Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

Babe is the Undisputed King of Cinematic Talking Pigs, but Who are the Pretenders to His Throne?

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It’s fairly well established that the Babe franchise is height of live-action, talking-pig children’s media. If you ask someone, “Hey, what was that movie with the talking pig?” it’s highly likely that Babe will be the response. The technical achievements of the first Babe film alone (which include animatronic puppets designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop & an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects), mark it as the height of quality in talking pig media. That sense of movie magic wonder is backed up by a fantastic, effortlessly affecting script (adapted from a 1983 novel called The Sheep-Pig), as well as a intense fever dream of a sequel, our current Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Pig in the City. Babe is an impossibly cute little swine with an angel’s singing voice & a heart of gold that unites even the most disparate of beasts across species lines. In short, he is talking pig perfection.

Of course, being the king of any genre is going to attract some pretenders & Babe has more than his fair share. Starting as soon as the first Babe film’s 1995 release date, there have been multiple live-action piggies looking to wean off some of its swine-adoring audience. I’ve found four pretenders to the Babe throne, all of varying quality. None were fit to shine the king’s hooves, but a couple were at least mildly enjoyable.

The four Babe pretenders are listed below in order of their release dates, hopefully serving as a guide for which ones to avoid in the case that two perfect Babe features weren’t enough to satiate your talking pig needs.

Gordy (1995)

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Gordy, the original pretender, is a movie so slick in its Babe-usurping ambitions that it even beat the first Babe film to the theaters by a few months in 1995. Considering the length of Babe‘s production & the high-profile nature of its visual effects vs. the all-around lackluster quality of Gordy, I feel it’s pretty safe to assume that the latter was a mockbuster rushed into production in order to beat Babe to the punch, delivering shoddily-constructed cute pig antics before the true king arrived. Gordy is the most blatant Babe imitator & also one of the least enjoyable. It’s just an absurdly empty picture, relying on a cutesy, seemingly made-for-TV farm life aesthetic complete with line dancing & a honky tonk soundtrack. Even Gordy‘s visual effects pale in comparison to Babe‘s, relying on an ancient, possibly peanut butter-aided Mr. Ed effect to simulate its talking farm animals.

The best thing Gordy has got going for it is its titular piggy, which I’ll admit is a cute little bugger. As the film awards Gordy front-page publicity as a “hero pig” (for saving some rich dude’s grandson from drowning in a swimming pool of all things) & dresses him up in adorable costumes for a photoshoot (as a scuba diver, a professor, a surfer, etc.) it become increasingly apparent that the pig’s natural cuteness is all the film had in mind. As I mentioned in my exploration of the horror film Pigs, there’s a narrative focus on makeshift families that feels oddly ubiquitous in all pig media (perhaps due to the inherent domesticity of farm life) and both Gordy & Babe participate in that angle. Like with everything else, Gordy’s journey to unite two single parent families (including one headed by an uncomfortably creepy country singer) is much less satisfying than Babe’s struggle to fit in on his own farm. The only entertaining aspects you’re likely to find here is a couple chuckles in seeing Gordy in the scuba gear & in scenes where he teaches human children to understand pig talk, which apparently is a talent reserved for “people who take the time to understand animals, especially the pure of heart.” Blech.

My Brother the Pig (1999)

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As thoroughly empty as Gordy is, it still doesn’t represent the depths of live-action pig cinema. Things get much worse. The straight-to-DVD 1999 comedy (in name only) My Brother the Pig offers even less than Gordy in the way of entertainment and calls into question exactly how films this terrible make it to completion, especially considering the volume of them that are made for pint-sized audiences. Do we really hate children this much? The movie’s only saving graces are in the odd sensation of watching a teen Scarlett Johansson & Eva Mendes starting their careers in hopelessly mindless dreck.

In My Brother the Pig a 13 year old ScarJo struggles to live with her rascal little brother & pristine co-ed nanny, all the time believing that she doesn’t get the love & attention that she deserves. In all honesty, she deserves shit. Her brother may be annoying but at least he does mildly interesting things from time to time (like hosting food fights set to late-90s ska) instead of endlessly complaining like a spoiled brat. Anyway, the mischievous little bro activates some magic crystals through some kind of spilled ice cream spell and is unexpectedly transformed into a pig. This prompts a road trip to Mexico in order to visit Mendes’ family, who happen to be “keepers of the animal spirits.” I promise you it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds. My Brother the Pig only barely even reaches the basic “talking pig” requirements of this genre thanks to the transformation (which “amusingly” leaves him with a pig’s tail) and a particularly silly rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. It’d be more than forgivable if you skip this one entirely.

Animal Farm (1999)

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Just one month after My Brother the Pig‘s home video release, 1999’s Hallmark adaptation of Animal Farm aired on cable television. Unlike Gordy & My Brother the Pig, Animal Farm is actually pretty decent. It’s far from the technical achievement of Babe, but it does feature a nice mix of talking animal techniques, including all three approaches in the genre: animatronics, CGI, and the good, old-fashioned Mr. Ed trick. Just like with Babe, the animatronic puppets featured in Animal Farm were provided by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. And they look pretty great, especially for a made-for-TV production. The sheep, collies, pigs, geese, and horses also call into mind a similar scenario as Babe, but it’s a more-than forgivable similarity, especially considering those animal’s real-life ties to farm life as well as the fact that Animal Farm‘s source material outdates The Sheep-Pig by nearly four decades.

One of the immediate differences you’ll notice between Babe‘s talking pig & those of Animal Farm is that George Orwell’s creations are much more grotesque & realistic than cute. Instead of the adorable voice work provided by the immensely talented (and, unfortunately, recently deceased) Christine Cavanaugh in Babe, the pigs in Animal Farm boast intense, booming voices. They pose themselves as intellectuals, authority figures, and (as the story goes) cruel bullies that are worlds away from Babe’s loveable personality. The kind wisdom of Kelsey Grammar’s voice work softens the portrayal of swine just a tad in the picture, but for the most part pigs are terrifying monsters here with their own authoritarian brutality as well as black & white propaganda footage. I’ll give Hallmark a lot of credit there: they actually put a lot of effort into preserving Orwell’s well-known story for the screen, not at all softening its violent edges for young audiences. For instance this is the only film in the genre where threatened trips to the butcher’s block for pigs are actually fulfilled. Overall, Animal Farm‘s a pretty decent adaptation of an important, but perhaps too-familiar work, far better than what I was expecting based on its pedigree.

Charlotte’s Web (2006)

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Speaking of surprisingly well-executed adaptations with source material that predates Babe’s The Sheep-Pig origins, Nickelodeon’s 2006 take on E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web is actually pretty great as well. It’s hard to say exactly why this version of Charlotte’s Web works so well on its own, but it does feel the most distinguished from Babe in terms of the talking-pig genre, so it at the very least it sidesteps a lot of comparative scrutiny. Even the state-of-the-art puppetry of Babe is entirely avoided here, replaced by the omnipresent use of CGI that has dominated children’s media in the past decade. I am usually turned off by this kind of CGI-dependent kids’ media, but I still ended up finding Charlotte’s Web to be the most enjoyable live-action, talking-pig film that didn’t feature Babe, the genre’s undisputed king.

I’m willing to attribute Charlotte’s Web success to the casting just as much as the inherent charm of the source material. Dakota Fanning plays Fern competently & the “humble”, “terrific”, “radiant” piggy Wilbur was voiced by relative unknown Dominic Scott Kay. It’s the rest of the animal personalities that really makes the movie work. Julia Roberts is greatly cast as the gentle, titular spider, as is John Cleese as a pompous sheep. Other voices include Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates, Andre 3000 & Cedric the Entertainer. That’s quite a ridiculous crew. What really holds the film down, though, is the all-too-perfect decision in hiring Steve Buscemi to voice Templeton the Rat. There’s some corny “children are better listeners” bullshit echoed from Gordy here (which most likely borrowed that sentiment from White’s novel) as well as some lame humor in the film’s repetitive fart jokes & lines like “What the hay?!” & “I guess the yolk’s on me”, but Buscemi’s turn as Templeton as well as the decision to remain faithful to the source material made the film an enjoyable little diversion, just barely more entertaining & distinct than 1999’s Animal Farm. And a lot less creepy.

There might be something to be said about the fact that the best three live-action, talking pig films were all adaptations of pre-existing novels. The narrative slightness of Gordy & My Brother the Pig at the very least prove that a cute pig alone is not enough to carry a film (duh). Still, there’s something special about Babe & Pig in the City that the other two enjoyable adaptations listed here don’t even come close to touching in terms of quality & rewatchability. Babe is the king. No matter how enjoyable, the film versions of Charlotte’s Web & Animal Farm are merely the best among the pretenders to his throne.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre, and last week’s look at its companion in live-action, pig-themed horror, Pigs (1972).

