Wild in the Streets (1968)

There’s something hilarious to me, a dipshit Millennial, about the fact that Baby Boomers have been the generational enemy #1 for over a half-century and counting.  Currently, they’re losing an online culture war against the youths, who complain that the elder generation is gobbling up a majority share of the nation’s wages & structural power while Millennials and Zoomers struggle to make do on a monthly basis – let alone accumulate savings or property.  Even when the Boomers were the youth, though, the were already a major target for wide cultural scorn.  As pot-smoking, Civil Rights-demanding teenagers, Boomers terrified their Nixonite parents, especially since the hippie-sympathetic youth comprised 52% of the US population.  Bitter about being drafted to die in the Vietnam War as literal teenagers while not being afforded full rights as citizens, Boomers successfully lobbied to have the legal voting age lowered to 18 years-old, a display of generational political power you rarely see in any demographic below the age of 60 anymore.  It freaked adults out, so much so that schlocky movie studios like AIP could make an easy buck producing teenage-Boomer scare films about youth culture gone wild.

Wild in the Streets is at least cheeky about late-60s Conservatives’ anxieties over their activist children’s impending right to vote (passed two years after the film’s release).  It presents that political shift as a slippery-slope doomsday scenario, wherein the youth of America unite to lower the age to hold office while they’re at it, then elect their favorite long-haired hippie rock star as the youngest US President in history.  The hip new President has no real political platform beyond pushing this youth culture movement as far as it will go – forcing all workers to retire at 30, forcing them to macrodose LSD at the age of 35, and turning the White House into a hippie squat for all his groovy friends.  It’s a satirical mockery of Conservative adults’ fears of teenage-Boomers’ collective political power, but it’s also aimed at those same adults’ aesthetic tastes (notably narrated as if it were a gravely serious documentary about a series of murders).  The film dabbles in the same brand of “How do you do fellow kids?” satire as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: so tragically unhip that it’s somehow incredibly cool.  It’s a youth culture headlinesploitation piece made by embarrassingly square adults desperate to be seen as “with it” enough to draw teenagers to the box office but freaked out enough by those teenagers to also appeal to their parents.

It kinda worked.  Wild in the Streets was hastily shot in two short weeks and relied heavily on Vietnam protest & rock concert crowd footage to bolster its production values.  It made millions off a meager budget, earning a few high-profile raves in publications like The New York Times, and even landing an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing (which it lost to Bullitt).  The rapid-fire, collage-style editing is the closest the film ever comes to being interesting in its craft, but since it’s such a cheap knockoff of Russ Meyer’s superior, unawarded style it’s okay that it inevitably lost out.  Besides likely inspiring the title of a Circle Jerks album, I’m not sure the film has had much cultural impact long-term.  The most I can recommend for its relevancy to contemporary audiences is the familiar imagery of teenage activists “storming the Capitol” to demand Congress lower the minimum age to hold public office to 14.  It’s not the most important political issue activists could have stormed the Capitol to advocate for in the late-1960s, considering the mostly white faces in the crowd and the much more urgent racial exploitation issues of the time.  Still, it’s not nearly as idiotic as the reasoning behind attempted coup we saw on TV a year ago, and the imagery is strikingly similar.

Given Wild in the Streets‘s immediate financial success as a quick cash-in headlinesploitation picture, I’d say it’s high time for another tasteless satire in which Boomers are the generational enemy #1.  The closest modern example I can think of where they’re cast as the terrifying Other is Don’t Breathe, but that’s just one Boomer alone in a house against a group of teens.  Imagine a modern update to Wild in the Streets where Boomers vote en masse (and they are the only demographic who vote en masse anyway) to strip all other generations of their political power, locking up youngsters in “Safe Space” camps as punishment for not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and wasting all of government hand-out money on smart phones & avocado toast, or whatever.  The truth about generational culture wars is that they’re a bullshit distraction from the racial & class divides that are actually rotting this country’s core, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get some fun novelty movies out of the tension.  Wild in the Streets is a hoot, but it’s wildly out of date, and could use a geriatric spiritual sequel.

-Brandon Ledet

Benedetta (2021)

Verhoeven is back, baby.  I was less than amused by the Dutch prankster’s outrageous rape comedy Elle—despite its broad critical consensus as a sharply observed satire—so it feels nice to rejoin the cheerleading squad for its nunsploitation follow-up.  Benedetta is part erotic thriller, part body-possession horror, part courtroom & political drama, and pure Paul Verhoeven.  It’s great! It’s a shame that the master provocateur has been relegated to scrappy indie budgets in his late career, though. It’d be a lot more fun to watch a mainstream audience squirm under his thumb instead of the self-selecting freaks who are already on-board with his blasphemy against good sense & good taste.  Even at 83 years old, Verhoeven is still raising neck hairs & eyebrows; he just used to be able to rile up an even wider audience with flashier budgets & celebrity stunt casting.  I mourn for a world where Benedetta would’ve been a controversial water cooler movie instead of an obscure reference that makes your coworkers think you’re a pretentious snob.  Even the small Catholic protests that have followed around the movie’s premieres in cities like Chicago & NYC like The Grateful Dead are living in a fantasy world where it will have any cultural impact beyond plumping up a few sicko film critics’ Best of the Year lists.  I enjoyed joining them in that fantasy for a couple hours during its brief theatrical run in New Orleans, but I do question the usefulness of a provocation that no one shows up to be offended by.

Like with all nunsploitation movies, whatever hoopla & headlines Benedetta will be able to generate will likely focus on its onscreen depictions of lesbian sex.  Verhoeven shamelessly indulges in that salacious aspect of his historical source material, but it’s not the main thrust of the film’s blasphemy.  The kinkiest his young nuns in love get is in fashioning a dildo out of a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which seems more like a circumstance of convenience than anything; sometimes you just have to make do with what’s lying around.  The real button-pusher here is the political rise-to-power story of the titular Italian blasphemer: a 17th Century nun who claimed to experience miraculous visions of Jesus Christ, resulting in a powergrab takeover of her small-village convent.  Benedetta’s political rivals are other local higher-ups in the Catholic Church who are both fearful of the power she wields among the villagers (claiming to protect them from encroachment of the Bubonic Plague) and willing to humor her blasphemy as long as it brings money & attention from the religious tourism industry.  The blasphemy is in how openly the movie takes Benedetta’s side in the battle, even while questioning whether her miraculous visions are genuine.  The second she arrives at the convent as a young child, she’s taught that bodily pleasure is an affront to God, that she should live in constant agony on Earth to honor Him.  Watching her claim to have an even more intimate relationship with God than her superiors, and that He said she should be allowed as many orgasms & daily comforts as she desires is delightfully transgressive, even if she’s flat-out lying about it.  Speaking as a lapsed Catholic with long-lingering issues with guilt & self-hatred thanks to the Church’s fucked up views on pleasure & morality, Benedetta is essentially a superhero to me.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess who the supervillain is.

As much fun as I had with Benedetta as political theatre, I still missed the slicker Hollywood budgets Verhoeven used to be afforded in his heyday.  The closest the film gets to recalling his 80s & 90s crowdteasers is in its illustrations of Benedetta’s religious visions, in which she fantasizes in-the-flesh erotic encounters as Jesus’s bride.  I was fully prepared for the film’s sexual theatrics & religious torments, but I was blindsided by its visions of Jesus as a sword-wielding warrior from a romance novel, riding into the frame on horseback to sweep his young nun-bride off her feet.  Unfortunately, the film backs off from illustrating those visions in its second half in a ludicrous effort to “play both sides,” questioning whether Benedetta was a shameless blasphemer or a true believer.  It’s fun to root for her even when you believe her to be a liar, but I still would’ve loved to see more fantasies of Jesus as a hunky heavy-metal badass with Fabio hair & glistening abs.  No one has depicted “religious ecstasy” so erotically since Ken Russell was still kicking around, so it’s hard not to feel a little let down when Verhoeven eases off that indulgence.  It’s also just a welcome return to the high-style genre filmmaking of his Greatest Hits, while the rest of the film is shot more like a muted costume drama despite the sensationalist story it tells.

There are parts of Benedetta that outraged me, from Catholicism’s reverence for Earthly anguish to the film’s own preoccupations with sexual assault & torture.  It’s also a movie that opens with several shit & fart jokes, just so you know it’s okay to have a good time despite its many discomforts.  Verhoeven’s been incredibly adept at that exact clash between cruelty & camp for longer than I’ve been alive, so it’s honestly just nice to see that he’s still got it.  I just find it shameful that we’re not throwing more money at him to offend & titillate on a larger scale.

-Brandon Ledet

Silver City (2004)

Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? 

While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of  which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles. 

The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a  pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man. 

There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency

The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.

Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly. 

Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.

There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy,  the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.

Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to? 

*Without taking her shoes off first!

-Mark “Boomer Redmond

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia and pro-American propaganda, visually stunning and chilling.  It was talked about a lot these past four years, since during the Trump presidency people were experiencing increased Russophobia and witnessing Eastern European scandals and intrigue.  However, given the film’s message about patriotism and military force, I don’t think it’s the safest comparison to modern events.  Centering around the struggles of two soldiers, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) after being kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, the film mainly concerns the American military and political handling of The Red Scare, taking an inherently critically flawed and culturally problematic viewpoint.  That being said, it has an amazing handle on the psychological power of editing and features wonderful performances by everyone involved.

The film opens with the company of Marco and Shaw at the Chinese/Korean border during the Korean War.  They are a gang of rough and tough men, the typical everymen of the 1960s, cutting loose during wartime: drinking, gambling, and objectifying and exotifying the local women.  However, their leader, Shaw, is a wet blanket.  He is a cold and prim rich boy who thinks they’re all lowly trash. Of course, his fellow soldiers find him intolerable.  During a mission they are deceived and captured by a group of sinister Communist scientists who intensely brainwash them.  Without revealing too much of the plot’s twist and turns, I’ll say that they are returned home suddenly with warm feelings for Raymond Shaw.  Marco gains a high-up position in the military and Shaw works for a newspaper relishing in writing smear pieces against his simpleton presidential-hopeful Conservative stepfather (James Gregory), who is merely a pawn for the domineering Mrs. Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  Marco is tasked with deprogramming Shaw, who lives a sad and lonely life haunted by his mother’s overbearing shadow.  Eventually, we realize that his mommy issues are the key.

One of the most effective scenes in the film is the demonstration of brainwashing by the Communist scientist.  It cuts back and forth from what the soldiers see (a boring talk from a ladies’ garden club) to the panel of red leaders from all of the world in an amphitheater decorated with huge portraits of Stalin and Moa in the background, in case you forgot what side this sinister cabal was on.  There’s a jarring effect created by the juxtaposition of the mundane droning on of the women’s club and the scientific enthusiasm and twisted plotting.  The clash of the mundane and “the evil” is a chilling way to set us up for constant doubt and paranoia for the rest of the film.

Now, let me get to my real issue with this movie: it reeks of misogyny.  The mother is set up to be the ultimate villain.  The idea that an ambitious woman is more dangerous than world powers that have extreme scientific advances in the realm of psychology is, quite frankly, sickening.  I have no sympathy for Mrs. Iselin.  Angela Lansbury delivers a performance that renders the character utterly reprehensible and unforgivable.  That said, the whole idea of a mother’s failures being the downfall of the country is a special kind of good old fashioned American woman-hating.  It’s really drilled home with the idea that the only way any of this is uncovered is through a team of highly trained military personnel. It just feels a little overkill.  But there is only one thing that pro-military rhetoric in the USA wants to kill, torture, and demean more than a Communist: a powerful woman Communist.  There’s enough analysis of the treatment of women during these wars and missions “to spread democracy” to inspire entire dissertations so I’ll leave that to more skilled folks than I.  Suffice to say, there are serious consequences to this line of thinking.  The only sympathetic women in the film are those who stay on the sidelines being supportive and nurturing.  This includes one whom gets killed off, in an example of an ambitious woman trampling a traditional, attractive feminine figure.  A true 1960s man’s nightmare and the nightmare of many contemporary men as well.

In a political vacuum, I’d say that this is a spectacularly made film, a real classic.  It is technically wonderful, with extremely talented performances.  But we are not in a vacuum.  As a country, if this is the narrative we turn to again and again, we will probably never get over gender disparity.  The Manchurian Candidate is a chilling piece of paranoid propaganda.  It upholds the rhetoric of the status quo: xenophobia, misogyny, and a hyperbolic love and trust of the troops.  It’s an entertaining and effective film, but culturally we need better narrative touchstones.

-Alli Hobbs

Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Hunt (2020) & 2020 Election Cycle Satires

Welcome to Episode #121 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee discuss three recent satires that lampooned the 2020 presidential election cycle: The Hunt (2020), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), and Mister America (2019).  Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Podcast Crew

Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

Mister America (2019)

Over a year ago, Tim Heidecker posted a video on his Instragram account stating that he was running for District Attorney of San Bernardio County, California. Truthfully, I had no idea if this announcement was some sort of joke or if he was legitimately running for a political office.  For those who are familiar with Heidecker’s unique style of comedy (best conveyed on the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), he walks a thin line between reality and satire, so my confusion was completely reasonable. Almost a year later, the movie Mister America was released, confirming that Tim was not really running for DA last year. He was working on a mockumentary and releasing social media clips that would eventually become part of this feature film. The whole situation is wild and extremely hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with his comic genius. Last Wednesday, The Broad Theater had a one-night screening of the completed film, which I ab-so-lutely attended along with about twenty other fans of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show universe. It was by far the best comedy to come out this year.

Eric Notarnicola, the director of Mister America, is no stranger to Tim Heidecker’s hijinks. He also directed a few television and web series starring Heidecker: Decker, On Cinema at the Cinema, and The Trial, all of which reappear in Mister America at one point or another. While it is helpful to already be a fan of these Notarnicola-directed series with Heidecker (especially On Cinema) prior to watching the film, I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the On Cinema Universe to enjoy Mister America. There’s enough background information provided throughout the movie to bring those unfamiliar with the series’ backstories up to speed. In Mister America, Heidecker is followed by a documentary crew throughout his journey of running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Without having enough signatures to be on the ballot, no volunteers, barely any campaign funds, and no legitimate political platform, Heidecker has a tough time getting his campaign off the ground. To make matters worse, he has the reputation of being a murderer. While at an EDM music festival, he “supposedly” sold contaminated vape juice to several festival goers, causing them to die. His prosecutor for the case, Vincent Rosetti, is the incumbent DA of San Bernardino County, and Heidecker self-represented his defense in court during the legal battle. So with his legal self-representation experience and his connection with everyday San Bernardino citizens (he is officially a San Bernardino resident because he receives his mail at his hotel room), he truly believes that he has what is takes to beat Rosetti.

The style of humor that Mister America sells is the kind that has you cackling at the most minor details. For instance, while Heidecker is having a breakfast meeting with his campaign manager Toni (Terri Parks), he gets lost deep into his business/politician persona and can barely get his hashbrowns and eggs onto his fork. The camera kept zooming in on his fork failure, and I completely lost it. Another major player that brings the funny to this movie is mister Gregg Turkington, a regular guest on On Cinema. Turkington pops up for short interviews with the documentary crew to shit-talk Heidecker, and he always seems to come up with a bizarre movie reference for every scenario. My favorite scene with Turkington was when he tried to explain the similarities between The Shaggy D.A. and Heidecker’s campaign. He even goes so far as to bring a bootleg VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the documentary crew, which he makes clear that he needs returned ASAP.  He also has a great moment where the crew follows him trash-hunting for VHS tapes (destined to become Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.

Mister America is up there with the mockumentary greats, and it’s just a lot of stupid fun. I believe the movie theater screenings are finished, but the film is now available on demand. Trust me, it is worth every penny.

-Britnee Lombas

Hail Satan? (2019)

“It’s a great day to be a Satanist! It’s a great day to be a human being.”

The longer I reflect on the movie in retrospect, the more I appreciate the question mark in Hail Satan?’s title. This is a film that constantly challenges your assumptions about what it means to be a Satanist in the modern world until you start to question whether you’re a Satanist yourself, and how you can strive to be a better one. If I were still a shithead contrarian mall-goth teen with a chip on my shoulder about having been raised Catholic, I might have preferred that titular punctuation to be an explanation point. Fuck yeah, Hail Satan! And down with homework too! The surprise of this half-documentary, half propaganda piece is how it makes you wonder whether that same youthful contrarianism could be weaponized into a genuinely productive tool for political activism. I went into the film expecting to roll my eyes at close-minded Richard Dawkins types who immaturely latch onto atheism as if it’s a belief system rather than an absence of one. I left politically Fired Up and questioning my own core beliefs. Am I a Satanist? Is it moral to be anything else?

As the documentary explains, “Satanist” used to be a pejorative term that political & religious deviants were labeled with by others, not something that was chosen as a prideful belief system. That changed with Anton LaVey’s publicity carnival The Church of Satan, which openly mocked Christian piousness & ritual in a celebration of the self & selfish pleasures. The main subject of this documentary, The Satanic Temple, reconfigures LaVey’s mission into something more purposeful & coherent. The group still values the worship of the self and the fixation on Earthly existence over preparation for an unlikely afterlife that LaVey “preached,” but they take an active, overtly political role in making that Earthly world a better place to live. The entire foundation of the Temple was designed to directly, purposefully oppose the escalation of the Christian Right’s unconstitutional involvement in American politics. They’re just as drawn to troll-job media stunts as The Church of Satan, but in this case the mockery is targeting the way Christian political groups defy the Constitutional separation of Church & State by officially endorsing candidates, erecting Ten Commandments tablets at state capitals, and promoting prayer in public schools. They’re taking a clear stand against the increasingly prevalent lie that “This is a Christian nation,” by countering, “Actually, that’s factually inaccurate and to disagree would be just as un-Christian as it is un-American.”

Of course, there is a certain level of contrarian trolling afoot in this us vs. them dynamic, and that’s partly what makes the documentary such a fun watch. Members of The Satanic Temple are mostly just wholesome, politically conscious nerds who’ve dressed themselves up in Sprit Halloween Store costumes to play the part of wicked Satanists. That’s what makes it so funny when Catholics & Evangelicals take their roles as harbingers of Evil at face value, visibly terrified of the threat they pose to humanity’s collective soul. They deserve the pushback too, as all the Temple is really doing is appropriating Christian Right political tactics to expose them as hateful hypocrisy & unconstitutional bullying, merely by applying them in another religious context. The Temple only wants to install a statue of Baphomet on state capital grounds in cases where the commandments are already represented – unconstitutionally. Their satirical publicity stunts are mostly aimed to draw attention to how often Christian political pundits overstep their bounds because they represent the “dominant religion” in a secular nation. If anyone else pulled this shit, they’d be immediately shut down with an indignant fury, yet we rarely challenge the intrusion because the Christian opposition seems so insurmountable, especially in the American South. Watching their own infuriating political tactics turned back on them like the barrels of Elmer Fudd’s gun is immensely satisfying.

As a documentary, Hail Satan? has very little interest in historical context or unbiased presentation of current events. It dials the clock back to the Christian doubling-down in American politics of the Cold War 1950s and the Satanic Panic 1980s, but only to clarify that the idea that United States is “a Christian Nation” is a relatively recent lie that defies the intent of the Constitution as it was written. Mostly, this is a work of pure propaganda, promoting a single organization’s effort to fight for free speech & political secularism in the US. Some artistic representations of Satan from pop culture touchstones like Häxan, Legend, and The Devil’s Rain illustrate the political platform presented here, but the strongest case the film makes for its allegiance to The Devil is to point out that Satan Himself was a political activist in Christian lore. He dared to challenge God, which sometimes feels just as daunting as challenging the political bullying of the well-funded, over-propagandized Christian Right. It turns out that teenage mall-metal shitheads who hail Satan to annoy their parents are accidentally stumbling into a legitimate, worthwhile political stance that could only benefit modern Western society if it were taken more seriously. So yeah, it’s the kind of propaganda piece that promotes its subject rather than questioning it, unless you count questions like “How could anyone in good conscience be anything but a Satanist?” and “How could I better serve & emulate Satan in my daily life?”

-Brandon Ledet

Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet