Pink Narcissus (1971)

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pride-themed recommendation lists circling around the internet in recent weeks, many of which are taking into account the peculiar circumstances of this year’s Pride Month concurring with COVID-19 related social distancing and the additional pandemic of police brutality meant to squash the global upswell Black Lives Matter protests. In general, this year has been a difficult time to recommend any specific movies to watch in light of our current Moment, both because cinema feels like such a petty concern right now and because the nuance of the moment is so vast & complex that it’s impossible to capture it in just a few titles. The intersection of racist & homophobic institutional abuses should certainly be pushed to the forefront of this year’s Pride Month programming – something directly addressed in titles like Born in Flames, Paris is Burning, Tongues Untied, and countless others that film programmers & political activists far smarter than myself could point you towards. However, I was also struck by how much James Bidgood’s art-porno Pink Narcissus feels particular to this year’s quarantine-restricted Pride Month, even though it is a film that has nothing useful or direct to say about race discrimination. It’s too insular & fanciful to fully capture our current moment of mass political resistance, but those exact qualities do speak to its relatability in our current, simultaneous moment of social isolation.

James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. gay porno reverie was filmed almost entirely in his NYC apartment over the course of six years. Using the illusionary set decoration skills & visual artistry he honed as both a drag queen & a photographer for softcore beefcake magazines, Bidgood transformed every surface & prop in his living space into a fantastic backdrop for his rock-hard fairy tale. Pink Narcissus is a pure, high-art fantasy constructed entirely out of hand-built set decoration & an overcharged libido, a Herculean effort Bidgood achieved by living and sleeping in the artificial sets he constructed within his own living space. If there’s anything that speaks to me about the past few months of confinement to my home, it’s the idea of tirelessly working on go-nowhere art projects that no one else in the world gives a shit about. Bidgood was eventually devastated when his film was taken out of his hands by outside investors who rushed the project to completion without his participation in the editing room (so devastated that the film was credited to “Anonymous” and was rumored to be a Kenneth Anger piece for decades), but I’m still floored by the enormity, complexity, and beauty of the final product. A lot of us having been building our own little fantasy worlds and arts & crafts projects alone in our homes over recent months; I doubt many are half as gorgeously realized as what Bidgood achieved here.

There is no concrete narrative or spoken dialogue to help give Pink Narcissus its shape. The film is simply pure erotic fantasy, explicitly so. A young gay prostitute lounges around his surrealist pink apartment overlooking Times Square, gazing at his own beauty in his bedroom’s phallic mirrors and daydreaming about various sexual encounters while waiting for johns to arrive. This is more of a wandering wet dream than a linear story, with the erotic fantasy tangents seemingly having no relationship to each other in place or time. The sex-worker Narcissus imagines himself caressing his own body with delicate blades of grass & butterfly wings in an idyllic “meadow” (an intensely artificial tableau that resembles the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). An anonymous blowjob at a public urinal drowns a gruff stranger in a sea of semen (staged in a baby pool full of thickened milk in Bidgood’s kitchen). A premonition of a dystopian Times Square where ghoulish hustlers openly jerk themselves off below advertisements for artificial anuses, frozen pissicles, and Cock-a-Cola flutters outside his window. A few of these tableaus uncomfortably skew into racist culture-gazing, treating matador costumes & a sultan’s harem as opportunities for bedroom dress-up scenarios. That’s par for the course in the context of old-fashioned porno shoots, though, especially before no-frills hardcore became the norm. What’s unusual about it is how Bidgood transforms those artificial, fetishized vignettes into high art.

If there’s any one movie deserving of a Blu-ray quality restoration treatment, it’s this. Bidgood may be frustrated by the way his vision was never completely realized thanks to outside editing-room meddling, but even in its compromised form it’s an intoxicating sensory experience. It stings that you have to look past the shoddy visual quality of its formatting to see that beauty, as it’s been blown up from its original 8mm & 16mm film strips into depressingly fuzzed-out & watered down abstractions on home video. Looking at the gorgeously crisp, meticulously fine-tuned prints of Bidgood’s beefcake photography (collected in the must-own Taschen artbook simply titled James Bidgood), it’s heartbreaking to see his one completed feature film so shamelessly neglected. Even in its grainy, sub-ideal state it’s still a fascinating watch that pushes the dreamlike quality of cinema as an artform to its furthest, most prurient extreme. It’s also a testament to how much just one artist can achieve when left to their own maddening devices in isolation for long enough. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll emerge from this year’s stay-at-home chrysalis period with some equally beautiful, surreal art that some horned-up weirdo has been anonymously toiling away at in private. Considering how shitty & distracting the world outside has become, however, the likelihood of that possibility is highly doubtful.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020) is a Major Work, Goddamnit

When Boomer reviewed Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, he approached it from a state of deep genre fatigue. He wrote, “Its biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be.” This is certainly a valid POV in approaching the film. At least, it’s one I’ve seen validated by many other critics’ & audiences’ response to the movie – citing it as one of this season’s lesser specimens of its “genre” or, worse, an admirably solid adaptation of a book & character most people don’t seem to like to begin with. No matter how many times I see this sentiment repeated, though, it’s one I cannot match in my own, much more enthusiastic appreciation of Emma. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I found a stronger personal connection to Emma. than I did with any one of the more Prestigious films of recent years on a similar wavelength: The Favourite, Little Women, Love & Friendship, etc. I liked all those movies a great deal and understand that any one of them would be a more respectably Intellectual choice as a personal favorite, but I really can’t help it. In my eyes, Emma. is a great work of that same caliber, if not higher.

Even from Emma.’s (admittedly mild) detractors who might dismiss it as a decent 3-star frivolity, you’ll hear concessions that it looks great. Its confectionery production design and deviously playful costuming are too intoxicating to ignore, even if you find the comedy of manners they service to be a bore. That visual achievement is no small, ancillary concern in my estimation. Its confectionery aesthetic is a significant aspect of its substance as a work of art, not least of all because cinema is an inherently visual medium. Director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a portrait photographer – making a name for herself shooting musicians’ album covers before transitioning into filmmaking through the music video. A strong, precisely defined visual style is essential for an artist of that background (consider the stylistic hyperbole of Hype Williams’s Belly) and it’s a genuine thrill to see that crisp, modern formalism applied to a period piece (consider Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), given how stuffy & buttoned up the costume drama can feel at its laziest. There’s a tendency to devalue the visual artistry of fashion design & carefully curated color palettes as secondary concerns in cinema, as if they only exist to serve more Important criteria like performance & plot. Personally, I often find them far more exciting than those more frequently discussed concerns – especially in the “costume drama,” where costuming is emphasized right there in the name. When, for instance, Emma wears a free-floating lace collar as if it were an S&M-inspired choker or wears an overly frilly perfumed ornament that dangles from her hair like a mace, it’s more thrilling to me than any action sequence in Fast & Furious or Mad Max: Fury Road could ever be.

Of course, Autumn de Wilde’s precise eye for visual composition extends from what her characters are wearing to how they are positioned in the frame. Emma. is largely a story about the politics of social hierarchy among wealthy 19th Century fops (dressed up as a tittering rom-com about a misguided matchmaker), so much of its minute-to-minute conflicts are hinged on microscopic social cues in both spoken dialogue & performed body language. The film dutifully allows Austen’s dialogue to speak for itself on this highly stylized stage, but it does add its own spin to the source material by paying careful attention to blocking. Characters are constantly maneuvering their bodies in private parlors & public spaces to communicate unspoken dominance & conflict with their social adversaries. Emma Woodhouse herself has more perceived adversaries than most, as someone who constantly plays with social configurations as an idle pastime, so she’s the most obvious example of this purposeful body language display. When she spies through a store window that a new person is entering the room, she prepares by positioning her body in the most advantageous position she can manage, like a war general seeking higher ground. When she greets a potential beau who she finds romantically intriguing in her private greenhouse, she shifts her position to where the glass pane with the best lighting hits her just right with an artificially warm glow. Seemingly simple conversations in the film visually play out like complicated dances as characters mechanically shift around each other in closed-off rooms, an attention to blocking that’s emphasized by an elaborate ballroom scene where those body language politics become unavoidably explicit. It’s framed as being deliberate choices made by the characters themselves, but I think it also reflects the film being the vision of a director with an eye for how figures are arranged in photographic compositions.

As sharp as de Wilde’s visual compositions are in this debut feature, I can see how detractors could believe the movie falls short as an adaptation in its unwillingness to tinker with the source material. Emma. will not win over any naysayers who were already displeased with Austen’s novel or Emma Woodhouse as a character. This is a faithful translation from page-to-screen in terms of narrative content, only asserting its own voice on the material through visual style & comedic performance. It works for me, but I was already a fan of the novel before I arrived. Emma Woodhouse is a deeply flawed brat whose lifelong idleness in comfort & wealth has trained her to treat people’s private lives like playthings. Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect casting for the role in that she’s already been walking a tightrope between quietly sinister & adorably sweet since her breakout performance in The Witch. Her dips into thoughtless cruelty at the expense of her social inferiors hit just as hard as the physical comedy of the goofier subordinates she’s adopted as pets (the MVPs in those roles being Mia Goth as her absurdly naive protégée & Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father). Both Emma’s icy manipulations of her social circle’s hierarchy (disguised as playful “matchmaking”) and her closest family & friends’ pronounced goofiness are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting, where the smallest gesture or insult can mean The World. The laughs are big; so are the gasps when Emma fucks up by allowing her games to hurt “real” people’s very real feelings. When Clueless modernized the character for the 1990s, it softened the blow of these thoughtless miscalculations by making Emma something of an oblivious Valley Girl ditz. De Wilde’s film makes no such accommodations, sketching her out as a very smart, sharply witted person who should know better (and ultimately learns from her mistakes). Continuing to like her in that context is a bigger leap than some audiences are apparently willing to make.

I really like Emma., both the movie and the character. Autumn de Wilde seemingly likes her as well, even if she can’t resist ribbing her for not being half as smart or talented as she believes herself to be (most hilariously represented in her limitations as a painter & musician). I wish I could fully hinge my appreciation for this movie on its exquisite visual artistry or its shrewdness as a page-to-screen adaptation, but the ultimate truth is that it’s a comedy that I happened to find very, very funny from start to end. Whether that’s because the physical humor hit me just right in its stuffy setting or because I just happen to generally get a kick out of Women Behaving Badly is anyone’s guess. Similarly, I wonder if critics who were underwhelmed by the film in comparison with fellow costume dramas of its artistic caliber just simply didn’t find it humorous, as there’s no rationale that can intellectually save a comedy you simply don’t find funny. No one seems willing to argue that Emma. isn’t accomplished as a visual feat, so I suspect it’s the specificity of the humor or the thorniness of Emma Woodhouse as a character that’s weighing down its initial reputation. Personally, both the quirky character humor and the thoughtless dips into ice-cold cruelty worked for me, and I consider Emma. to be a major work. I doubt I’m the only one.

-Brandon Ledet

Varda by Agnès (2019)

I remember thinking that Agnès Varda’s recent collaboration with French photographer JR, Faces Places, was an excellent crash course in the director’s professional history as an artist. The way that project synthesized Varda’s past work in still photography, art instillations, and the blending of documentary & narrative filmmaking felt like a succinct summation of everything she had accomplished in her lifetime as a titan of cinema. That take on Faces Places feels a little premature in retrospect now that I’ve seen Varda’s latest—and, sadly, final—feature: Varda by Agnès. As the title suggests, this final documentary is a much more direct, comprehensive retelling of Varda’s career in the auteur’s own words. It covers the major milestones of everything she accomplished on movie screens, in art galleries, and in outdoor instillation pieces as its central declared topic, whereas Faces Places only referenced that portfolio in relation to how it influenced her work with JR. This film is the Agnès Varda crash course, the career overview that guides each viewer to their personal blindspots in her oeuvre and provides further anecdotal background info for Varda scholars already deeply in the know.

True to her playful, intellectually considerate approach to filmmaking, Varda addresses this indulgence in self-academia head-on by allowing the subject to shape the film’s form. Varda by Agnès is presented as an interlocking series of lectures, where the director herself orates from a proper stage to several live audiences. The entirety of the picture is narrated by Varda, with illustrative film clips & still-photograph slideshows fleshing out each touchstone of her sermon. Instead of starting with her very first film (La Pointe Courte) and chronologically trudging along to her most recent project (Faces Places), Varda instead allows the story of her career to gradually take shape as she naturally follows the flow of topics that have informed her work over the years, as if having a casual (and one-sided) conversation with her audience. She’s teaching us everything she knows about filmmaking (or “cinewriting,” as she calls it) by looking back to the major touchstones of her career, but she somehow never takes on an authoritative or professorial tone. Instead, it feels as if she’s leveling with us as equals; it’s a humble & empathetic sharing of everything she’s learned over a half-century of filmmaking, so that we can utilize that knowledge for more & better art once she’s gone.

While its initial premise suggests that it’s merely a career overview of Varda’s work in particular, Varda by Agnès functions just as well as general advice from the auteur on the processes & philosophies of filmmaking at large. She breaks down the art of “cinewriting” into three basic processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. The contextual info she provides for her own films is consistently informed by those three tenets, and she uses that structure to deliver meaningful advice to the young artists who will outlive her. Larger topics like radical politics, the subjectivity of time, and the ability of a creator’s empathy to transform mundane subjects into transcendent Art arise naturally as the movie pauses on various projects from Varda’s past. Varda by Agnès may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture. Varda’s body was failing her as this project took shape, and she died before it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It’s a wonder the film exists at all, much less that it’s as intellectually sharp & creatively fluid as it is, even if its physical staging is limited.

The world did not deserve Agnès Varda. Yet, she gave us everything she could muster anyway. Even in her dying year, she gifted us a concrete way to say goodbye & to memorialize everything she accomplished while alive. Most aging auteurs of her stature don’t get that chance, and even fewer would go about their very public retirement in such a humble, uncurmudgeonly way.

-Brandon Ledet

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

The microbudget documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the debut feature as a director for fine art photographer RaMell Ross. I doubt that was initially the film’s intended form. With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result. Like all D.I.Y. art projects (especially ones this disinterested in narrative) there’s a hit or miss quality to Hale County on a minute to minute basis, but in its best moments it strikes the exact notes of beauty & nightmarish atmosphere you’d want to see in a microbudget, swing-for-the-fences debut. A lot of that artistry seems to be the result of editing-room tinkering in post-production, but it’s all built on the foundation of Ross’s already-established documentarian eye.

A large part of the reason RaMell Ross’s photography work lends itself so well to documentary filmmaking is that he already was documenting little-seen niches of life before he thought to set those images in motion. Ross’s latest project is portraits of black lives in the rural American South, finding eerie beauty & tragic calm in lives marginalized by poverty. More importantly, though, his work’s fine art formalism brings a distinct cinematic eye to his newfound medium so that these portraits don’t feel so much like matter-of-fact dispatches from lives on the fringe, but rather expressions of beauty and deep guttural moans of pain & frustration. The spaces he documents in Hale County, Alabama provide a very grounded, recognizable tapestry of black lives in the modern, rural American South: churches, dorm rooms, trailer parks, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, maternity wards. They don’t amount to much aesthetically, but Ross’s patience & detail-oriented eye allows them to develop into a larger tapestry that encompasses birth & death, time & the cosmos, real life & the world of our dreams. He asks abstract questions like “What is the orbit of our dreams?” and then “answers” them with small, candid moments of sweat dripping on a basketball court or the Sun vibrating across the sky in a time-elapsed road trip. It’s an eerie, disjointed gestalt — the kind of distinctly cinematic eye usually not afforded places like Hale County, Alabama.

As you might expect with a narratively disinterested, tonally experimental art project, Hale County‘s greatest strengths lie in the intensity & memorability of isolated images. Much of the film patiently documents the minor moments of toddlers’ playtime, stray kittens, wandering cattle, and video game “parties” in crowded living rooms. Yet, there are also spectacular moments of a one-of-a-kind novelty: intense Southern storms swarming in on tiny, unprepared human bodies; a mother’s eyes rolling around her skull on pain mediation during an intense birth; a prankster jokingly attempting to view a solar eclipse through a waffle fry. There’s an undeniable political weight to this style of portraiture as well, especially in the financial & physical conditions of the setting and the quiet presence of police lights that bathe & invade those spaces in regular intervals. I’m not convinced that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a slam dunk (to borrow terminology from the film’s strong focus on local basketball culture), but it’s certainly a wonder to behold in its best moments and an emotionally harrowing experience even in its worst. The only question now is how much greater could RaMell Ross’s cinematic eye become if he set out to make a feature film on purpose at the start of a project, instead of finding one after the fact in the editing room?

-Brandon Ledet

Generation Wealth (2018)

It’s impossible to fully capture the spirit of contemporary life while we’re living it; that’s something that requires temporal & academic distance to convincingly achieve. Photographer/documentarian Lauren Greenfield is aware of this limitation, finding more academic value in her early work the further she gets away from it, but she’s also unsatisfied with setting that ambition aside. In Generation Wealth, Greenfield attempts to recontextualize nearly three decades of her photography & anthropological study of modern Western culture into a concise diagnosis on the ills of the Hellish world we currently occupy. She seeks to damn the greed & absurdity of excessive wealth, to examine her dual responsibilities as an artist & a mother, to establish a new field of study in pop culture anthropology, and to offer a moralistic solution to all of modern society’s ills – all in 106 minutes of D.I.Y. documentary filmmaking. Naturally, some of these ambitions are more successfully satisfied than others. Generation Wealth is always more enjoyable when it’s exposing the absurdities of immense wealth with anthropological distancing than it is when it indulges in moralistic finger-wagging about family values & the commodification of sex. Even when it’s stumbling through the details, however, the movie as a whole is immensely impressive for daring to examine contemporary culture in its entirety while it’s still happening. It makes a compelling case for why it’s important to do this work now instead of waiting until these times are in the rearview; it feels as if the world is ending around us and hindsight might not be something we will be afforded once it’s over.

Greenfield got her start as a big-name artist documenting youth culture in early 90s Los Angeles. Because of the tech & entertainment industry circles that comprise most of L.A., the kids who run those stomping grounds are obsessed with status symbols that portray immense wealth to their peers; they’re essentially playing rich. As her professional photo-journalist assignments have since dragged her all over the world in the last two decades, she’s noticed this behavior spreading to other cultures, even in the face of global economic collapse. As the gap between classes widens to extremes, modern culture has become obsessed with appearing wealthy as a kind of social performance, with no substantive foundation to make that illusion credible. Doom & gloom economists are called on to compare the most lavish expressions of false-wealth – child beauty pageants, rap video excess, reality TV celebrity, plastic surgery for dogs – to the early signifiers of the fall of Rome. The audience is warned, “Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the instance the face death” while surreal images of the world’s nouveau elite clash with factoids about modern culture’s financial unsustainability. It’s in this diagnosis of a society that’s sick with wealth-obsession that Greenfield is most convincing, especially since she has been gathering concrete, photographic evidence of those ills her entire professional career. Where Generation Wealth becomes less credible (and occasionally even infuriating) is when Greenfield prescribes back-to-basics, old-fashioned (and often sex-negative) “simple living” as the antidote without also acknowledging the way that façade of down-to-Earth “authenticity” is also something purchased & sold by the financially “comfortable.”

Much like with the act of studying a cultural moment in motion without the benefit of temporal distance, Greenfield is too close to the subject to see how back-to-basics, rustic authenticity is just another Late-Stage Capitalism product, another empty absurdity among many. Generation Wealth would likely be a stronger project overall if it skipped offering a solution to the false-wealth problem entirely, only sticking to the initial doom & gloom diagnosis. That’s because, by design, this is an incomplete project, as this modern cultural moment has not yet reached its natural conclusion. Greenfield’s work as a photographer & a documentarian is still in progress. Generation Wealth is ultimately a mid-career artist’s statement, offering an art gallery slide show of Greenfield’s surrealist images of a culture in crisis (which alone makes the film worth seeing on the big screen). Attempting to tidily wrap up that narrative before it’s seen itself through in the real world is admirably ambitious, but a flawed effort from the outset. We won’t understand the full scope of Greenfield’s documentation of a culture in decline until the whole thing collapses, meaning this film’s inevitable sequel or revision is likely to surpass it in artistic merits. That is, presuming filmmaking is still even a viable practice when that time comes. As Generation Wealth indicates, the future is terrifyingly uncertain.

-Brandon Ledet

Faces Places (2017)

Faces Places is simultaneously the best and the worst introduction to Agnès Varda’s sensibilities as a filmmaker that I can imagine. At nearly 90 years old, Varda is decades past her youthful heyday as an undervalued innovator in the shadows of the male-dominated French New Wave movement. Faces Places is also her collaboration with a younger artist, diluting Varda’s voice with outsider input. At the same time, though, the film functions as a thorough introduction to Varda’s history as an auteur. It’s a project that combines her multimedia interests in instillation art, photography, and both documentary & narrative filmmaking. It touches on her past personal relationships with artists like Jacques Demy & Jean-Luc Godard and continues her mentorship of those familiar names with her young co-director, a photographer named JR. I was unfamiliar with Varda’s creative voice at the start of Faces Places, but left feeling as if I had known her my entire life. The film is built on the back of her continued legacy, but invites you to dig deeper into her catalog instead of locking out the uninitiated. I’m simultaneously embarrassed that Varda’s 25th feature film was the first I had ever seen and delighted to meet her in such an all-encompassing, immediately lovable crash course.

Faces Places is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, but that category selection is something of cheat. The main subject documented in the film is the blossoming friendship & artistic collaboration between Varda & JR, but it’s a narrative expressed mostly through staged comedic routines. They discuss meeting as admirers of each other’s art (especially as connoisseurs of photography & mural work), poke fun at the cartoonish differences between their bodies (JR is youthful & lanky, while Varda is a tiny, exhausted thing), trade bad puns, pontificate musings on the nature of cats, etc. These exchanges are consistently adorable, but artificially (and intentionally) performative. Where the film’s true documentary streak emerges is in the pop art instillation project the pair collaborate on. Varda & JR travel through small villages in the French countryside (in a magical truck that doubles as a large-format Polariod camera), looking to meet & document the “real people” who live there. It’s a project that’s entirely dependent on collaboration & spontaneity. The genuine, unplanned conversations missing in Varda’s interactions with JR are abundant among the various subjects they meet on the road.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered). Watching Varda & JR politely negotiate their lack of permits with cops or reconcile with the impermanence of the paper & paste art instillations they erect in these communities doesn’t exactly feel like burn-the-system-to-the-ground radicalism in the moment. However, the types of voices they choose to amplify with the project and the grand public displays they make out of undervalued people’s basic existence has a subversive nature to it all the same.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Faces Places as a more wholesome Exit Through the Gift Shop or an aggressively quirky travel diary, but Varda & JR deliver something much more unique than those descriptors imply. Touches of Buñuel surrealism, “wonderfully disgusting” gross-outs, art history lectures, working-class politics, and vaudevillian irreverence subvert & distort what you might typically expect from a well-behaved, crowd-pleasing documentary from a director near the end of her career. Faces Places is a loving self-portrait of a beautiful friendship, as well as a crash course history in the multimedia achievements Varda has tirelessly striven towards over the decades. I’m excited to dive into the more youthful, combative films of her distant past now that I’ve tested the waters, but also grateful to have been introduced to her through such a complexly endearing work. It’s an achievement that feels like it’s been a long time coming, even though Varda’s voice & I have just met.

-Brandon Ledet

The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World

Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.

It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.

Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.

Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.

By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.

-Brandon Ledet

Heavenly Bodies! (1963)

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three star

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In the four years following the breakout success of Russ Meyer’s debut film The Immoral Mr. Teas, the director mired himself (pun intended) in soulless repetition, churning out a mostly dull sequence of Teas-imitating nudie cuties that nearly broke his spirit by the time he made his fourth picture, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Obviously bored with his own creation, Meyer began to branch out genre-wise in the delightfully hateful shockumentary Europe in the Raw & started to show his true colors as an eccentric misanthrope. That, however, didn’t stop him from returning to the well one last time for a fifth & final nudie cutie, the enjoyably low-key Heavenly Bodies!. Meyer was reportedly not particularly proud of the way Heavenly Bodies! came out, both because of his growing boredom with the nudie cutie as a genre & because of the public’s similar boredom that lead the film to flop financially, but I find that to be a shame. Heavenly Bodies! is not quite as historically significant as The Immoral Mr. Teas or Europe in the Raw, but it does feel like a warm, fond farewell to the director’s pin-up & nudie cutie work, effectively closing that chapter of his life before the next, darker saga began.

Heavenly Bodies! is such a fitting tribute to the culmination of Meyer’s previous works that the subject of the film itself is a love letter to nude photography. It opens with intense close-ups of belly buttons, hair, kneecaps, and (of course) breasts while an industrial film-style narrator (Vic Perrin, who also voiced Europe in the Raw) helpfully explains that “You have just seen the component parts of a woman, a very voluptuous woman.” Meyer’s script goes on to espouse lofty platitudes about how nude models have been the main focus of photography since the invention of the camera & even the most beautiful paintings from fine art masters of the past can’t match the beauty of a nude photograph. Meyer isn’t even content to stop there, continuing to claim that nude photographs, the kind that he himself produced for “glamor magazines”, were the backbone of the US economy. Perrin dryly intones, “It is by no means far fetched to state that America’s entire vast fabric of prosperity, from automobiles to frozen foods, depends on this affinity between beautiful women, camera, and cameraman.” Why is that “by no means far fetched”? Because sex sells, dummy.

Although Heavenly Bodies! is by all means Russ’ love letter to himself, one that even name-checks the director as “Russ Meyer, one of Hollywood’s best known glamor photographers,” it at least vaguely pretends to be something more significant: a documentary on nude photography as a business. An early reenactment in the film retraces “glamor photography” back 30 years to stage a silent film shoot on the beach featuring Meyer vet Princess Livingston rolling around in a swimsuit. Anyone familiar with the elderly Princess Livingston’s toothless, maniacal screen presence (first seen in Wild Gals of the Naked West) should have a ball picturing the lovable coot sarcastically pretending to vamp it up for the camera. Another sequence depicts a pin-up cameraman who learned his trade as a combat photographer in the Army Corps during WWII (just like Meyer) feverishly snapping “glamor” photographs of two beautiful models lounging poolside & (in a particularly intense moment) jumping rope. All the while, the narration rattles off long, detailed lists of camera equipment that the Russ-surrogate is using, drooling just as much over the gear as it is over the bare breasted models. Another excursion involves Meyer himself & his real-life 166th Signal Corps war buddies retreating to the woods with two more cuties to snap more “glamor” photos and drool over more top notch analog camera equipment. The narrator cheekily asks, “Was your class reunion ever like this?” The film more or less goes on this way.

In these scenes, all of Meyer’s pin-up & nudie cutie calling cards are present: the rapid-fire editing, the swanky music, the besides the point narration, the self-glorifying cameos & bit roles for his war buddies, the otherworldly pastel voids, the navel gazing philosophy on the nature of photography, and the lingering effects of WWII. By the time he made Heavenly Bodies! Meyer may have have become bored with the nudie cutie as a format, but he also became extremely adept at injecting his eccentric personality into these by-the-numbers pictures, something he had struggled to do since he created the genre in The Immoral Mr. Teas. In every silly, frivolous minute, Heavenly Bodies! is easily recognizable as a Russ Meyer film, something that’s difficult to say about long stretches of lesser titles like Eve & The Handyman & Erotica. It’s by no means a mind-blowing picture, but it is a fairly enjoyable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Peeping Tom (1960)

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More than a decade after his back to back classics The Red Shoes & Black Narcissus, British director Michael Powell nearly sank his prestigious career with a seedy horror film about a psychotic cameraman with a very peculiar sort of bloodlust (emphasis on “lust”). Due to its lurid subject matter, Peeping Tom was initially met by British critics with an absurd flood of vitriol that placed Powell’s career in immediate peril, but time has been kind to the film & it’s now regarded at the very least as a cult classic, if not one of the greatest horror films of all time. It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing ponography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho and predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.

Striking an odd resemblance to a more dapper version of Peter Lorre’s child killer in M (occasionally complete with whistling), the titular peeping Tom, Mark Lewis, is portrayed by Austrian actor Carl Boehm with an authentically creepy, lustful nervousness. Trained from a young age by his late father to not only act as a voyeur, but also to pursue the capture of fear on film, Mark is, reductively speaking, a strange bird. As his ambitions in his serial murders escalate, so do his ambitions in his photography. Discontent to merely film pin-up models as they remove their complicated lingerie, Mark dreams of one day being a director of feature films. His first step in this direction towards legitimacy is a gig as a camera operator on a production cheekily titled The Walls Are Closing In. Unfortunately for Mark, his professional ambitions & his bloodlust are intrinsically linked and, despite owning a director’s chair with his own name printed on it, he is destined to be captured by the authorities as he becomes more bold & obsessive in his choice of victims. Mark plans to begin his career in filmmaking on a fascinating little indie documentary about his own slashings & their resulting crime scene investigations. He admires his own work in the darkroom void of his personal studio, a lushly photographed inner sanctum packed with a mouthwatering stockpile of analog film equipment that Powell’s film leers over & lights with a giallo-esque palette of intensely colored lights. Just as Marks’ camera oggles drunken partygoers & couples canoodling in the dark, Peeping Tom oggles the very equipment he uses, drawing really uncomfortable parallels between Powell’s obsession with lush filmmaking & the more unsavory obsessions of his killer voyeur subject.

Mike’s one chance for salvation is a budding love interest in a downstairs neighbor, Helen Stephens, played by Anna Massey (who inexplicably reminds me of a mousier version of Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer here), an aspiring children’s book writer who lives with her bitter alcoholic mother. Their relationship is mostly a nonstarter, of course, as during their outings Mark’s mind is consistently distracted by the film developing back in his studio or passing glimpses of young couples molesting each other in the shadows. While he enjoys Helen’s company, Mark treats his missing camera on their excursions like a phantom limb & by the time he kisses the equipment goodnight, it’s painfully obvious who his true love is. Helen’s presence is more or less simply a glimpse into the more sympathetic aspects of our killer’s psyche, but her social circle also offers a view of Marks’ queerness in comparison to the more traditional square-jawed masculinity of her other beaus. Helen also provides an excuse for Mark to put his work on display. As he shows her his father’s documents/experiments of his own childhood (including what was likely his very first peeping), as well as the much more devious/criminal documents he’s been making himself, Helen acts as an audience surrogate, voicing reasonable responses like “Naughty boy. I hope you were spanked,” & “It’s horrible! It’s horrible! But it’s just a film, isn’t it?” Mark’s chillingly responds, “No.”

For all of its ghastly subject matter & general creepiness, Peeping Tom is actually great fun. Not only is there a swanky dance break provided by (legendary The Red Shoes actress) Moira Shearer, but the movie is packed with a dark sense of humor that might’ve gone by the priggish critics who initially dismissed the film on moral grounds. There’s a ton of winking, under-the-breath jokes that can be bitterly morbid, but are also genuinely hilarious. Powell’s proto-slasher is remarkable not only in its muted black comedy & phrophetic glimpses into the future of the horror genre, but also in its studied craft. Very rarely do horror films look this arty, with this much reverence for photography as a craft. Powell’s camera may leer in a way that cheaper exploitation films tend to, but it leers more at movie-making equipment than it does at half-dressed women. It’s Mark’s camera that lunges at its targets like a weapon, establishing the first person POV of countless cinematic serial killers to follow, except with a solid narrative reason for its inclusion that’s often missing from those films. Peeping Tom is the rare film of narrative, stylistic, and historical significance that plays just as chillingly fresh decades after its release as it did when it was first criminally overlooked. It may, in fact, be one of the greatest films of all time, horror or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet