How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

Paperhouse (1988)’s Thunderous Echo in MirrorMask (2005) and the Assorted Works of Neil Gaiman

One of the most easily accessible ways to explore the themes, nuances, and techniques of a work of art is finding a contrast & compare reference point in another work to bounce ideas off of. November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, is an interesting case in this regard, as it hovers between so many different genres (horror, fairy tale, melodrama, children’s adventure), without ever firmly landing under any of those categories. After looking to director Bernard Rose’s subsequent horror masterpiece Candyman and the genre-defiant melodrama that spooked me most as a child, Lady in White, I still can’t shake the idea that Paperhouse only has one true 1:1 companion film. A 2005 feature film collaboration between visual artist Dave McKean & his frequent writing partner Neil Gaiman, MirrorMask is a clear contrast & compare reference point for Paperhouse in many surprising, improbable ways. If Rose’s film wasn’t a direct influence on its 2005 counterpart, it’s at least somewhat safe to assume that it had a subconscious, maybe even cultural influence. You can clearly hear Paperhouse‘s echo in MirrorMask‘s story & tone, as well as in the basic fabric of the fiction-writing career of its much beloved author, Gaiman.

In Paperhouse, a young girl who is frustrated with her mother’s parenting & her father’s chronic absence falls ill with an intense fever and enters her own crayon drawings of a sparsely decorated house every time she falls asleep. In MirrorMask, a girl has an argument with her mother the day the parent falls into a coma. Tormented with guilt for treating her mother cruelly the last time they spoke, she cries herself to sleep and awakes inside the expansive drawing she has posted on her bedroom wall. Both films follow their young protagonists as they work through their complicated feelings for their parents in a fantasy space of their own artistic design. In Paperhouse it means living through the fear of an absent father who has become abstracted & monstrous in his child’s mind (so much so that much of our conversation on the film was an attempt to rationalize whether or not he was a physically abusive drunk). In both works changes in the art-bound fantasy world & the lonely, declining health “real” world affect each other in massive, often catastrophic ways. This comes to a head in both instances when the world-containing artworks in question are partially destroyed, leaving vast rubble in their wake. I’m not sure how many children’s art therapy-themed lucid dreaming fantasy dramas about familial strife & crises of poor health are out there in the world, but these are two British productions that echo each other in undeniably significant ways.

When I mentioned these MirrorMask comparisons in our original conversation on Paperhouse, Alli seconded the connection, but added “I also thought of MirrorMask and its terrifying dreamworld, but another Neil Gaiman creation came to mind as well, Coraline, which is another story about a girl upset at her parents entering a dreamworld with duplicate parents.” She also wrote, “The terrifying Other Mother [of Coraline] is reminiscent of the faceless dad [of Paperhouse],” which is certainly true. Here’s where I make a full confession: I was never especially interested in reading Neil Gaiman’s fiction until after I fell in love with MirrorMask in the mid 00s, at which point I read several of his novels in a row. They were all well-written and interesting (and he seemed like an exceedingly charming guy when I briefly met him at a signing in 2006), but I couldn’t shake a certain sameness in the types of stories he tended to tell. Neverwhere, Coraline, MirrorMask, and so on all play like a “down the rabbit hole” story  where a character in the “real” world slips into a fantasy space to work out personal & emotional issues they struggled dealing with otherwise. Alli was right to point out the similarities in Coraline, which was written long before MirrorMask, despite its film adaptation arriving at theaters years after that forgotten Dave McKean gem. As Paperhouse was released just a couple years before Neil Gaiman transitioned into his since-steady career as a prolific (if slightly repetitive) novelist, I have to wonder if that film had any direct influence on the kinds of stories he likes to tell.

Are the thematic similarities in Coraline & MirrorMask in particular an echo of what Gaiman found fascinating in Paperhouse or is that connection entirely incidental, a result of two independent minds coming to a similar conclusion on their own? Gaiman once compared MirrorMask to “such films as Labyrinth, Spirited Away, and Paperhouse” in an interview promoting the film, describing them as “films of a certain kind of genre in which a girl gets to go somewhere and search something out.” I guess I should take that admission as a vindicating acknowledgement of the film’s influence on the writer’s work, but I’m not satisfied to leave it there. If I ever find myself in another Q&A-type scenario with Gaiman, I’d have to ask him about his relationship with Paperhouse & how it may have influenced not only MirrorMask, but the types of stories he likes to tell in general. Until that ever comes up in an interview, though, the best I can say is that Gaiman devotees & MirrorMask‘s small cult of lonely fans owe it to themselves to give Paperhouse a look. Its far-reaching influence might surprise them, as it did with me, considering how little recognition it gets as a significant work in its own right.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at director Bernard Rose’s best known work, Candyman, and last week’s comparison with its 1988 childhood horror contemporary Lady in White.

-Brandon Ledet

Stardust (2007)

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I should stop kidding myself with the idea that I have to read a book before watching its movie adaptation. I was on a bit of a Neil Gaiman kick around the time that Stardust was released in 2007 so I had convinced myself that I was going to rush to read the novel as quickly as possible so I could experience the film fully informed. Almost a decade later I finally watched it thanks to a Netflix recommendation algorithm & hadn’t even yet even touched a copy of Gaiman’s book. There was a little fatigue on my end that came with reading a ton of Gaiman works in a row due to a perceived sameness in his narrative structures. More specifically, every Neil Gaiman novel read to me like a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure where a citizen of our realm gets swept up in the complications of a magical one. Although I tired of watching this formula play itself out repeatedly in his novels, it’s one that lends itself very well to cinematic adaptation & when I finally got around to giving Stardust a chance I ended up holding it just as high regard as previous Gaiman projects Coraline & MirrorMask, two movies I love very much.

The first thing most people will likely mention about Stardust is that it is the movie where Robert De Niro plays a crossdressing pirate on a flying ship. This detail is totally significant, as it might be the one role De Niro’s landed in the past 15 years that isn’t a total waste of time & talent (outside maybe his David O. Russell collaborations), but his fey pirate captain is just one of many players in a wide cast of winning eccentrics. Stardust is the kind of movie where every character is likable whether they’re literal star-crossed lovers or murderous goons with coal-black hearts. Boardwalk Empire/Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox stars as our bumbling, babyfaced hero who falls down the requisite rabbit hole to get the story kicked off. In order to retrieve a falling start to prove his love & devotion to a spoiled brat who couldn’t care less about him, our protagonist crosses the wall that serves as a thin barrier between our realm & its magical counterpart. He’s shocked to discover that his fallen star is, in fact, a beautiful woman (played by Claire DaaaaAAaaaanes) & on the journey to bring her back home to his coldblooded beloved, he runs into a long line of magical obstacles that include a coven of bloodthirsty witches (with Michelle Pfeiffer among them), a group of brothers determined to murder each other to claim royalty & their resulting ghosts, a unicorn, a humanoid goat and, yes, a crossdressing pirate & his loyal crew of cutthroats. Stardust shamelessly panders to the Ren Fair crowd & knows exactly how campy it gets in the process. The film’s mix of ribald humor, playful gender-bending, and lighthearted glee for witchcraft & murder all amount to a wonderfully silly adventure epic & mythical romance. Honestly, the only thing holding it back from being a (remarkably goofy) masterpiece is its horrifically shitty CGI, which looks exceptionally poor even for the mid-2000s.

I don’t know if it was the film’s unicorn connection with Legend (sans the wonderful Tangerine Dream soundtrack, unfortunately) or a magical Michelle Pfeiffer recalling her past roles in titles like Ladyhawk & The Witches of Eastwick, but my favorite aspect of Stardust was the way it felt like a throwback to decades-old fantasy classics. It feels like the era of titles like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, and The Labyrinth is long gone & it’s difficult recall the last time a fantasy epic was this winning. (Sorry, Harry Potter fans; I just can’t get into it.) The best example I can think of from recent memory was Upside Down & most people hated that one (possibly because they thought of it as shitty sci-fi instead of great fantasy cheese.). Are Gaiman & Gilliam the last two significant personalities still bringing this sensibility to the big screen on a somewhat regular basis? (Obviously, Game of Thrones is doing well enough on the televised end of things.) I’m at the point now where any cinematic adaptation of a Gaiman work is more than welcome in my life whether or not I’m committed to actually reading the source material first . . . or ever. The world is thirsty for this kind of romantic fantasy content.

-Brandon Ledet