious talent but also a confrontational and sententious jerk. His high school band raised money by performing an annual community concert wherein they played various compositions with which the general public was familiar, like the Star Wars hero theme and the score to Harry Potter; he refused to participate because doing so was “beneath” him. He was accepted to Julliard but flunked out within a year because he felt that he knew more than his professors. At the time of the last update that the author of the story (a former high school bandmate) had heard, the flautist was now having to live on Earth with the rest of us, with no prospects in his desired field but still clinging to his delusions of musical godhood and not having learned the humility that usually accompanies such a fall from grace. I look at Molly and consider her age and have to ask, just how many dues could she have possibly paid? How could she possibly be so naive? But then the film sees fit to have a haggard musical genie come along and sweep her away from her podunk town, which makes the film a fantasy of wish fulfillment for every backwater kid who knows three chords and thinks they have a story to tell. With that in mind, I’m not surprised that the narrative is so acutely lacking in self-awareness of how these stories play out in real life that we’re supposed to agree with her and be swept along in her wake, but you hit the nail on the head with the words “laughable” and “inauthentic.”

Boomer: I’ve never seen a film so hell bent on not pulling the trigger on Chekhov’s Gun. When Billy first rolls into town, the handle of a revolver is hanging out of the front of his jacket. I’m pretty certain that we also see the same gun sitting on the counter in his kitchen near the end of the film, but we never see him using it at all. There’s not even a scene where he takes Molly out to the back forty to shoot tin cans off of a fence while he pontificates about some metaphor comparing the cans to men who will try to steal or subvert her talent. Sure, we get to see one of Colt’s (har har the irony) fans use a gun, but it’s not the same one. I kept wondering when Billy’s gun was going to come into play, but it never does. That’s a first draft problem, but this is also a first draft movie, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.

Brandon: For a much more authentic look at a singer-songwriter struggling to establish her own voice in the oppressive Boys’ Club of 1980s rock n’ roll, I highly recommend 1982’s Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. The feminist messaging is more pointed, the songs are more believably punk, and you get to have a glimpse at a before-she-was-famous Laura Dern. As much as I allowed myself to be charmed by Fiona as a personality, I think Hearts of Fire is really only worth digging up to laugh in Bob Dylan’s face as he bizarrely attempts to pass himself off as a sexy, dangerous rock god & fails miserably. The Fabulous Stains, by contrast, is a genuinely great movie set in a notably similar atmosphere.

Britnee: I’ve recently watched a couple of interviews with Bob Dylan around the time Hearts of Fire was filmed, and he is just as tired in real life as he is in this movie. He should’ve gone on a two-week cruise instead of making a movie to get some of his energy restored. But as sad as it sounds, I love how horrible he was, and I love how horrible this movie is. I wish it had achieved cult status so there could be midnight showings with fans dressed up as James Colt (in oversized suits and greasy mullets).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Afflicted (2014), Unfriended (2015), and the Future of Found Footage Horror

After the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror market was flooded with found footage echoes of that pioneer work that diluted its legacy. Titles like [Rec.], Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, and straight-to-DVD dreck too bland to even be named exhausted the possibilities of how the found footage gimmick could be kept fresh on the horror landscape despite the limitations of its form. There’s still an occasional success that follows a traditional found footage formula (The Visit & Creep both immediately come to mind), but for the most part that subgenre still feels oddly faithful to the roadmap laid out by Blair Witch almost two decades ago. For me, the most exciting developments in found footage gimmickry have been the instances where movies leave behind the handheld camcorders of Blair Witch entirely and switch up the technology of the devices used to record their horrors. Our current Movie of the Month, Unfriended, is my go-to example of how updates in technology can keep this genre alive. Framed entirely within the POV of a laptop screen during a deadly Skype conversation, Unfriended offers a new, novel perspective on found footage storytelling. It recaptures the “It could happen to you” verisimilitude of Blair Witch’s camcorder format without merely repeating the trick. The subsequent shift to smartphone POV (via Snapchat) in Sickhouse wasn’t quite as memorable, but at least offers hope that future technology jumps can keep this genre fresh. We can’t continue to produce carbon copies of The Blair Witch Project and expect them to remain effective. Its modes of “documentation” no longer reflect the way we film our lives, in supernatural thrillers or otherwise.

I believe Unfriended is the best technology jump I’ve seen among Blair Witch descendants, but it wasn’t the first. A year before Unfriended hit wide release, a much smaller indie horror titled Afflicted offered its own Blair Witch technology advancement in what could (reductively) be described as GoPro Horror. Written, directed by, and starring Derek Lee & Chris Prowse (who use their own names & old photographs in the film), Afflicted adapts vampire transformation horror to the format of a reality show-style travelogue. Two American buddies take a break from their daily drudgery as an I.T. bro (who’s suffering an aneurysm-causing brain disorder) & a low-level documentarian (who just wants to shake his bestie out of his medically-induced rut) to backpack through Europe in search for excitement, experience, adventure, and distraction. They document their every waking moment on a shared “video travel blog” titled Ends of the Earth. Things take a bad turn when the aneurysm-suffering tech bro engages in a one night stand hookup with a French girl and is unwittingly turned into a vampire. The bubbly self-promo energy of the reality show travelogue then slips away as the focus shifts to documenting the supernatural changes in his body, which range from the ailments & abilities of a superhero to those of a bloodthirsty monster. By the end of the film he’s a fully feral Nosferatu, wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris with wild abandon. Afflicted is an exciting balance of dirt cheap, accessible technology (most notably in its use of GoPro footage) and large scale CGI horror spectacle. The tension between those two aesthetics pumps fresh blood into the veins of two over-drained horror subgenres (the found footage horror & the vampire myth) while still maintain the feeling of two normal buds making a no-budget indie together. As the technology of its camera equipment becomes more obsolete, it might stand a chance as surviving as an essential cultural document, just as Unfriended captures what life online feels like in the 2010s (except maybe with less vampirism & ghost murders, respectively).

As much as I remain impressed with Afflicted’s use of new technology to revitalize the found footage gimmick, I do have to admit that its basic accomplishment have become less novel over time. Spring offered a much better version of the supernatural European vacation from Hell narrative (sans the found footage device). They’re Watching (although total garbage) was more fully invested in the reality show turned found footage horror format (which still has more room to be fully explored). Most importantly, though, Unfriended’s commitment to framing its entire story through a single Skype session has since made Afflicted’s only occasional use of GoPros seem a little half-assed in retrospect. At this year’s New Orleans Film Fest I saw a darkly funny, merciless drama titled Damascene that proved it’s possible to film an entire movie on GoPros without it inherently feeling like a Hardcore Henry-style first person shooter. Afflicted mostly saves its GoPro sequences for its final, action-packed stretch as our vampiric antihero is being chased by Interpol for his crimes against innocent Parisians. Most of the movie is seemingly filmed on handheld digital camcorders, which makes it more a direct Blair Witch descendant than the much more fully committed Unfriended. Still, an intense focus is placed on the technology behind the documentation, even including a scene where all of the documentarian’s gear is laid out & cataloged on a hotel room bed (chest-mounts, GoPros, zoom lenses, etc.). The movie also finds the technological novelty in its attention to the two buddies’ travel blog, especially in how they crowdsource information through the comment sections. Afflicted may be slipping in my estimation in how its GoPro horror gimmick is used to revitalize the found footage format, but it’s still endlessly impressive in how it punches above its weight by playing with the latest available technological tools.

Although Afflicted is not as fully committed to its employment of GoPro technology to revitalize found footage horror as Unfriended was with Skype or Sickhouse was with Snapchat, it’s still worthy as an early signifier that the genre will only survive & remain fresh if it’s allowed to keep up with the technology of its time. I’m not convinced that Afflicted would have been half as interesting as a vampire transformation narrative or as a found footage horror piece without its GoPro technology & travel blog documentation providing modern online culture texture to its basic aesthetic. Just a year later, Unfriended did the same for the traditional ghost story within a found footage context, although admittedly with a fuller, better-realized commitment to its gimmick. It’s unclear what the next technology jump is for the found footage genre (although it’s likely a return to the Sickhouse smartphone gimmick is likely what’s next for Unfriended 2, at least), but the further the genre moves away from the handheld camcorders of The Blair Witch Project the better. There’s no reason for the genre to remain stuck in the technology of 1999 and the more it makes an effort to keep up with the gear available to its characters in the era they’re terrorized onscreen, the more effective it will remain as a mode of true-to-life horror & a cultural document.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017), and last week’s discussion of our hopes for it just-announced sequel.

-Brandon Ledet

What We’d Most Like to See from the Sequel to Unfriended (2015)

It takes a few months of vetting & email exchanges to pull off our regular Movie of the Month discussions, so our individual selections for the feature are typically scheduled long before they’re published on the site. Even with that publishing delay, though, our selections often stumble into serendipitous timing. For instance, it turns out this October was an especially good time for us to return to the found footage social media horror Unfriended for a Movie of the Month round-table. Not only did the conversation happen to coincide with the American release of Unfriended‘s German knockoff, Friend Request, but it was also just announced that a sequel to the laptop-framed sleeper hit has already been filmed and is looking for a near-future release date. So, with this already-completed sequel lurking on the digital horizon and its gimmicky supernatural horror predecessor fresh on our minds, we thought it’d be a good time to weigh in as a crew on what we’d most like to see from Unfriended 2.

Britnee: What I most want to see in Unfriended 2 would be for the victims to actually leave their homes in order to get to the bottom of a cyber mystery. Confining the entire crew of teens to their bedrooms for most of the first Unfriended got to be a little boring. Each teen could be on FaceTime together (I think more than two people can be on it at once?). They’d all be tasked with figuring out the true reason Laura Barns died by visiting her grave, the place where she shot herself, etc. The idea of using smartphones to communicate with each other instead of laptops seems to be more modern, so I’m assuming the film will go in that direction.

Also, what if Laura had a brother or sister that wanted to avenge her death? A Barns sibling could act as a lure to get shitty teens to visit Laura’s haunted cyber world where they’d meet super crazy/brutal deaths. Laura can kill a couple of teens and her sibling can try their hand at murder too.

Brandon: My initial impulse would also be to switch up Unfriended‘s technology gimmick to a new device or platform from the laptop-framed Skype chat POV of the original. The mental roadblock I’m running into there, though, is that a lot of the better options have already been taken.  Sickhouse already delivered a Snapchat Story version of The Blair Witch Project, so smartphones have been done. Afflicted already supposed what a supernatural horror would look like filmed entirely through GoPros. Neither work is perfect, but by repeating either gimmick, Unfriended 2 risks becoming a kind of redundancy. Its only technological refuge from there might be framing its story from the POV of an Apple Watch, and I’m not even sure I would want to watch that.

With little choice but to repeat the laptop-framed Skype conversation format from the first film, I think Unfriended 2‘s best chance for satisfying audiences is the usual route taken by slasher sequels: going broader with the humor and gorier with the kills. There’s an endless sea of electronic appliances out there that the next wave of online teen bullies could be forced to kill themselves with by Laura Barns’s ghost. Salsa blenders & hair straighteners have already been employed, but there’s still clothing irons, trash compactors, egg beaters, dishwashers, light sockets, and all kinds of other household electronics that could be used to dispose of Unfriended 2‘s teenage trash. Just look to the bonkers Stephen King trash fire Maximum Overdrive for more inspiration there. The sequel could even forgo the verisimilitude of the online experience in the first film and go full-on live action cartoon in its sense of gimmick-dependent novelty. Why not fully commit and kill the new batch of kids with lethal pop up ads or literal computer viruses?

Basically, like with most slashers, I don’t expect Unfriended 2 to be anywhere near as good as the original film, so I think its best chance for memorability is to be as violent and as silly as possible.

Alli: I know you think smartphones and Snapchat wouldn’t be original enough, but I haven’t seen a movie that utilizes those in this context. I really would like a ridiculous Unfriended-style murder with the dog Snapchat filter flipped on. Or maybe a horrific face swap.

Also, the ending is a little ambiguous. Maybe Blaire lived to tell the tale. Maybe Laura messed her up just enough that she’s going to be babbling about ghosts for the rest of her life, which could lead to the cliché, but inevitable horror movie mental institution scene.

There could even be an element of The Ring involved, where the YouTube video of Laura’s suicide is now cursed. A group of kids from the same high school could have watched it and now face the same fate as the original teens.

I know all of this sounds very derivative, but the idea of a sequel to a movie that was this tightly wrapped up seems like a cash grab.

It could also be interesting if Unfriended 2 went straight to a streaming service and worked that in somehow. An “Are you still watching?” prompt after a violent death scene would be a delightfully goofy moment.

Boomer: I’d like to once again note my surprise at the fact that not only was Unfriended decent, but actually pretty good. With that in mind, I don’t have much hope for the sequel. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie, but the need for a sequel gave us the underwhelming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I think actually works on some levels as a creepy film about people losing time and being possessed in the woods, but is terrible as a continuation of the original story for various reasons, not the least of which is a rejection of the first film’s found footage roots in favor of a more traditional cinematic style). Alternatively, we could end up with something like Scream 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that is competent and almost as good as the original, if not of equal quality.

My biggest complaint about Unfriended was that it set Blaire up as a traditional Final Girl and then cut her to shreds. I remain unconvinced that she was deserving of the retribution that she received; I was never fully convinced that she participated in the creation of sock puppet accounts to encourage Laura to kill herself, and the fact that she (in her own drunkenness) filmed Laura in her inebriated, passed out state (but didn’t, at least in my reading of the text, share the video) is casually unthinking but not outright cruel. If anything, I’m hoping that the sequel will clarify this and show whether or not Blaire was, in fact, deserving of the vitriol heaped on her. Maybe we’ll see her as the new internet poltergeist, doling out unbalanced revenge on those who commented on her own Facebook, or she’ll be like Alice from the first two Friday the 13th films, surviving to the end only to be killed off in the first scene of the follow-up. Only time will tell.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017).

-The Swampflix Crew