Bright Young Things (2003)

It’s incredible that I didn’t catch Bright Young Things when it was still fresh in the mid-aughts. I was in college at the time, and hopelessly attracted to mid-tier indie films about queer libertines who made fabulously debaucherous lives out of indulging in drugs & gender-fuckery: Party Monster, Breakfast on Pluto, The Naked Civil Servant, etc. (as well as their better-funded equivalent in titles like Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig & The Angry Inch). A portrait of wealthy 1930s socialites enjoying the lull between wars with some lavish drag parties, booze, and cocaine, the semi-historical biopic Bright Young Things would have majorly appealed to me at the time. It’s basically a slightly classier, extremely British version of Party Monster — distinguished only by its staggering cast: James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Emily Mortimer, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, Richard E. Grant, Jim Carter, and one-time director Steven Fry. Even watching it for the first time now, I enjoyed the film far more than I should have. If I had seen it as an impressionable young lush in desperate need of fabulous, crossdressing wastoids to look up to, I almost certainly would have worn that cheap-o second-hand DVD to dust.

Smartly, the film chooses an outsider who aspirationally looks up to the Bright Young Things as its audience-surrogate protagonist, matching the wide-eyed admiration of its target audience. It’s easy to piss away your youth and inherited wealth if you’re born into affluence. It’s a much more difficult trick to pull off for a starving artist who’s living a Bohemian lifestyle because of their class rather than their whims. The best our protagonist writer in search of a steady paycheck can hope for is to be taken in as an amusing pet by his fabulously wealthy friends (while scrounging up some chump change publicizing their decadence in the tabloids under the pseudonym Mr. Chatterbox). It’s a grift that can only last so long, which works out fine since the Bright Young Things themselves could only use London as their personal playground for as long as the world was willing to sit idle between wars. It’s a brilliant POV for the film to take, since the writer’s main motivation is to tag along as his crossdressing, gin-guzzling friends quip and party-hop from one novelty amusement to the next. His “journey” as their adopted working-class pet lands close enough to the ideal audience’s POV to highlight the film’s main attractions (boozy fancy dress parties where jaded artsy types complain “I’ve never been so bored in my entire life” despite the never-ending carnival enveloping them), while also bland enough to not get in their way.

There’s probably an excellent movie to be made about how privileged, unfulfilling, and spiritually toxic the real-life Bright Young Things’ debauchery truly was, but this isn’t it. It makes some last-minute gestures towards that kind of criticism as the party inevitably ends, but its heart really isn’t in it. The movie is much more vibrantly alive in its earliest stretches where everything is champagne, cocaine, drag, and roses, which makes it more of an aspirational wealth fantasy than anything genuinely critical or introspective. And that’s okay! The cast is brimming with delightful performers, all allowed by Fry’s hands-off direction to be as exuberantly charming as they please (with only Tennant being tasked to play a slimy turd so that there’s a vague shape of a villain to feign conflict). I might have been charmed to the point of obsession had I caught this aspirational lush fantasy as a teenager, but even now I was charmed to the point of enjoying the film far more than it likely deserves. Everyone loves a good party, and unfortunately it takes a certain amount of money & lack of self-awareness to throw one. As a frivolous adult who has worn a tuxedo & lipstick combo to a party this year (pre-COVID, mind you; I’m not a monster), I was helpless to enjoying the spectatorship of these staged parties in particular, despite my better judgement.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Wings of Fame (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

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January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew