Holy Spider lands at the exact intersection of two genres I’m not especially interested in: the true crime serial killer thriller and the shoe-leather journalism drama. Its semi-fictional story of real-life confessed, convicted killer Saeed Hanaei’s street-level rivalry with a composite-character journalist determined to bring him to justice is something I was prepared to ignore entirely . . . until I saw who directed it. Iranian-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi made such choppy waves with his previous film, Border, that I could not ignore whatever he made next, regardless of genre. Although no less morbid nor extreme, Border is in my genre wheelhouse, since its dark fairy tale setting lands it firmly in the supernatural. The ripped-from-the-headlines story behind Holy Spider can’t pretend to be as singular as that doomed trolls-in-love horror drama, but it does continue the disturbing brutality of Abbasi’s previous triumph, and likely puts it to more politically ethical use. No matter how little interest I may have in Holy Spider as a genre piece, it’s so fiercely unflinching & matter of fact in its observations of misogynist violence that I couldn’t help but be chilled by it. Abbasi is a fiercely effective purveyor of movie violence, often to a deliberately sickening degree.
Time-stamped with 9/11 footage looping on a background television, Holy Spider recounts the serial murders of sex workers in the “holy city” of Mashhad in the early 2000s. The women are choked to death—often in real-time on camera—with their headscarves by a serial killer posing as a potential john, using a religious symbol as a form of self-righteous punishment. Maintenance man Saeed Hanaei’s guilt in these crimes is not hidden from the audience. It’s barely hidden from the fictional journalist who takes him down, as her bare-minimum efforts to sniff him out expose the cruelty of local police’s indifference to the murder spree. Once caught, Hanaei proudly confesses his guilt, claiming the murders were a “jihad on vice”, calling for a “fatwa on immoral women”. Public response to his declarations is mostly positive, recalling the NIMBY cruelty towards real-life sex workers’ murders in the avant-garde musical London Road. It’s a pretty cut and dry story about the free-flowing bleedover of sexual repression into misogynist violence, one that only differs from its Hollywood true-crime equivalents in its cold, matter-of-fact depictions of sex & violence. Abbasi could be accused of edgelord pranksterism for some of the more shocking moments in Border, but these real-life murders are taken deadly seriously, without a hint of humor or sensational romance.
If Abbasi does anything especially unique with the genre traditions of the serial killer thriller, it’s in the way he continues Hanaei’s story beyond capture & punishment. Once caught, his rivalry with the feminist journalist determined to take him down continues in full stride, as he tries to weaponize the court of public opinion to justify his murders. After execution, his misogynist philosophies live on, particularly in the mind & actions of his teenage son, who idolizes his father as a morally righteous superhero. The typical Hollywood version of this story is pure copaganda, wherein putting Hanaei behind bars is enough to neutralize the threat. Instead, Abbasi finds deep terror & sadness in the continuation of Hanaei’s misogynist vision on a culture-wide level, continuing his work well after he’s physically neutralized. It’s a chilling picture, one that has more political & philosophical purpose than most true crime recaps of famous headlines or sensationalized hagiographies of journalists doing their jobs. As much as I would personally prefer that Abbasi return to the supernatural world in future projects, I still respect what he was able to accomplish while tethered to reality here. Both Border and Holy Spider feel like grueling ordeals rather than passive entertainment, and attaching that hurt to real-life victims doesn’t make them any easier to endure.
I’ve been very slow to respond to the lulls between COVID spikes over the past couple years, waiting too long to poke my head out my turtle shell before the next variant sends me back inside. As a result, I wasn’t fully ready to dive into the social deep end of Mardi Gras this past month, even though the gorgeous vibes and weather were making me terribly jealous of everyone out there celebrating early glimpses of a “post-COVID” life. I’m gradually easing myself back into the world outside my living room, though, by which I mean I’ve returned to movie theaters for the first time since the lull between Delta & Omicron. I generally appreciate the ways the theatrical environment enhances the joys of movie-watching for me, not least of all in how it forces me to ignore my phone for two-hour blocks – a near-impossible feat at home. However, as I’ve returned to cinemas, I’ve found that the types of movies I’ve been watching on the big screen haven’t really changed. If you ask most audiences, the only three movies of note to be released in the past year have featured Batmen, Spider-men, or Ghostbusters, and everything else has been either disposable or nonexistent. I’m not feeling especially drawn to those big-name IPs as I’ve returned to the theater, though, whether that’s a safety precaution in avoiding indoor crowds or if I’m just out of practice in seeking out anything that’s not a low-budget indie that will soon be streaming anyway. I’ve finally started leaving the house again, but I’m leaving it to watch the exact kinds of movies I was already watching on my couch.
The major exception to this loss of big-budget appetite is that I am ravenous for Indian blockbusters now that I’m back at the megaplex. I enjoyed watching both Tamil-language actioners I caught at home last year—Karnan (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Bacuaru) & Master (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Dangerous Minds)—but I can’t say I loved them quite as much as I would have on the big screen, rattled by their booming sound & gargantuan visuals for their full three-hour runtimes. So, the biggest change to my movie-going diet since I started leaving the house again is that I’m watching mainstream Indian cinema again, which I’m finding way more thoroughly entertaining (and way less conversationally exhausting) than its Hollywood equivalent. While almost everyone I know was checking in with The Batman on its opening weekend, I sat down in a near-empty theater to gaze at another superhero of sorts: the fearless sex-worker advocate Gangubai. The Bollywood drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is a formulaic, loose-with-the-facts biopic of its titular Indian political activist, depicted as rising to power from a victim of forced prostitution to a Mafia Queen to a populist hero of women’s rights. As is tradition with most big-budget Indian productions, it delivers everything you could possibly want out of a movie, all at once: music, dance, laughs, danger, romance, tragedy, and shameless feel-goodery. It’s also the rare Bollywood counterprogramming that’s actually shorter than the mainstream American blockbuster that’s currently crowding theater marquees. Gangubai Kathiawadi is a half-hour shorter than The Batman and offers a much more impressive range of emotions & entertainment value.
For at least the first forty minutes of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I was worried I made a huge mistake in choosing which Indian crowdpleaser to return to theaters for. The red-light Kamathipura district of Mumbai that the movie dwells in makes for a grim atmosphere. Gangubai immediately looks cool & powerful at the start of the film, but she’s introduced in conversation with a child who’s being forced to start life as a prostitute after being sold to a brothel by her abusive, adult husband. Asked to show the kid the ropes, Gangubai recounts her own story of being sold to a brothel by a boyfriend who promised her a career as a Bollywood actress. Even with the rape & other violence mostly obscured offscreen, this early human-trafficking portion of the story is almost too dark to stomach, but that only makes the movie more satisfying once it starts hitting its feel-good biopic beats in the second hour. Gangubai rescues the child from repeating that plight instead of condemning her to it, then recounts how she rose through the ranks in her own brothel to become the most powerful political voice in Kamathipura. She essentially unionizes her fellow sex workers so they can set the terms of their employment, first as a low-level crime boss then later as a legitimate politician. As she rose to power, I was hugely won over by the movie’s emotional stings & sex-work politics in a way that really surprised me, even if it took nearly an hour of squirming to get there. By the time Gangubai shuts down all business in Kamathipura for a night so that her fellow sex workers can dance & celebrate instead of working for the first time in their lives, I cried. Later, when she advocates in a radio broadcast speech that these women should be able to “Live with dignity” despite moralistic, hypocritical objections to their profession, I cried even harder. It’s wonderful, hard-hitting schmaltz.
I am far from an expert in any of India’s varied, sprawling film industries, but I have finally seen enough of these movies to recognize a few of its main recurring players. Gangubai is played by Alia Bhatt, who played the take-no-shit, tough-as-nails girlfriend in the “Bollywood 8-Mile” drama Gully Boy. I was amazed by her fierce defiance in that performance, which she amplifies here to the point where she’s practically a sex-worker superhero. Gangubai slaps anyone who disrespects her. She openly drinks & smokes despite men’s moral objections. She practically has a kink for making men sit on the floor to admire from below, which at one point manifests in forcing a young admirer to take her tailoring measurements in total awe of her body. When she walks down the streets of Kamathipura, she immediately gathers a crowd of starstruck on-lookers, an effect that’s amplified by crunchy guitar riffs announcing her presence – like Gal Godot in Wonder Woman gear. Just about the only thing she doesn’t do is lip-sync during her own musical numbers. I have little context for how standard that is in modern Bollywood productions, but here it has an MTV-era music video effect, where she gets to strike powerful poses without worrying about emoting to the romantic lyrics. Like an 80s action hero, Gangubai is presented as the coolest, most righteous person who ever lived, and Bhatt is incredibly adept at performing that badass self-assurance. Between this film & Gully Boy, I’d even go as far as calling myself a fan, at least to the point where I’m looking forward to seeing her pop up as an “extended cameo appearance” in the upcoming S.S. Rajamouli film RRR.
Not everyone was impressed with the real-life Gangubai Kothewali’s portrayal in Gangubai Kathiawadi. Her surviving family sued Bhatt, the film’s producers, and the authors of its source material for defamation, claiming that Kothewali was a social worker who was never employed by the brothels she serviced. There are also news articles dismissing that controversy as a marketing ploy initiated by the producers themselves, so who knows. All I can say for sure is that I don’t hold based-on-a-true-story Hollywood pictures accountable for being factually inaccurate, so I’m not sure how much that matters here. The film was adapted from one thirty-page chapter in a much larger historical book about the Kamathipura red-light district called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, so it left itself a lot of room to build whatever story it wanted out of broad-strokes aspects of the real Gangubai’s life. It went with the most formulaic, crowd-pleasing approach possible, typified by eye-pleasing symmetrical tableaus of vintage Mumbai street life and a romantic depiction of workers hooking by candlelight during a city-wide power outage. It’s a big, beautiful mainstream heart-warmer with a shockingly grim opening and shockingly sharp political edge. I’m more typically drawn to over-the-top Kollywood action thrillers than this sincere Bollywood drama, but I was fully satisfied by the movie-magic charms of Gangubai Kathiawadi in a way that I rarely am by American movies on its budgetary scale. It was a satisfying return to a specific flavor of theatrical experience I’ve greatly missed over the past couple years.
Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.
London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it. However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.
Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform. London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera. Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war. It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.
Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one. London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation. Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.
Les Misérables (2012)
2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road. The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing. What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form. Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.
Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio. The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats. Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.
Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing. A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting. For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad. Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs. When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.
While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways. It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack. More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).
Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV.
In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015.
I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top Secret, God Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers.
The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling.
There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments.
I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich.
I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community?
Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.” The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart. I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense. Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place. Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds. London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.
This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end. Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes. It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny. Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do. It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.
The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat. There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech. The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV. What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee? Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?
Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.
London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.
Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?
Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).
This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.
Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing. He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead. I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic. A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth. Smart.
Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.
That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! &Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.
I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.
You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.
One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Spaceall come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.
Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.
Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.
The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.
Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.
Something I learned from my career retrospective of sleaze auteurist Russ Meyer is that as far as sexploitation subgenres go, I’m much more wired to enjoy the light-hearted kitsch of nudie cuties than the violent leering of roughies. Two films into Doris Wishman’s catalog, I’m only having my bias reaffirmed. The deliriously inane Nude on the Moon was a perfect intro to the world of Wishman, as it was a sexed-up version of the exact kind of cheap sci-fi dreck I often find myself watching anyway. Her black & white roughie Another Day Another Man was a little more outside of my comfort zone. Arriving soon after her roughies era started with Bad Girls Go to Hell, one of her more infamous works, Wishman’s black & white cheapie Another Day Another Man toys with all the hallmarks of the more disreputable end of sexploitation cinema (domestic abuse, misogyny, rape), but never indulges in them long enough to totally sour the mood. Too much of Another Day Another Man is lopsided in a memorably goofy, tangibly dingy way to completely dismiss the film as misanthropic erotica, but it does often come perilously close.
Two female roommates argue about the moral implications of earning rent money through sex work. One is, unapologetically, a prostitute with a brutish lowlife for a pimp. The other is quitting her reputable job as a secretary to pursue her dream career: housewife. Her newfound dependency on her husband becomes immediately troubling when he’s stricken with sudden illness and the housewife is, no surprise, pressured into sex work under the guiding hand of the same low level pimp. She’s initially shamed for flaunting her sense of moral superiority over former roommate’s head, but that’s only the start of her degradation. She’s roughed up for de-masking her first client, a wealthy politician. She suffers great anxiety over sneaking out nightly to cuckold her husband for “easy” money. Her pimp’s tactics of breaking down his employees’ wills and pressuring them into sex work is given great detail (over the course of a clunky dream sequence, oddly), making her plight as a protagonist out to be nothing special. It’s all very standard roughie territory, which leads to inevitable & predictable tragic end, a plot you could comfortably scribble onto a crumpled up cocktail napkin.
What Wishman excels at that makes this exercise watchable is texture. The camera work & production design in Another Day Another Man isn’t exactly masterful; I’m not even sure I would call it competent. There’s something endearingly dirty & off-center about the whole thing, though, that makes for a memorable picture. The movie gets off to a rocky start with a badly dubbed stroll through Central Park between our soon-to-be-doomed newlyweds, but it picks up as soon as the roomates argue about the respectability of the respective ways they earn a living. Drastically lit like a crime scene, the two women’s magazine spread living room is a kitschy nightmare where the roomates argue, undress, and overstuff ashtrays in furious torrents of chain-smoking. The camera slowly pans up from their high heels to their complicated, lacy underwear to their beehives, careful never to show actual nudity, but coming as hilariously close as it can without going there. Weirdly sultry, off-center rock music is a constant, oppressive presence as the film gets lost in minor, unerotic details like shoes & ashtrays and, in its weirder moments, buries its lens, unfocused, in its characters’ cleavage for multiple consecutive shots. It’s a strangely dizzying, convincingly seedy experience even if it refuses to deliver the goods in terms of actual nudity.
As similar as Doris Wishman’s career trajectory seems to be to Russ Meyer’s in terms of following sexploitation trends from nudie cuties to roughies to auteur weirdness to late-period pornography, it’s funny to see the way their visual calling cards differ. Meyer’s work is typified by a rapid-fire, machine-like montage style that smashes images of women’s bodies against inanimate objects like cars & street signs and somehow makes the juxtaposition oddly erotic through the sheer pervy will of its leering filmmaker’s eye. Wishman’s style, if Another Day Another Man is any indication, is a languid, decidedly unerotic version of the same technique. She cuts away from women undressing to focus on a cigarette butt or a clown painting or a bra discarded on the carpet in an amusingly dispassionate way that puts the audience libido on ice. The technique is a lot sillier & less controlled than Meyer’s, but it makes for some interesting camp cinema auteurism. Unfortunately, the rape-oriented seediness of the roughie genre kept me from falling in love with Another Day Another Man and, oddly enough, the film’s story loses a crucial amount of steam after its protagonist starts hooking that makes the film somewhat of a chore. Wishman’s amateurish, but strangely off-center eye kept its dingy visual palette fascinatingly unerotic despite all odds, though, and I’m curious to see how that dynamic is echoed in the rest of her sexploitation work.
Let’s get one thing straight: I do not like musicals. Please don’t break your string of pearls by snatching them too quickly. It’s not a topic worth dwelling upon but, even aside from any logical problems that I have with regards to musicals vis-à-vis people bursting into song and suspension of disbelief, I personally find them to be a relic of a bygone age of theatre. That having been said, however, I recently saw London Road and absolutely loved it.
London Road stars the always amazing Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Hot Fuzz, Broadchurch) and the original London cast from the stage production (as well as a very tiny cameo by Tom Hardy, despite his prominence in the sparse marketing for the film). The plot concerns itself with a real-life series of prostitute murders that occurred in 2006 in the small British town of Ipswich, and the film plays out almost like a documentary, with “talking head” segments scattered throughout. The central gimmick of the production is that all of the dialogue (and songs) are taken from real witness statements and interviews, down to the “errs” and “umms.”
The statements provided begin with the viewpoints of the people of London Road, a street located in an area of Ipswich that saw a large upswing in prostitute activity following nearby construction. Each of them has a different view of the influx of women, ranging from sympathy to scorn and outright derision (one woman even later says that the serial killer who murdered five sex workers may have done the neighborhood a public service). All of them, however, admit to feeling that the street felt less like home after this “invasion” and recalling unpleasant encounters with said women, saying (and singing) that they were discomfited by these outsiders even before the violence began.
We then swing around to hear the story from the point of view of the prostitutes, their struggles and tribulations, including addiction, interaction with the police, and fear of the modern day ripper. They tell a harrowing story about how it took the murder of five women for anyone to care enough to try to get them off the street. “I want to get myself clean, if I could do anything,” one woman sings, while another praises how far she’s come from the days when she would spend hundreds on drugs every day: “all I do is like £15 worth of drugs a day now.” Mixed in is the giddy song of two teenage girls that alternates between thrilled and terrified, and a chorus of people who await the arrival of the killer at the courthouse. A community that has been torn apart by both murders and the discovery that their neighbor was the perpetrator find themselves existentially fraught, but find a way back from the brink.
I really liked the music in this film. Generally, one of the things that I dislike most about your traditional stage or film musical is the taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative. Here, however, the naked emotions present in the admissions that London Road’s residents make and the simple language thereof lend the film a realism that more standard musicals cannot approach. Although the movie wanders into sentimentality at the end, it manages to warm the heart without being too treacly and cloying, a feat which many “uplifting” works can’t manage irrespective of the presence of belabored songs.
One of the most discomforting aspects of August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s art house fantasy piece Black Moon, is its depiction of a young woman on the verge of adulthood. The film has a way of patronizing & infantilizing its seemingly teenage protagonist, a dynamic Malle likely picked up from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandalong with that source material’s down-the-rabbit-hole story structure. It’s not uncommon for Malle to face controversy for the sex politics in his films, something that even cropped up here when Alli questioned the intent behind Black Moon’s literal war of the sexes & Boomer expressed discomfort with the film’s panty-dropping gag in our original Swampchat discussion. Though, if Black Moon‘s depiction of a young girl’s journey into womanhood is uncomfortable, then Malle’s follow-up film Pretty Baby was an unapologetic act of aggression. If the director’s coldly detached, yet oddly lighthearted depiction of a young woman being indoctrinated into fantasy realm domesticity & interspecies breastfeeding is discomforting, then his application of that exact same tone to a preteen girl’s life as a sex worker in a turn of the century New Orleans brothel is an outright horror show. At the very least it was a bold choice for the French filmmaker’s American debut. At its worse it was a deliberate, pedal to the floor provocation.
That’s not to say that Pretty Baby is an empty or spiritually corrupt slice of filmmaking. In fact, if you remove the “underage” aspect from its protagonist sex worker’s character traits, what you’d get really wouldn’t be that far off from the film’s cutesy Oscar bait equivalent Rambling Rose. Pretty Baby faced accusations of being child pornography & was banned in a couple areas of North America, mostly for its nude depictions of a far too young Brooke Shields, but it’s a much tamer work than what those criticisms would suggest. Set during the final days of New Orleans’s storied Storyville district, where prostitution was once legal, Pretty Baby is for the most part a tame costume drama staged at a very specific time in this city’s history. Although its more sensationalist content is what immediately comes to mind when you conjure the film, it’s for the most part a laidback, melancholy hangout in the heat & humidity of New Orleans courtyards that commands most of the film’s general vibe. Just like how Black Moon is more interested in carving out a very particular fantasy realm space to dwell in than following the more action-packed aspects of its wartime plot, Pretty Baby is a quiet, languid, depressive work with an oddly detached, carefree worldview despite the stakes of its central conflict. You could argue that it’s that exact judgement-free take on the material that makes the film so uncomfortable in the first place, but it’s still difficult to claim that the its main goal was to shock & disgust. It more obviously just wants to hang around in its own earth tone drunkenness & historical accuracy.
Not yet a teenager, Brooke Shields stars as young sex worker in a very busy brothel. Her mother, played by (the always beautiful & forever talented) Susan Sarandon, is a cruelly dismissive employee of the same madame & pushes to have her daughter’s virginity auctioned off as quickly as possible so that the young girl can become self-sufficient. After a particularly painful experience with a john & her mother taking off with a new husband/former client, the young girl runs away from “home” and into the arms of a fine art photographer named Bellocq. Apparently modeled after a real-life photographer who documented Storyville sex workers, Bellocq forms a strange domesticity with his new, unexpected ward & marries her, despite her horrifically young age. Although they’re husband & wife, Bellocq & his child bride have a clear father-daughter dynamic that would be oddly sweet if it weren’t for all the icky lovemaking (something that would easily be defined as rape by today’s standards). Malle maintains an emotional distance in the way he covers the material here, the same detached vibe he brought to Black Moon’s fantasy realm dreamscape. It can be more than a little alarming considering the inflammatory nature of the material he’s working with, (unlike Black Moon, Pretty Baby could in no way be mistaken for a fairy tale), but it also feels true to the long dead era he’s trying to provoke, unlike the softened melodrama of works like Rambling Rose.
Even outside their judgement-free, yet male gaze tinted takes on pubescent femininity & shared, dreamlike sense of languid pacing, Black Moon & Pretty Baby actually occupy a surprising amount of common thematic territory. They’re both stories about young women (one very young) trying to navigate worlds where they don’t belong. They both feature naked children running wild & free (although in a far less sexualized context in one case) and a strange fascination with breastfeeding (sometimes with a human baby, sometimes with a talking unicorn). Pretty Baby’s voodoo priestess recalls Black Moon’s mode of immersion in Natural Magic & Black Moon’s varying examples of what the womanhood its protagonist is entering looks like are echoed in Pretty Baby’s performances from the always-welcome B-movie goddess Barbara Steele & and an elderly madame with a braying, John Waters cadence to her line delivery. Although the settings of these films are wildly different, it’s easy to see the specific touch Louis Malle brings to both pictures & how they work as a thematic pairing. The question of how that thematic throughline handles the hefty topic of pubescent femininity in either work is up for debate, however. And since Malle stubbornly remains detached in both pictures, that debate largely falls on the shoulders of his audience.
“I believe it takes a woman to believe in a woman’s motives, and every story intended for the screen should have a woman working on it at some stage to convince the audience of women.” – Dorothy Davenport
Dorothy Davenport was somewhat of an early trailblazer in the arena of women filmmakers. Her third picture, 1925’s The Red Kimona, is credited as being one of the first independent film productions ever handled predominately by women. Davenport was credited as a producer & a writer for the film, among other female voices, and acted in an uncredited role as the film’s head director, often nixing ideas from first time director Walter Lang she didn’t approve. Much like Davenport’s first film, the drug addiction drama Human Wreckage, The Red Kimona garnered a great deal of controversy in its time, to the point where it was even banned in the UK. Released years before the alarmist “road to ruin” movies of the 30s & 40s, the film was way ahead of its time in terms of racy content in the silent era, remarkable for its pedigree as a woman’s tragic story told by a woman filmmaker in a time where they were a rare breed.
Telling the real-life story of Gabrielle Darley, a woman tricked into a life of prostitution in 1920s New Orleans, The Red Kimona depicts the ramifications of “years of bondage-sorrowful-sordid.” When, early in the film, Darely discovers that her boyfriend/pimp is using money earned through her sex work to purchase a wedding ring intended for another woman, she flips out & shoots him dead. In a California Supreme Court case that made national headlines, Darley was acquitted of the crime because of what the deceased put her through in New Orleans. The movie mostly tackles what followed Darley’s infamous fall from grace, depicting a world of closed doors & unwelcome faces as she tries to piece her life back together following the trial. She finds a brief respite as a wealthy socialite’s publicity generator (which in its own way is like being pimped), but she finds this prospect exhausting & frivolous: Darley longs to “seek redemption” in servitude as a nurse, but she discovers that not many employers are willing to give an opportunity to a woman with a public record of murder & prostitution.
The Red Kimona is a difficult film to pin down. I initially watched it to see a 1920s depiction of New Orleans’ famed Storyville district, which has a very Old World Europe look to it here, but most of the film is set in California. Despite the expectations set by later “road to ruin” films, which would’ve ended with a guilty verdict at Darley’s murder trial & a firm warning to young love-hungry girls not to follow in her path, the film avoids themes about the evils of sex work & instead focuses on charity, poverty, exploitation, and the lack of opportunity for a woman trying to make it on her own. The writing can be really sharp sometimes, like when the preying pimp creepily urges Darley to “be a good little girl”, but sometimes the prose gets mighty purple, like in the line “Three words – I love you – sometimes as beautiful and sacred as a prayer, sometimes a cowardly lie.” And even though the film isn’t quite as creative in its political moralizing as Häxan‘s tirade against the way we deal with mental illness, it does have its own interesting visual touches, especially in the way that the Storyville district’s (literal) red light, the distant glow of warfare, and the titular red kimona are all hand-colorized to glow red while the rest of the film is a contrasting black & white.
The movie also proved frustrating for Davenport herself. Even though everything depicted about Darley’s real life Supreme Court case was a matter of public record, she was still successfully sued for making the film without her subject’s permission. The financial blow was substantial, but Davenport still went on to produce more Big Issue films & started a drug rehab program designed to help relieve the “upward struggle of such unfortunates” depicted in her Human Wreckage film. The Red Kimona is far from a forgotten masterpiece, but it is an interesting early example of a female protagonist struggling with some difficult, salacious issues in a way that isn’t as dismissive or moralizing as what you’d typically expect from 20s cinema. If you’re a fan of subtly transgressive films from the silent era, Davenport’s The Red Kimona might be well worth your attention.