Mamma Mina!: A Crash Course in Musicarelli

One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.

Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.

If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.

Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.

1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)

2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)

3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)

4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)

5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Ginger & Cinnamon (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 watch Ginger and Cinnamon (2003).

CC: Ginger and Cinnamon is an early-aughts Italian romcom that centers on a thirty-year-old woman, who is reeling from a recent break-up with her long-term boyfriend, and her fourteen-year-old niece, who is unabashedly horny and determined to lose her virginity ASAP. The film combines traditional elements of a romcom and an odd-couple comedy. The aunt, Stefy, is neurotic and repressed. She constantly struggles with the extremely unhealthy body issues our toxic culture promotes to women her age; this mostly manifests in an obsession with losing weight and a delusional belief that eating chocolate will help her achieve that goal. Her niece, Megghy, is her exact opposite. She is entirely confident in her own skin, unconcerned with her own baby fat and convinced that she is an irresistible sex goddess that every man desires. When the two polar-opposite women escape their messy lives in Italy to vacation on a Grecian island, the niece unknowingly attempts to seduce the aunt’s adult, uninterested ex, Andrea. Meanwhile, the aunt is also pursued by a virginal boy half her age who is just as hormonally charged as her niece. A farcical comedy of errors ensues, complete with mistaken identities and near-connections, until all appropriate couples are re-scrambled correctly in a classic manner.

When I first saw this film in the early 2000s, I was the same age as the niece. While I didn’t fully identify with her maniacal level of horniness, I do remember being impressed by her pragmatic ideas about sex. While her delusion that she was going to orgasm three times during her very first sexual encounter was impractical (and points to toxic societal ideas about sexual performance in its own way), I did like the way she reasoned that she shouldn’t lose her virginity to someone she loved because she was likely not going to be very good at it and needed to practice while the stakes were lower. Returning to the film now, I’m much closer to the aunt’s age. Again, I don’t identify with the aunt’s particular hang-ups, but I do feel for her in how she’s so damaged by toxic societal ideals, especially in her neurotic fears of gaining weight. Both then and now, I appreciate the two women’s dynamic. The aunt never passes her own harmful ideas about bodies or sex down to her niece. She keeps an eye on her niece’s disastrous attempts to have sex, but she mostly thinks it’s a bad idea on a practical level, not a moral one. Usually in a romcom where one character is too horny and the other is too frigid, the pair must learn a lesson and meet in the middle, but there’s no real moralizing about sexuality in that way here. Instead, the film mostly plays as dumb, fun summer fluff – as long as you can get past the self-inflicted fat-shaming.

Between its fantastical musical interludes and its island full of maniacally horny young adults, this almost has the same bizarre energy as the first Mamma Mia! film, released just a few years later. At the same time, it often interrupts its Grecian romcom fantasy with realistic documentary touches, like ethnographic interviews with real life people on vacation on the island where it was filmed. Brandon, do you think these cinema verité breaks from the fantasy served any thematic purpose? How did it feel to have the romantic fantasy elements of the film interrupted with reminders that its island setting is a real place that real people visit? By contrast, you never get that with Mamma Mia!, which does not feel like it’s set in a real-world place you can actually visit.

Brandon: The island of Ios, where Ginger and Cinnamon is set, self-brands as “the Island of Love,” so even in real life its reputation as a tourist attraction is built on romantic fantasy escapism. This film’s earliest scenes establish a classic romcom dynamic where the audience is primed to expect that fantasy to be fully indulged, Mamma Mia! style. Our adult protagonist’s profession as a bookstore owner is one of the romcommiest jobs imaginable; her differences with her ex are traditionally gendered to an absurd degree (when they go to the video store to pick out date night rentals, she likes romcoms but he likes gialli); the ex is a bit of a callous brute, but he makes absolutely divine chocolate cakes that melt her heart. We’d fully expect a film with that first-act foundation to dive into the deep end of wish-fulfillment romcom fantasy once it reaches Ios, but Ginger and Cinnamon is stubborn in its decision to show the island as it truly is. Instead of “The Island of Love,” Ios is portrayed here as “Crazy Teenager Island,” a hedonistic hell-pit swarmed by horned-up youths from around the globe. All the background extras look like they’re tertiary members of dirtbag 90s bands like Sublime & Sugar Ray; they’re all delirious from day-drinking in a punishing overdose of sunshine then partying late into the night, fueled only by a dangerous cocktail of hormones & sugary liquor. Even the long-distance ferry ride to the island is about as unromantic as it gets, with dumbass kids sporting hideous aughts fashions hooking up in an endless sea of sleeping bags – like a hostel on the water. As jarring & obtrusive as the interviews with real-life vacationers in Ios sometimes felt, they helped reinforce a greater contrast between romantic expectation vs grotesque reality that runs throughout the rest of the film. Our two lovelorn (and/or sex-starved) leads struggle to reconcile the fantasy of what’s in their heads with the disappointing reality of the men they have to work with, and the romantic fantasy of the island clashes with its slimy reality in a similar way.

That’s not to say that Ginger and Cinnamon doesn’t find traditional romcom escapism elsewhere. If nothing else, the movie concludes on two different romantic fantasy topes: the last-minute sprint to the airport (or, in this case, the ferry dock) to stop the love of your life from leaving without hearing your true feelings and the break-with-reality Bollywood dance number. While I did eventually come to understand how that romcom conclusion fit in with the film’s general contrasting of expectation vs. reality, the Bollywood fantasy that followed was much more of a surprise. That might just be because the music choices throughout the film were so scatterbrained & erratic that I had no idea what to expect from minute to minute, much less where it would conclude. Whereas Mamma Mia!’s own romantic escape to Horny Teenager Island is tonally anchored to its function as an ABBA jukebox musical, the needle drops in Ginger and Cinnamon are all over the place. Italian opera, romantic sitars, Boy George, The Village People, Wire, and theme songs to Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s all clash in a spectacular tonal gumbo that’s just as jarring as the film’s mix of fantasy & reality. Concluding on a Bollywood-style dance number set to an Italian pop song about smoking cigarettes displays just about as much tonal consistency as it would to conclude with black metal, polka, or Miami bass; it’s all chaos anyway, so practically anything could fit. Britnee, were you more delighted or distracted by Ginger and Cinnamon’s erratic soundtrack choices? Did any one musical moment stand out to you as a particular favorite?

Britnee: The soundtrack for Ginger and Cinnamon was like setting your music library on shuffle, which is how I already listen to music for the most part anyway. I’m typically never in the mood to listen to the same genre of music for longer than an hour or so, and shuffling songs keeps the music fresh and exciting. In Ginger and Cinnamon, the mystery of what song could be lingering around the corner and whether or not it would include a dance and lip sync performance was very enjoyable. Although the songs didn’t have much in common as a collection, they were all very fitting for each individual scene. For instance, the Ios bar crowd drunkenly singing along to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in the wee hours of the morning was so spot-on with reality. As for my favorite musical moment, the kooky “Ta Ra Ta Ta” musical number at the end of the film between Stefy and Andrea was my absolute favorite. It was so much fun in that Mamma Mia! sort of way (it seems like we are all on the same page with the Mama Mia! similarities). Their performance had me bopping my head and smiling to a song that I never heard before and couldn’t understand whatsoever. I’ve actually been listening to “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by Italian pop singer Mina Mazzini on repeat every day since, and I’ve fallen in love with Mina’s music and scandalous presence in the Italian pop music scene in the 1960s. Ginger and Cinnamon is the gift that keeps on giving.

I really enjoyed the fabulously random music’s contrast to the tranquil Grecian background. At first, I was a little confused as to where Stefy and Megghy were vacationing. I assumed that because this was an Italian film that the two were heading to the Amalfi Coast or some other Italian beach destination. I was surprised to find out that they were going to the Greek island of Ios, which is quite a ways away from Italy. No wonder that ferry ride looked so miserable! I know that Mamma Mia! has been brought up a few times in our conversation, but it’s so bizarre how the two films share so many similarities – mainly horniness and musical numbers on a Greek island. CC, is there just something about the white sands and white buildings of Greece that serves as a great blank canvas for quirky romcoms? Would you have felt differently about Ginger and Cinnamon if the setting were different?