-Brandon Ledet

The Subtle Terror of Babe 2: Pig in the City vs the Straightforward Terror of Pigs (1972)

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Although the idea of talking pigs in children’s media is not at all uncommon, Babe 2: Pig in the City is distinctive from its verbal swine brethren at the very least in its eagerness to terrify its pintsized audience. The only live-action talking-pig children’s movie that even comes close to Pig in the City on the terror scale is the 1999 made-for-TV adaptation of Animal Farm & even that horror show is softened a bit by the kindly wise voice of Kelsey Grammar. For more true pig-themed terror you have to look beyond Pig in the City‘s kids’ movie genre & venture into the seedy world of adult horror cinema. Horror flicks like Razorback & Chaw typically look for menace in the wild boar instead of the domesticated pig, which is a little besides the point here. 1972’s Pigs (alternately titled Daddy’s Deadly Darling) is about as literal you can get in the quest for pig-themed horror, delivering exactly what you’d expect, for better or worse, from a grindhouse exploitation film about flesh-eating pigs distributed on home video by infamous schlock-peddlers Troma.

There are of course innumerable, immediate differences in what you’ll find in these two wildly different features. The pigs in Pigs don’t talk (or think much for that matter). They’re also the main source of the movie’s terror, whereas in Pig in the City Babe is a unifying force that helps a hodgepodge gang of animals buck against the terrors of the outside world. Also, while Babe 2 is an adventurous film that explores expansive, otherworldly landscapes, Pigs rarely leaves the disgusting slop of its sty. That’s not to say, however, that they’re entirely separate form one another, at the very least thematically speaking.

Pigs is entirely faithful to its 70s schlock format, perhaps even painfully so. In its opening minutes, for instance, it powers through the rape-revenge plot of typical 70s exploitation fare in a (thankfully) breezy bout of exposition that does little more than get the requirement out of the way early. The Horror Movie Victim, Lynn, stabs her father to death after an attempted rape and is committed to a mental institution when she fails to cope with what happened. Thus completes her brisk transformation into an Escaped Horror Movie Crazy. Once on the lam, Lynn finds herself vulnerably alone in a seedy small town (much like how Babe is abandoned among reprobates in The Big City) where she quickly takes up a waitressing job at a bar owned by a fellow Horror Movie Crazy, who happens to have the curious hobby of murdering people & feeding their corpses to his pigs. There is an occasional subversion of schlock tropes here in that his flesh-eating pig farm is treated like no mystery & that instead of sizing Lynn up as a potential victim, he forms a makeshift family with her, essentially becoming her new father figure. Other than that, Pigs plays out almost exactly as you’d expect based on its genre & date of release.

Reading between the lines, there’s a surprising amount of connective tissue here. Both Pig in the City & Pigs have a strangely psychedelic quality to them that disorients their audiences. Pig in the City is, of course, more graceful in this effect, using a wide-angle lens POV of a child’s eye to overwhelm the screen with clowns, fires, confetti, and Nazi-esque dogcatchers. Pigs is much cruder in its psychedelia, assembling bizarre montages of pigs squealing while the heroine-murderess Lynn loses her mind. As the pigs feed on human corpses, their mouths soaked in blood, quick jump cuts & strange sound collages throw the viewer off-balance in unexpected ways, especially considering how cheap (in every meaning of the word) the film can be.

What’s even more surprising is the two films’ shared narrative focus on how familial bonds can be formed from the unlikeliest of sources, whether they be a roving gang of starving animals or a pair of mentally unhinged sociopaths who feed anyone they consider a threat to their pet pigs. The focus on familial bonds may be a result of the pig’s historical role as a farm animal & the farm’s domestic tradition (it’s a theme that’s certainly echoed in all of the non-Babe, pig-themed children’s media I’ve seen as well) or it could just be a simple coincidence. Either way it’s a theme that connects seemingly unreconcilable films otherwise related only through their live action pig subjects & the fact that they’re terrifying. If there’s ever a remake of Pigs (and anything’s possible in today’s remake market, mind you) it could up that terror factor even more by giving its flesh-eating pigs the power of speech. Especially if it keeps the squeal-laden freakout montages. There’s a lot a film like Pigs could learn from Babe 2, but a talking pig that also eats human flesh really sounds over the top in a way that I can get behind.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s exploration of how it serves as a key to understanding Miller’s strange oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet