Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Smithereens (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee & Boomer watch Smithereens (1982).

Brandon: After the first-wave NYC punk scene was broken up by calamities like heroin addiction, international fame, and the apathy of adulthood in the late 1970s, there was still a waning subculture of outcast artists who stayed behind in its wake to feed off the scraps. Energized by the D.I.Y. ethos of punk’s democratization of Art and enabled by a then-decrepit New York’s offerings of Cheap Living, the so-called No Wave scene of the early 80s produced a few acclaimed underground artists of its own: Sonic Youth, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Jim Jarmusch, etc. With no technical skill required (or even desired, really), No Wave encouraged young artists to experiment in all mediums available to them (painting, writing, music, filmmaking, sculpture) in an aggressively unpolished manner that sneered at gatekeeping criteria like training & talent. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave but rejecting the plotless arthouse experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, the newfound filmmakers who borrowed 8mm cameras for the first time in the No Wave scene filtered straight-forward narrative filmmaking though the desperate, no-budget means of their post-punk environment. Against all odds, they often told traditionally coherent stories but in a way that made the audience feel like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Even more so than the sci-fi feminist call-to-arms Born in Flames or the horned-up nightmares of Richard Kern, the most exemplifying specimen of No Wave cinema I’ve seen to date is Susan Seidelman’s debut drama Smithereens. There’s a certain romanticism to the No Wave scene’s promise of free artistic rein over a crumbling city where rent, food, pornography, and (if you don’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. Smithereens reveals an honest, repugnant stench that hung over that scene, however, depicting a desperate group of nobodies stewing in the haggard leftovers of punk’s post-CBGB stagnation. In the film, a petty thief & shameless charlatan named Wren (Susan Berman) attempts to make a name for herself as a punk rock superstar by any means necessary. Lying, manipulating, exploiting, posing, and self-promoting her way across the city, Wren burns an endless number of bridges on her path to success in a World-Famous Punk paradigm that had already disappeared long before she arrived on the scene as snotty New Jersey teen. Her naked ambition and eagerness to throw “friends” under the bus for any old get-fame-quick opportunity leaves her increasingly isolated in a city that has little left to give. Outside a half-hearted love triangle Wren cultivates between a hopelessly normie boy from Montana who bores her (Paul) and her exploitative equal in a half-famous punk has-been (Eric, played by real-life punk burnout Richard Hell), the film is largely plotless. It isn’t until the climatic emotional crescendo when Wren revisits every bridge she’s burned in the preceding 90 minutes minutes (to an anxious, recursive soundtrack from The Feelies), searching the rubble for anything she can work with only to find soot, that it becomes clear what story the film is telling. It’s the story of a scene in decline and the newly isolated punk weirdos who find themselves fading away with it. In other words, its peak No Wave.

Smithereens is brimming with the exact art-on-the-cheap spirit that I’m always searching for in my entertainment media. I’m endlessly excited by this anyone-can-do-it philosophy of D.I.Y. filmmaking. The soundtrack is bolstered by some of my favorite bands from the era: The Feelies, The Voidoids (fictionalized here as the titular Smithereens), and ESG. Seidelman’s origins as a fashion design scholar shine through with a trashy, pop art-inspired thrift store chic. The film is also just interesting as a no-budget precursor to her more well-known traipsing-across-NYC film Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, I debated with myself whether Smithereens would appeal to the rest of the Swampflix crew. To me, it’s a perfect selection for the summertime season, but only in a potentially alienating way that captures the Summer Bummer feeling of being lonely, bored, broke, and overheated in a grimy major city. This is a sad, sweaty, lethargic movie about a desperate bully who finds herself increasingly isolated as a result of her own actions & ambitious. I found the frustration in Wren’s lack of shame or emotional intelligence both uncomfortably relatable to my own youthful prickliness and fascinating as a self-portrait of No Wave’s dwindling D.I.Y. romanticism. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by her petty, plotless exploits, though, especially if they’re not already on the hook for the history & aesthetic of classic NYC punk.

Boomer, since your past Movie of the Month selections have included titles like Citizen Ruth & Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I assume it’s fair to say that you’re no stranger to loving movies about Difficult Women Who Make Frustrating Decisions. Yet, I know you often find yourself alienated by the performative #edginess of the punk scene that Wren typifies here (to her own demise). As such, I’m just going to open this up with the broadest question possible: What did you think of Smithereens? Was the story of one prickly punk’s mounting desperation in the dying days of No Wave at all compelling to you?

Boomer: This is a great question, and I appreciate it. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like it read like a greatest hits redux of past Movies of the Month, both of those that I liked and those that I, um, didn’t. The scene in which Wren visits her sister and her family to beg for money comes almost at the exact point in the film when Ruth does the same to her sibling in Citizen Ruth, and although it never made it to become MotM, I was shocked to see Brad Rijn (credited as “Rinn”) here, essentially presaging his similar role as a good looking bumpkin-come-to-New-York (and all for the love of a troublesome woman) in Special Effects. It’s true that I didn’t much care for Born in Flames, even a little bit, and that one of the things I cited in our discussion of that film was that “1980s New York was an ugly place,” but that ugliness is used wonderfully here in a way that Flames failed to capture. If there’s anything that I hate more than performative edginess, it’s a plotline about someone trying to make it in New York, especially in contemporary media when the New York that people dream about hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration; that horse hasn’t just been beaten to death, it’s bones have been ground to dust. But! In this film it works for me, not just because the New York That Was still existed in its time, albeit in a dwindling way.

There’s a realness and a viscerality to every location in the film, probably because they are real: A vacant lot near the highway where Paul parks his van for all intents and purposes resembles nothing so much as the post-war Vienna captured on film in The Third Man. The hallway outside of (Wren’s friend) Cecile’s apartment feels real; the stairwell in which Wren is belittled by her landlord and upstairs neighbor is likewise real. And the location with the greatest verisimilitude, of course, is Eric’s shithole apartment, which is so like so many of the shitty homes I’ve been in throughout my musician-adjacent life, in places where real art is still happening, right down to the creepy roommate. In virtually any other movie, I would probably despise a character like Wren: an over-30 loser with no real skills, trying to market herself as a potential band manager despite having no apparent connections or talent, unable to manage even the most basic of human interactions without blowing up like a rage filled pufferfish, useless and dangerous and annoying to all around her. And yet … I actually like Wren, and it’s not just because she ends up broken and homeless at the end. Although I’m not like her upstairs neighbor, who slut-shames Wren when she comes home to find that she’s been evicted, there is a part of me that finds it utterly justifiable that someone who uses everyone around her, pushes her way into bars and bar backrooms to ingratiate herself with strangers, and epitomizes all of the worst aspects of the anti-establishment ethos ends up with nothing. Even before she gets what’s (in a way) coming to her, I still found myself forgiving her, even though she’s The Worst. Maybe it’s just that I understand what it’s like to fall for a shitbag musician and end up losing because of it, or maybe it’s because the film is so firmly planted in an ethos that I’m willing to accept, for once, I don’t know. But I like Wren, and I liked Smithereens, all in spite of (or perhaps because of) myself.

Britnee, what did you think of the way that the characters are portrayed in the film? I particularly like both the prostitute who huddles with Paul in his van for warmth and Cecile, who seems like a genuinely nice person who cares about Wren but won’t let herself be walked over, even in Wren’s most desperate, screechy moments. Was there anyone in particular who stood out to you? How might these characters have been handled differently had this film been directed by a man?

Britnee: I had a difficult time finding any likeable characters in Smithereens. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the film, because I did enjoy it very much; I just didn’t care about how any of the characters ended up. Wren and Eric’s narcissism made me want to puke, and Paul’s inability to stand up for himself was more annoying than adorable. The only character that I really vibed with was Eric’s business partner that gets in a brawl with Wren in the cafe. She didn’t put up with Wren’s shit, and she served some of that classic sleazy New York showbiz sass that I just love so much. I wanted more of her!

Had Smithereens been directed by a man, I think Wren would’ve been more of a victim. A girl trying to make her dreams come true in the big city while juggling relationships between a small-town boy and a musician is usually going to be portrayed that way, not unlike another one of our fabulous Movie of the Month choices, Hearts of Fire. Instead, Wren’s character was so raw, so real. Yes, she is a terrible person, but that’s a good thing. Seidelman wasn’t concerned with making Wren an appealing female lead. She was more concerned with giving us a glimpse into the reality of a No Wave chick pissing around NYC. Speaking of pissing, I also don’t think a male director would’ve given us that moment of watching Wren pop a squat in that dark, dusty parking lot. It’s such a real moment that I have experienced way too many times. That may be the only time when I slightly connected with Wren.

Brandon, I’m curious as to what you thought about Wren’s sister and brother-in-law. Do you think they represented the type of background that Wren came from (pure chaos and beefaroni dinners)? Would you have felt differently about Wren without having this insight into her family life?

Brandon: My only reaction to Wren’s familial background is recognizing it as true to life. Besides the clichés of suburban mall punks and the trust-fund kids who play dress-up as crusties, a lot of the punk community is a working-class resistance to the status quo that keeps them in place. Even the more priveleged kids who find themselves ascribing to punk ideology usually do so out of a guilt or disgust with the safe, affluent families they were born into, who’ve presumably achieved their wealth at the expense of people lower on the economic “ladder.” The difference is that those middle-class suburban & trust-fund kids often “mature out of” punk as their teenage rebellion cools, whereas working-class runts like Wren (and, more often, abused runaways) don’t have the same safety nets to fall back on. A lot of characters in Smithereens mourn that their scene is dwindling, but mostly because they have to give up on the romanticism of punk squalor to move back in with their boring parents, almost invariably somewhere in the Midwest. Wren doesn’t have that luxury. Her family is near-broke, verbally abusive, and (as the beefaroni dinner indicates) miserably resigned to a life without imagination or pleasure. These visits home offer insight into why Wren lies so flagrantly about how Awesome & Cool her life is. She doesn’t have a solid foundation to back up her dreams, so she invents one.

With wealthy parents bankrolling her or an actively interested educator mentoring her in the right direction, I think Wren could have a fairly good shot making something of herself in the fashion industry. The outfits she designs for herself without any formal education or spending cash are impressively vivid & distinct, doing just as much to craft her falsely confident persona as any of her verbal deceits. No one’s around to open her mind to the notion that pursuing fashion as an artform is even a possibility, though, so she cooks up a much narrower approach to expressing herself artistically: hitching her wagon to potential upstarts in punk’s rock ‘n roll boys’ club. As prickly & exploitative as Wren can be, I really do feel sorry for her. Her delusions of grandeur come across to me as expressions of her insecurity in coming from such a financially & artistically bankrupt background, and it’s tragic how that defensive sense of pride continually isolates her even within her own community of weirdos & misfits. This is a young, artistically inventive (at least in the arenas of fashion & graphic design) person who should have the entire world open to her, but by the end can see no other possibility on how to survive other than giving up her dreams to pursue low-level sex work. I’m still glad the movie didn’t soften her caustic persona to make her an easily sympathetic person, though. It would’ve been a much less rewarding story if she wasn’t at least partly at fault for her own undoing.

Boomer, did anything about the costuming in Smithereens stand out to you as especially significant, whether as a tool for characterization or as an artistic achievement in its own right? I feel like D.I.Y. fashion design is a major aspect of this & every punk story, yet characters rarely directly comment on its merits as a form of personal expression or political resistance.

Boomer: To be honest, I had to go back and look at some screencaps from the movie to remind myself about Wren’s wardrobe (other than the pink fur jacket that she wears at the end while talking to Eric’s wife, implying an offscreen adventure in which Wren stalks, slays, and skins one of the “Mah Na Mah Na” Muppets). Looking back, I’m surprised that they didn’t leave more of an impression, but I have a different interpretation of the text here, and I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t change your opinion of the film. The first thing that we see, from the film’s earliest frames, is Wren stealing another woman’s sunglasses. She literally steals another woman’s style. Although I can’t argue with your assessment that Wren has a keen eye for graphic design, my inference is that this opening is the film’s thesis statement, that Wren is a scavenger, and one who isn’t particularly foresighted or original. Her theft of the glasses, not even from a store (like a true punk) but from a random woman and in broad daylight, conceptually establishes that Wren is a woman without much in the way of forethought or skill. The only thing she manages to plan ahead for is her unrealistic dream of running away with Eric to L.A., which immediately falls apart following the only successful step, amounting to little more than a comedically inept mugging that succeeds more as a result of dumb luck rather than skill. It doesn’t go well for her. We see, over and over again, that she can barely plan ahead to where she’s going to sleep on any given night, echoing her establishing character moment as a woman with little more going on in her mind that the bad slayer (this Slayer, not this one, or maybe them, too; I don’t know) philosophy of “want, take, have.” We know Wren is a mooch, and I get the impression that her closet is made up entirely of things she picked up from (or off of) others. Her style may be singular, but I don’t think that it’s original, at least not to Wren. I did notice that Paul’s clothes tended to fall apart, and I felt like that served as a nice counterpart to Wren’s practiced state of dishevelment. Paul wore actual holes in his grungy white t-shirt while living in a van, pursuing genuine self-knowledge, and making art (of admittedly dubious artistic merit); Wren’s damaged clothing is torn in strategic places in an aesthetic tied closely to a punk scene that’s left her miles behind, pursuing nothing other than respect by proxy. She also makes her own graphic posters of admitted artistic merit, but they’re of dubious artistic integrity.

This actually demonstrates that Paul’s really the only character with an arc. Wren learns nothing and doesn’t grow at all, except to become more desperate and willing to make more extreme choices, rejecting a boring but safe life and instead gambling on the empathy of a man who is demonstrably and utterly a narcissist, as Britnee noted above (who dreams of having a life size poster of themselves in their home?). Eric comes a hair’s breadth of twirling a little mustache; that’s how much of a sociopath he is. The first thing he did when he got to L.A. was probably tie some woman to railroad tracks, and yet Wren falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is she a user, she’s so bad at that too that her game doesn’t even recognize game. Paul, by contrast, manages to realize that he’s got to get out of the situation, and does something about it that doesn’t rely on theft or a critically flawed ability to read people.

Britnee, I hate to give you a second hypothetical question in a row instead of a more material one, but I’m curious what you think these three characters would be doing now, in 2019? Where are they, and what are their lives like? Assuming that Wren didn’t meet the same kind of untimely and tragic demise that Susan Berman did, that is.

Britnee: I actually love hypothetical questions in regards to movies! I always like to imagine how the characters were brought up prior to when the film started and where they ended up once the film is over with.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think our main girl Wren made out all that well. New York City would eventually kick her ass, forcing her to move back to her hometown in New Jersey where she gets involved with the wrong crowd. She doesn’t have the tendency to surround herself with those who would support her and guide her in the right direction, and she goes above and beyond to get acceptance from terrible people. Also, considering the meth epidemic that exists in so many small towns in 2019, I wouldn’t doubt that Wren would get stuck in that hole (assuming her hometown in NJ isn’t a major city).

As for Eric, he’s fathered hundreds of children with women that he has abandoned and has no relationship with any of them. Like one of those deadbeat turds on Maury. He remained a narcissist that will continue to mooch off women until the day he dies.

Paul is the only major character in the film that seemed to learn from his mistakes, so he chose an easier path in life. In 2019, Paul is ready to retire and get his plaque and company watch from a boring office job that he’s dedicated his life to for too many years.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It would be criminal to conclude this discussion without mentioning how delightful it is to see two John Waters alums in the same non-Waters film. Polyester‘s Joni Ruth White is featured as Wren’s crotchety landlord and Dreamlanders regular Cookie Mueller pops up in a single-scene cameo as a scream queen in a gory sci-fi creature feature Wren watches on a date with Paul. Spotting any of Waters’s players outside the context of the Pope of Trash’s hyper-specific artificial environments always feels like encountering a unicorn in the wild, so I was ecstatic to have that same experience twice in the span of a single picture.

Boomer: Speaking of cameos, Law & Order alum Chris Noth is one of the prostitutes now living (or at least working out of) Paul’s old van at the end of the movie.

Britnee: I had no idea that Susan Berman was THE Susan Berman, a victim of murderer Robert Durst. The film All Good Things is based on Durst, and this movie was a Friday night fave of mine a few years ago. In fact, the character of Deborah Lehrman in that film (played by Lily Rabe) was based on Susan Berman.

Next month: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)

-The Swampflix Crew

Kiki (2017)

By billing itself as a “spiritual sequel” to the landmark documentary Paris is Burning, the Swiss-American co-production Kiki smartly brought a lot of attention to itself & its political cause in an overcrowded media market where most low budget documentaries slip by without notice. It also set the expectation of what it can deliver to an impossibly high standard. Kiki is not as significant of a work as Paris is Burning. It’s not even close. Not only has the initial wow factor of what Paris is Burning managed to unearth faded with time, but the switch from celluloid film to digital media has significantly hindered the quality of imagery in this distant echo of an unofficial sequel. Still, as a modern check-in on the state of the NYC ballroom and voguing scene decades after that landmark work and a document of the heights of visual art being achieved within that subculture today, it’s a worthwhile addition to the classic doc’s legacy.

Paris is Burning documented the well-established “houses” & long term history of ballroom culture in NYC, a pocket of queer society fiercely dedicated both to artistic expression (mostly through fashion & dance) and self-preserving loyalty. Kiki focuses on a much more specific subset within that larger scene. Its title not only refers to the communal act of partying or hanging out, but also defines a subset of ball culture participants who are remarkably young and, unlike the older houses profiled in the previous film, unestablished. A large population of the Kiki world are underage PoC, abused or abandoned by their parents for being homosexual or trans. The “house mothers” who take them under their wing and help them prepare for ballroom & voguing competition are barely older than them, mostly in their early 20s, and that age range is largely what separates the “Kiki” scene from traditional ballroom culture.

What’s most exciting about Kiki as a film is in knowing that the ballroom scene does have this young blood flowing through its veins, keeping it alive. In a world where there aren’t many true countercultures left untouched by homogenized pop culture at large, it’s reassuring to know that the NYC ballroom scene is still as vibrantly punk as ever. You can see reflections of what Paris is Burning first documented in mainstream outlets like Ru Paul’s Drag Race today, but for the most part the culture had been left untouched & far from normalized. The aggressively defiant fashion, death drops, and openly expressed sexuality documented in Kiki is still punk as fuck and still a wonder to behold. The best moments of the film are when it merely documents & broadcasts the fine art achievement of the in-their-infancy houses like House P.U.C.C.I., House Juicy Culture, House Unbound Cartier, etc.

Although a respectable ambition, it’s the film’s overt attempts at political statement that drag down its overall value as an art piece. Kiki rightfully has a lot to say about queer and trans identity in modern America. Since it follows a younger set of subjects, it even has terms like “triggered” and “gender fluidity” in its arsenal to discuss these issues effectively. When it dares to flash back to images pulled directly directly from Paris is Burning, however, you get the sense that these politics might have been better served if they were allowed to crop up naturally while focusing on what makes this community’s highly specific POV special in the first place: ballroom culture. The issues discussed in the film are damn important, but by splitting its time between the less visually compelling political maneuvers that take place between the ballroom competitions and actually documenting the competitions​ themselves, the film ultimately feels a little weak and diluted, especially when compared to its spiritual predecessor.

Kiki makes some admirable maneuvers to improve on the Paris is Burning formula. It updates the soundtrack to a modern pop aggression provided by Qween Beat, deliberately puts its LGBTQ politics in the foreground of its subject, and goes as far as to include one of its interviewees in the production of the doc, correcting what many perceive as an exploitative element of Paris is Burning. Even with these positive alterations and additions, however, Kiki can never shake the feeling of being little more than an addendum or an epilogue to that superior work. It shines when it focus on the priceless visual art being produced in the ballroom subculture (sometimes even playing like a voguing-themed version of Girl Walk // All Day), allowing its politics to be passionately expressed in that display. When it strays from that task, however, it starts to feel a lot more like countless works we’ve already seen before. It’s horrifically upsetting that statements like “I am a person” should feel overtly political in a 2010s context, but I can’t shake the feeling that there are more interesting ways to say it than the way it’s handled in Kiki. Take, for instance, the way it’s expressed in the film it openly pays homage to at every turn.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Girl Walk // All Day (2011)

EPSON MFP image

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 Brandon made Boomer & Britnee watch Girl Walk // All Day (2011).

Brandon: Mashup DJ Gregg Gillis, better known by the stage name Girl Talk, releases all of his sample-based mixtapes for free through an imprint collective named Illegal Art. This isn’t necessarily a choice based in artistic integrity (although Gillis himself does have a lot to say about the legitimacy of copyright laws), but rather a product of the circumstance that Girl Talk tapes would be illegal to sell commercially. In an industry where hip-hop artists & pop music producers are careful not to get sued over borrowed melodies & uncleared samples, Gillis composes his music entirely out of repurposed, previously copyrighted material. His work as Girl Talk is fantastic party music, but it’s also commercial suicide. I assume Gillis makes most of his money mixing songs at live gigs since the art he’s most well known for is decidedly “illegal”.

Having this uncopyrightable material floating around out there has its advantages, though. For instance, a rogue dance crew could, say, make a full-length music video centered around one of your mixtapes without any fear of legal persecution (at least not from the DJ). Girl Walk // All Day is a movie-length dance video constructed around Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day (which is still his most recent full-length mashup release). The film (and I do think it qualifies as a legitimate film) seems to take Gillis’s “illegal art” imprint as a mission statement. Stealing its soundtrack & candid reactions from outside sources and operating around what presumably had to be permitless film shoots, Girl Walk // All Day has an inherent sense of danger at its center that makes the film feel like it shouldn’t exist. Yet, its star dancer Anne Marsen (billed simply as “The Girl”) brings a childlike exuberance to every scene that makes the movie feel like it does have a right to exist even if it’s on earthquake-scale shaky ground legally, as if good vibes & positive intentions should outweigh any potential scandal. Girl Walk // All Day is frequently removed from YouTube & broken into annoying chapter segments on Vimeo due to its inability to secure an official release, but when you watch the film you’re left wondering exactly why someone (or some corporation) would want to crush or erase a work so joyful & goodhearted in the first place, uncleared music samples or no.

Legality aside, I feel like the first thing we have to address about Girl Walk // All Day is whether or not it has a legitimate claim as a feature film. It screened at film festivals, it made critic David Elrich’s Top Films of 2012 countdown, it has several narrative arcs that run throughout its 74 minute runtime (one about The Girl’s personal growth as an antonymous woman, one about a love triangle where she’s caught between The Creep & The Gentleman, and one about the sprawling structure of NYC), but it’s easy to see how someone could brush the film off as an overlong music video. Britnee, where do you fall on this divide? Is Girl Walk // All Day a modern spin on the dying art of the cinematic musical or does its thin, near dialogue-free narrative exclude it from consideration as a legitimate motion picture?

Britnee: First and foremost, I was unaware of the legality issues with Girl Talk’s music prior to this conversation. I always thought that he had permission to use all the popular music samples in his mashups. I’m far from being a Girl Talk expert, but the thought just never crossed my mind. It’s amazing how his musical career is so huge while he’s surrounded with so many copyright issues. This makes Girl Walk // All Day seem so dirty, and I like that.

As for your question of Girl Walk // All Day being considered an actual film, I would have to say that it’s most definitely a legitimate film. I can also see how some would consider it to be an “overlong music video,” but I consider many music videos to be the equivalent of short films. Take Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” or, more recently, Adele’s “Hello” music videos for example. How could those not be considered cinema? Music videos are directed, contain acting, and tell a story. Is that not what makes a film, well, a film? Girl Walk // All Day does contain quite an interesting plot, and although the film contains no dialogue whatsoever, emotions are portrayed through expressive dance and facial expressions. That doesn’t make it less of a film; it just makes it a little different.

The dancing in Girl Walk // All Day was so contagious. Just watching The Girl dance her heart out all over New York City gave me such a sense of freedom, to the point that I was getting a bit lightheaded (I was only drinking water during the viewing). Boomer, if you were one of the many bystanders during this film’s production, would you join The Girl in quick jig or would you walk on by? Did you find her to be a likable main character or did you find her to be annoying and intrusive? What exactly did you make of The Girl?

Boomer: That’s a good question. At multiple points throughout the film, I found myself identifying with many of the people that The Girl encounters, the willing and unwilling participants alike. Although several of these passersby seemed disinterested in participating, she actively seemed confrontational with many of them (the one which stands out in my mind is the man whose hand she grabs while wearing the “Dance With Me” sandwich board), which didn’t sour me on the character but did leave a bit of a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Having lived in a few different cities, I can certainly say that my experiences with unsolicited engagement with others is not always pleasant. Over the course of the film, I found myself very much wanting to dance with The Girl in theory, but I don’t know if I would have actually had that desire in practice and in the moment. It’s pretty unlikely that the Girl Talk tracks that appear in the film were diegetic, given the movement from place to place and general public reaction, and as such I feel like my first instinct would be to avoid a potentially dangerous person approaching me, dancing to a song that I cannot hear. Other factors, like what kind of mood I might happen to be in when The Girl chanced upon me and whether I was in a hurry to get to work or another engagement would also affect how willing I would be to join in her movements, sublime though they might be. I want to answer your question with a resounding “Yes,” but I just don’t know if I would actually do so should the opportunity arise.

I’m talking, of course, about those scenes in which she is dancing through crowds and on the streets. Some of the Staten Island ferriers are utterly disinterested in her performance, and many of the people who seem taken aback by her look like NYC tourists to me. It makes sense that residents would be nonplussed by The Girl and her apparent mania, in contrast to visitors who are less accustomed to every performer within a 25 mile radius desperately fighting for attention and notice. Still, as fun and flouncy as the narrative is, there was an undercurrent to it that felt off, as none of the people captured on film seemed to have given their prior consent to being filmed, which is troubling despite how much joy I, as a passive observer, got out of the performance. I don’t know that I would find her annoying, and I really wish I could unequivocally say that I would have given in to the movement, but I know that I would have found her intrusive.

That may be why I got more enjoyment out of the less candid scenes. The opening scene in the ballet class and the overpass breakdancing dance off were a lot more fun to me, as was The Girl’s voguing in an alley with no other people around. There’s an exhilaration to the street scenes that I would find anxiety-inducing were I to be involved as a performer, and I like that the more rehearsed sequences felt a little calmer (but no less exciting) in that regard. Still, I didn’t care for The Creeper dancing with flowers in the park, despite the fact that it was one of the sequences that did not feature non-performers. It lacked some of the verisimilitude (insofar as that word has any meaning in a film like this) of the rest of the film, and I found it lacking as a result. What do you think, Brandon? Did you prefer the sequences that featured random people being pulled into the mix, or the more standard, “closed set” sequences?

Brandon: The individual set-ups in Girl Walk // All Day work for me on kind of a case-by-case basis. There’s so much going on in this film (which, although manicured to an extent, must’ve been a chaotic shoot) that each of the moving parts can be hit or miss depending on the execution. I’d agree that the closed set shoots do feel more purposeful in a general sense than the candid shots of The Girl interacting with the public do, but they sort of have to for the film to make sense narratively. Take, for instance, the graveyard flowers scene Boomer just mentioned. It’s a somewhat jarring tangent when the flowers first appear because they exist outside the Girl-Creep-Gentleman dynamic we’re used to until that point. However, the scene does carry a lot of significance to the film in a narrative sense, since it’s in that moment that The Creep literally grows a heart inside that dancing skeleton of his and makes the transition from antagonist to socially inept beau. The only “scripted” scenes I was lukewarm to, honestly, were the ones centered on The Gentleman, since he was the most static, least interesting character of the central trio. I guess it was fun for a moment to watch the random hardcore parkour dude steal his hat, but that’s about all there is worth mentioning.

As for the candid video interactions with the public, I think Anne Marsen’s performance as The Girl has a lot to do with how they go individually. She has an insanely infectious smile that can make you want to join in as well as a cartoonish grimace that can make you want to back way, way off. Marsen has incredible control over her physical language & expression (as I’m sure most talented dancers must) that can make interactions either inviting or confrontational depending on her desired effect. I’m in total agreeance with Boomer that the discomfort of these scenarios isn’t something I’d necessarily want to live through as a passerby, but The Girl’s mock aggression does make for some especially great moments in the film. I’m thinking not only of the aforementioned “Dance With Me” sandwich board sequence where she’s shown mentally unraveling & a scenario where’s she’s booted from a baseball game by the nonplussed security team, but particularly of the glorious moment when The Girl appears loaded with shopping mall ephemera in a high society fashion bitch outfit to taunt Occupy Wall Street protestors. It’s a beautifully over-the-top exchange that not only solidifies Girl Walk // All Day as a work of highly-functional performance art, but also a document of a very specific moment for NYC/America at large.

In most cases it’d be a massive cliché to say that New York City itself is a character in a piece of film criticism, but I feel that faux pas is inescapable here as it’s quite literally true. Not only are citizens (and tourists) of NYC roped into the production as performers, but The Girl’s personal journey (into adulthood? autonomy?) is more or less told through a guided tour of The Five Boroughs. Historical markers like Occupy Wall Street & the pop songs Girl Talk samples on the soundtrack are also very specific to the cultural zeitgeist of a particular time. Britnee, how much different would Girl Walk // All Day be if this physical & temporal setting were shifted? How different would the film be if it were set in, say, 2016 New Orleans? Are the time & place of its setting and the era of its pop music soundtrack entirely essential to its existence the way they’d be in a documentary?

Britnee: I’m quite unfamiliar with NYC as I have never visited the city nor do I personally know any residents, so I probably missed a good bit of symbolism that NYC offered Girl Walk // All Day. However, I am not that out of the loop and thoroughly enjoyed the hilarious yet profound Occupy Wall Street scene. I do think that the film would be very different if set in a different time and place. Music style and social issues change through time and by location, and these are major components of the film. The film’s essential message of self-acceptance and personal freedom might be the only thing that would not be all that different if this film were not set in 2011 NYC. It’s interesting that you brought up the question of the whether or not the film’s setting and music serve the same importance in the film as in a documentary. I definitely think that the importance of time and place in Girl Walk // All Day is very similar to that of a documentary. Her actions and the film’s music would hold a different meaning if she were to dance through Miami in the late 1980s or Atlantic City in the 1930s.

If set in modern day New Orleans, the film would be slightly different as New Orleans seems to be really different from NYC. Current issues New Orleans faces include gentrification, social segregation, and uncontrollable crime. I’m sure that the same issues occur in NYC, but not on the same level as they do in New Orleans. I can imagine The Girl dancing up a storm out in the Bywater to one of those extra-long bounce remixes Q-93 plays on Saturday nights. As she dances her way through the neighborhoods, life-long residents pack moving trucks while white upper middle-class families unpack moving trucks, carrying boxes to their new homes. Oh, and she would need to definitely leave that windbreaker behind since it’s always hot as hell down here.

Boomer, would you like to see more films in the style of Girl Walk // All Day? What particular album (from any artist) would you like to see turned into a film? And where would the setting be?

Boomer: Oh man, what a great question. The first album that springs to mind is The Decemberists’ Picaresque, if only because that album already has a particularly narrative quality. A film version of Picaresque would have to take a different approach, acting as more of a series of vignettes through which a dancer could travel; I would also see this as having more of an exaggerated, fantastic visual leitmotif, perhaps moving through several different areas inside a vast theater with individual plots being acted out in different small set pieces (or perhaps I’m just being too influenced by the album artwork in my imagining, as the characters I’m picturing all have the same ghoulish, caked-on white makeup as the members of the band). I would also love to see a film set entirely to Visions by Grimes; I imagine it as a Miyazaki style animated feature following Grimes herself as she makes her solitary, heroic way through a colorful jungle, a barren desert, a village full of people who refuse to interact with her (maybe they’re ghosts?), and other familiar Hero’s Journey locations, with each new track bringing her to a new locale.

Moving back to something more grounded (again, as much as that word can apply to anything in Girl Walk), I’m having a hard time trying to think of a particular album that’s actually New Orleansy enough to work in this context. Although they’re Brooklyn-based (or were 5 years ago, the last time they updated their Facebook page), I’ve always thought that Snakes Say Hisss! had a dirty South synth aspect to them, and I’ll Be Loving You feels right for something like Girl Walk filtered through a South Louisiana lens. The film could start in the Bywater (I imagining the film opening just like the video for NOLA-based Jean-Eric’s track “Better than Good”) with “Talk,” then move into the Marigny with “We Are Hot” before getting deep into the Quarter with the next few tracks before hitting the CBD with “Take It Slow” and “Right Behind You” (this track in particular makes me think of the rich carpetbaggers in suits hanging around the offices near Ampersand and Jos. a Bank). “I Control the Wind” is totally MidCity, as is “Avalon,” despite its region-specific references. I could go on, but I encourage people to listen to the album and trace their own journey, really. Of course, this runs the risk of locking non-Louisianans out of the loop, but that’s never really been a concern for large scale productions set on the coasts, has it?

Lagniappe

EPSON MFP image

Britnee: I love how this film made me insanely happy the entire time. There wasn’t a moment when I felt even the slightest bit disinterested. Films that contain the amount of good vibes given off in Girl Walk // All Day are a rarity.

Boomer: I agree with Britnee; this movie was a delight and it made me want to dance. In the intervening time since the viewing, I’ve found myself dancing to myself in spite of the general inappropriateness of the given situation. And although this isn’t a complaint (merely a fact of life), I’m with Britnee in her hesitant appreciation for the NYC-specificity of the film overall. I recently had a conversation with a friend (well, a member of a rival trivia team, but whatever) who was shocked that we were familiar with the Queensborough Bridge. He hails from New Jersey and was shocked that Southerners would know about a relatively unremarkable landmark in New York; I had to explain to him that all of America lives under the iron fist of NYC’s cultural stranglehold, for better or worse. Still, given the rate at which gentrification is rotting the soul of that city (as it is in New Orleans, and here in my new home in Austin), it’s entirely possible that Girl Walk may one day be remembered as one of the last pieces of real art to come out of the boroughs before all the artists actually starved to death.

Brandon: Besides whole-heartedly backing Britnee’s concept for a New Orleans version of Girl Walk set to a Q-93 Social Shakedown mix (not a bad idea for a Kickstarter campaign, honestly), I’d also like to conclude my thoughts here by highlighting my favorite section of the film: the shopping mall sequence. Just before The Girl emerges to taunt the Occupy Wall Street crowd, she gets through a butterfly-like metamorphosis at the shopping malls of Times Square. I’m typically a sucker for shopping mall delirium in film, anyway; it’s usually the imagery that sticks out for me when it’s done right, with Clueless, The Night of the Comet, Invasion USA, and the 2007 Dawn of the Dead remake being a few key examples off the top of my head. However, I think part of the reason it sticks out so much here is that it’s one of the better moments where The Girl is allowed to focus on herself instead of her place in the Girl-Creep-Gentleman love triangle. The self-reflective nature of consumerist pleasures like make-overs & fashion upgrades provides The Girl a lot of personal space to emerge as an oversexed butterfly in a moment that oddly glorifies & satirizes femininity as a performance & an identity.

This sequence always makes me so happy & by the time The Girl appears crunking in her Tell Me About It, Stud leather get-up at the end of it, I always get a little overly giddy. If the idea of watching Girl Walk // All Day in its entirety sounds a little too exhausting for some folks, I at least suggest checking out that particular chapter in isolation, especially since the film is often broken down into those rigid divisions anyway (instead of its ideal state as a fluid, continuous work).

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
June: Britnee presents Alligator (1980)
July: Boomer presents Citizen Ruth (1996)

-The Swampflix Crew