CC: I think the only absolutes required for this setting was that it was a beach and that it was far enough away from Italy that they couldn’t just go home when they stopped enjoying themselves. I think any “Horny Teen Island” would have done. I’m not familiar with European beach-party culture, but surely Ios isn’t the only beach where people sunbathe all day & club all night. (Isn’t Ibiza a thing?)

Nevertheless, we’ve now got at least two quirky romcoms set on Greek islands, Ginger and Cinnamon & Mamma Mia!, so what about that setting is a siren song for the genre? Perhaps it’s a little bit of snobbishness from Mainland Europe? A major aspect of the plot in both romcoms involves our protagonists traveling to a remote locale where communication with the “real world” is limited and life is lived at a slower pace. And, as Greece didn’t really have a strong economy even before the recession, perhaps the stereotype of being backwater had some truth to it? I couldn’t see any romcom, unless it was about the 1%, being set on the French Rivera; romcoms usually feel the need to appear at least semi-attainable as wish-fulfillment. The affordability and the supposed Old World authenticity of the locale make it a perfect place for a dream vacation where European women can imagine themselves being swept up in a grand, passionate romance, so of course it’s enticing to set romcoms there.

Brandon, we’ve talked a lot about the music and the ambiance of the movie so far, but we haven’t really gotten into the interpersonal drama. There are two types of relationships depicted in Ginger and Cinnamon: the romantic bonds between men & women and a familial bond between aunt & niece. Did you find either category more satisfying or compelling than the other?

Brandon: I found them almost equally compelling, but in entirely different ways. The romantic tension of Ginger and Cinnamon is compelling the way that a horrific car accident can be, as we cringe through the colossal mistake of a teenage girl believing her only path to happiness would be to seduce an adult man. To make matters worse, we know something she doesn’t: the specific man she’s after is the same scoundrel who broke her aunt’s heart, the same one who she’s been hearing complaints about the entire vacation. That’s what makes the near-connections of the two ex-lovers almost running into each other in Ios such an effective throwback to the type of Old Hollywood farces that were usually set in fancy hotels. We know that as soon as everyone realizes that the aunt & niece are pining for the same man there’s going to be an awful mess of hurt feelings & mangled relationships to clean up, but the film obviously prolongs that release of tension for as long as it can.

In the meantime, while we’re holding back the urge to scream, the familial dynamic between aunt & niece is much more compelling & satisfying in an emotional sense. As toxic as the aunt can be when tearing herself down with body shaming & sexual repression, she doesn’t weaponize that cruelty towards the teen in her care at all. If anything, the horned-up niece is allowed almost too much bodily confidence & sexual freedom in a potentially dangerous environment where they can get her in trouble. At least, that’s what the aunt allows her niece to believe as she keeps a close, protective eye on her. The men that could potentially stand between them are useful for generating comedic & dramatic tension, but the curious relationship between repressed aunt & carefree niece (and how they gradually become more like each other in positive ways) is the true heart of the film.

For all of this film’s wild sexual energy and over-the-top farcical mishaps, a lot of what stands out to me are its small grace moments of pure, wholesome sweetness. Besides the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” & “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” dance numbers previously mentioned, I also thought it was sweet when the aunt buys a slice of chocolate cake (made with ginger & cinnamon, of course) that was, unbeknownst to her, made by her ex. She enjoys the familiar taste of the recipe, but remarks that her ex made it better. Since we know that he made the exact same cake she’s eating in both instances, using the exact same recipe, she’s effectively just saying that food tasted better when he was around to enjoy it with her. I found that disarmingly sweet, especially considering how callous & raunchy the film can be elsewhere. Britnee, were there any other moments of Ginger and Cinnamon you could single out as being especially sweet or endearing, despite the film’s hedonistic surroundings?

Britnee: I found just about all of the heart-to-heart talks between aunt and niece to be especially sweet. The one that stuck out the most in my mind was when Stefy and Megghy were lying in the bed with their legs resting up on the wall, talking about all the issues weighing on their hearts. It’s the sort of thing that young girls do at a sleepover when talking about their school crushes. In that moment, there was no age difference between the two. They were just two girls sharing their thoughts with each other, and it was incredibly heartwarming.

I also found the moments when Megghy was desperately trying to get Andrea’s attention surprisingly charming. The obnoxious teenage qualities of Megghy reminded me so much of myself when I was her age, and I cringe to even think about it. Andrea’s reaction to her chatter is something I found to be both funny and sweet. He knows that she has a crush on him, but he doesn’t make her feel stupid or embarrassed. He responds to her without feeding into her advances, which I was so thankful for. I really didn’t want this movie to be about a 14 year old girl having a summer fling with a grown-ass man.

Lagniappe

CC: So many embarrassing final thoughts! Okay, so my chocolate cake recipe—for years—was the hot-water Hershey’s cocoa powder recipe with added powdered cinnamon & ginger (and I never let on that I got the idea from a romcom). And my other confession (oh god, why am I admitting this on the internet?) is that in high school I would walk up and down the halls singing “Ta Ra Ta Ta” even though I do not have any vocal talent. At all. I should apologize to those who had to endure me in that period of my life, but I don’t want to remind them.

Britnee: I always thought that the terrible Smash Mouth look that so many teenage guys sported in the early 2000s was strictly something that existed in the USA. According to crowd on Ios (aka Horny Teen Island), it was a tragedy that spread across the globe. I am forever thankful that it’s over.

Brandon: My favorite throwaway detail of the film is that even the pet animals of Ios are overcome with maniacal horniness. In a café scene, the film foregrounds a hamster cage where two animatronic puppet hamsters continually hump throughout the aunt & niece’s conversation, as if we could pay attention to anything anyone’s saying while the little rodents are going at it right in front of us. It’s such a delightfully bizarre detail for the film to distract itself with, especially once you pause to consider how much effort must’ve gone into creating those literal fuck-puppets.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

-The Swampflix Crew

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

Jerry Schatzberg’s Early Career in Fashion, Heroin, and Telling the Truth

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, has a very curious relationship with reality. Its entire narrative about a young fashion model (Faye Dunaway) who’s chewed up & spit out by her industry is filtered through its protagonist’s distorted perception of real-life events. There’s a dissociative effect between the audio of Dunaway’s narration and the logic of the events depicted onscreen, to the point where she becomes entirely unreliable for parsing out what’s “true” and what’s fantasy. This is largely because the Patriarchal pressures from her personal & professional life drive her to a complete psychological break, so that she can’t even trust her own recollection of her life’s events. As subjective as her memories are and as experimental as the film can be on a sensory level while expressing that unease with Truth, however, Puzzle of a Downfall Child still somewhat traffics in verisimilitude. The original inspiration for the film was a series of interviews director Jerry Schatzberg recorded on reel to reel tapes with fashion model Anne St. Marie, who he had formerly collaborated with as a photographer. Screenwriter Carol Eastman then reinterpreted those interviews into the semi-fictionalized narrative seen in the film, so it’s difficult to determine how much of the final product is true to St. Marie’s version of the real-life events without studying her recorded interviews for comparison. So, then, we’re left with a film that’s both true & untrue, fact & fiction, with an undeterminable balance between reality & madness.

Although Schatzberg’s follow-up feature, The Panic in Needle Park, didn’t derive from a real-life oral history like his debut, it seemed much more invested in conveying unmitigated Truth in its own narrative. The Panic in Needle Park steps back from the subjective relationship with reality Puzzle of Downfall Child explores by filtering the real world through the distorted perceptions of Anne St. Marie. Featuring a cowriting credit from journalist Joan Didion, The Panic in Needle Park is more of an intellectually-distanced docudrama than its predecessor, an experiment in the cinema verité style of its 1970s era. Its central tragic romance (performed by Kitty Winn & first-time lead Al Pacino with great dramatic weight) is entirely a work of fiction, but the film strives to remain honest to the real-world subculture & locales it depicts in all other ways. The ”Needle Park” of the film’s title is an actual location in NYC, known officially as Sherman Square at Broadway & 72nd street. In the film’s era, that small park had become a notorious haven for heroin addicts, and Schatzberg make a point to stage large portions of its action on-location there, including many real-life junkies & hangabouts among its extras. Released the same year as The French Connection, The Panic in Needle Park is cited as the first mainstream film to document the real-life preparation & injection of heroin on the big screen – trivia that hints to how honest & raw Schatzberg was hoping the film would come across, depicting real-life junkies as they lived. Whereas Puzzle of a Downfall Child experiments in replicating the dreamlike state of a psychological break, The Panic in Needle Park took pride in supposedly presenting the tragedy & grime of the real word as it truly was. Its own narrative was entirely a fictional creation (based mostly on a novel by James Mills), but it somehow seems less affected by subjective interpretation of the truth.

For all practical purposes, The Panic in Needle Park feels less like a shift away from the subjectivity of Puzzle of a Downfall Child for Schatzberg than it does a direct response to the melodramatic youth-culture romance of Love Story, released just a year prior. Love Story’s own depiction of a doomed young couple’s tragic downfall maintains a certain romantic detachment in the way of teen-marketed melodrama. The Panic in Needle Park, by contrast, feels entirely disinterested in appealing to anyone. Its story of a young small-time heroin dealer who falls in love with a homeless woman and ruins her life with addiction and subsequent survival-based sex work is devoid of romantic escapism. It’s brutally honest & relentlessly grim, only truly worth its discomfort if you’re already on the hook for its era of cinema verité morbidness. The attention to detail it pursues in recreating authentic-looking track marks via Flexible Collodian effects and then covering them up with long-sleeve shirts at the height of summer is almost perversely fixated on “reality.” Its title even refers to a real-life phenomenon that occurs within junkie communities: a “panic” of users turning on each other when supply is low. The theft, prostitution, ratting to cops, jailtime, and overdoses that define a junkie scene in the middle of a panic guide the ups & downs of this film’s tragic couple, leaving very little room for joys or victories, no matter how brief. Even the film’s casting of then-unknown Al Pacino in the central role can be read as an attempt at conveying realism in all things, as the much more famous Jim Morrison was initially considered for the role. Even as a fictional romance, The Panic in Needle Park is absolutely fixated on staying true to reality, and its interpretation of reality is that it is nothing but death & misery.

Because Schatzberg seems to equate reality to relentless misery, I can at least report that Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s looser relationship with verisimilitude is somewhat easier to digest than The Panic in Needle Park’s cinema verité morbidness. However, the Faye Dunaway fashion industry drama does often hit equally grim notes in its own tragic downfall story, especially when you keep in mind that it was inspired by a real-life fashion model’s severe struggles with mental illness. I’d also argue that it probably gets to a larger truth about the inner life of woman in that model’s position than The Panic in Needle Park does about the inner lives of heroin addicts, since its immersion in her subjective interpretation of reality is much more personal & distinct that the journalistic distance of that latter work. In either case, Schatzberg’s earliest films both experiment with an interesting balance between truth & fiction, and both likely deserve to be represented more often in critical discussion of the auteur boom of the early 1970s.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last weeks look at The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics.

-Brandon Ledet

Puzzle of a Downfall Demon

In terms of its structure, tone, and imagery, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a daring, singular creation. Inspired by real-life interviews with a mentally fraught fashion model and filtered through her distorted recollection of real-life events, the film conjures a dissociative space between reality & fiction. Faye Dunaway is, on a practical level, the most unreliable narrator imaginable as a fashion model who can’t even trust her own recollection of past events, since her mind often defensively softens or alters the truth to protect itself. Her narration doesn’t sync up with the logic of the imagery it accompanies, and the exact nature of the Patriarchal trauma that snapped her mind is only vaguely hinted at as the film expresses her mental anguish through giallo-flavored sensory experimentations. For all that dissociative play in form & tone, however, the basic premise of the story it tells is an echo of a fairly ubiquitous trope in Hollywood narratives. This story of a beautiful, naïve young woman being chewed up & spit out by the entertainment industry is a classic template in mainstream filmmaking. From the sappy melodrama of The Valley of the Dolls to the twisted, excessive camp of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the story of Fame destroying a young starlet’s mind & body has seen an expansive range of cinematic interpretations. As formally daring as Puzzle of a Downfall Child can be, the macro view of its basic plot is yet another entry in that expansive canon.

Curiously, the best example I can think of where a film actively subverted the power dynamics of this trope is also specifically set in the fashion industry. My favorite film of 2016, The Neon Demon, was yet another entry into the woman-destroyed-by-fame canon, but it actively disrupts the usual power imbalances of the “genre.” Much like Faye Dunaway’s troubled protagonist in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (and hundreds of other fictional starlets besides), Elle Fanning stars in The Neon Demon as a young fashion model with big dreams and empty pockets. The wolves of the fashion industry – photographers, designers, agents, makeup artists, other models, etc. – surround her with ravenous intent in all the traditional ways, but what The Neon Demon engages with that most other adoptions of this genre template don’t is that there is a power inherent to that attraction. Elle Fanning plays the typical corrupted fashion model archetype in the film, right down to a violently tragic end, except that she acknowledges and shamelessly revels in the power her youth & beauty afford her in the industry. She warns, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” and often gains confidence & power in her lengthy stares into the mirror. When a fellow model asks, “What does it feel like to walk into the room and it’s the middle of winter and you’re the Sun,” she responds, “It’s everything.” Other characters around her pontificate “True beauty is the highest commodity we have,” and “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” even going as far as to single her out among other models as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” While most destroyed-by-fame narratives portray their gorgeous damsel protagonists as naïve & innocent, The Neon Demon mischievously plays around with the idea that there’s a power inherent to their alluring beauty, even if the result is ultimately the same.

As perversely fascinating as it is to see the young-starlet-in-peril enjoy the power her own beauty affords her in one of these pictures, it’s important to keep in mind that The Neon Demon is still honest about how outweighed & outnumbered its protagonist is in her industry. Just like in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, she’s immediately negged for her body (this time for a lack of plastic surgery) and her perceived naïvete. Her agent says, “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat,” in their very first meeting. She’s alone with no money and no social safety net in a motel run by a pedophilic rapist (Keanu Reeves playing drastically against type). There’s no explanation of her backstory and how she arrived in Hollywood with no family to speak of, but it’s not too difficult to her imagine her homelife was just as abusive as the one hinted at in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. As it also plays out in that film, the one acquaintance she considers to be a friend (a lesbian make-up artist played by Jena Malone) pressures her for selfish sexual gratification instead of getting her the help she needs. She’s hounded from all directions, to the point where a literal, honest-to-God mountain lion appears in her bed, read to devour her. The difference between that hounded-from-all-sides pressure in this fashion model tragedy vs. how it’s handled in Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that Elle Fanning’s character isn’t afforded enough time to have a psychological break. Instead, she’s devoured alive by a supernatural world of vampires, cannibals, witchcraft, and necrophilia. That sounds like a pretty major difference on paper, but the overall effect of her arc is largely the same: a young, damaged woman tries to make a life for herself as an artist in the fashion industry and is unfairly destroyed for that ambition. Her resulting destruction just fluctuates between the mental and the physical, depending on the example.

In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that “Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Belizaire vs. Big Oil

While our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, has been mostly lost to time in the outside world, Britnee reports that it remains a cult classic among Cajun communities down the Bayou. That’s presumably because Belizaire is one of the few large-scale movie productions to ever represent Cajun culture on the big screen, at least in a positive light. Many Louisiana Cajun archetypes who appeared onscreen pre-Belizaire were portrayed as scary backwoods local yokels who presented a danger to their respective protagonists but had no inner lives themselves. As writer-director Glen Pitre is himself from Cut Off, Louisiana, his approach in Belizaire the Cajun was naturally much more empathetic & intimately knowledgeable when focusing on representing Cajun people on the big screen. Belizaire the Cajun is a favorite among Cajun locals because it is a film about Cajun locals from a Cajun local, something that’s much more commonly seen in documentaries than it is in narrative features. It was not, however, the first film to empathetically portray Cajun people on the big screen at feature length. It was only the first to do so with out exploiting those people for the benefit of a major oil company.

The 1948 “docudrama” Louisiana Story is a much earlier and, unfortunately, much better-known film than Belizaire. Nominated for an Oscar in Best Writing and awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its musical compositions performed by the Philadelphia Symphony, the film was very much respected in its day. It was even recently restored by the Library of Congress to preserve its historical legacy. That prestige is likely due to the film’s director, Robert H. Flaherty, who had a reputation for making factually inaccurate but historically significant “documentaries” like Nanook of the North. Much like how Nanook of the North shamelessly fudges the facts of Inuit culture to increase its own value as an anthropological curio, Flaherty’s “documentation” of Louisiana Cajun culture in Louisiana Story from an outsider’s perspective is entirely a work of fiction. It’s on even shakier moral ground than Flaherty’s other “docudramas,” though, since it wasn’t merely lying about Cajun culture to increase its own entertainment value. It was also lying to Cajun people (and the world at large) about the cultural & environmental impact of drilling for crude oil in rural locales. Presenting itself as a document of a real-world truth was a boldfaced lie, as anything Louisiana Story documented about the Cajun lifestyle was an incidental result of its true mission: generating good PR for Standard Oil.

Louisiana Story actively attempts to cultivate the perception that it is merely a slice-of-life document of a rural Cajun community’s harmless, but awkward interactions with the industrialized modern world. An early title card self-describes the plot as “Being an account of certain adventures of a Cajun (Acadian) boy who lives in the marshlands of Petite Anse Bayou in Louisiana.” That’s true to a point, as much of the film follows a young boy travelling with his beloved pet raccoon on a pirogue in gator-infested swamps. The boy is non-verbal almost to the point of being feral, and long stretches of Louisiana Story play like a Silent Era nature documentary as a result. What that description doesn’t convey, though, is the funding Standard Oil poured into the production to promote happy feelings toward the concept of local oil drilling. The “certain adventures” this boy & his leashed raccoon embark on almost all revolve around the arrival of an oil rig in their local swamp. After his father allows an oil company to drill on family property, the boy finds himself both curious & terrified of the giant machinery that slurps oil out of the “ground” beneath him. Naturally, he’s gradually reassured of the drilling’s safety and local yokels everywhere are reassured that oil drilling puts food on families’ tables and a shiny new rifle in every young boys’ hands. God bless Standard Oil and God bless America.

What’s fascinating about Louisiana Story is that its greatest merits are in direct opposition with its oil-friendly message. In its best moments, it’s a gorgeous work that documents wetland environments that have been steadily disappearing over the seven decades since it was filmed. The irony there is that the oil industry is directly responsible for much of that wetlands erosion, which has left the state much more vulnerable to hurricane damage and loss of seafood & wildlife. This the exact kind of brilliantly executed, vile propaganda that does real-world damage, because it tricks people into believing corporations are our friends, that they have our best interests in mind. The Library of Congress was justified in finding this film worthy of preservation & restoration as its casting of long-gone local faces & landscapes is invaluable. Still, Louisiana Story only pretended to have an interest in empathetically portraying Cajun people on the big screen, when its true Standard Oil-approved mission was even more harmfully exploitative than contemporary genre films’ depiction of Cajuns as dangerous backwoods types. No wonder Belizaire the Cajun felt like a breath of fresh air in the limited lung capacity of Cajun pop media. It may not be as artistically refined as Louisiana Story or as continuously entertaining as other outsider views of Cajun culture strewn about various crime thrillers, but it did offer something to Cajun people no other narrative feature had before: respect.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun,check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997), and last week’s examination of an IMAX-scale Katrina documentary from its director.

-Brandon Ledet

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