When I think of punk, I think fast, cheap, amateur, messy. It’s a chaotic genre, usually delivered in short, aggressive bursts of unchecked youthful id. That’s why I’m a little shocked by how belabored & sluggish the 2009 punk film Fish Story can feel. A fractured anthology film about how a punk song improbably saves the world from a near-future apocalypse, Fish Story is weirdly patient & calm. It’s guided by erratic indulgences in horror, action, and sci-fi genre tropes, but they’re all collected in a low-key, overlong journey through time – loosely sketching out the ways an unpopular, largely forgotten punk song can change the world if it falls into the right hands at the right moment. Its pacing & story structure feel more befitting of a prog rock concept album than a punk-single 45.
In the not-too-distant future of 2012, an aloof record store owner rattles off obscure punk trivia to his few scraggly customers while a giant meteor outside the window threatens to destroy the entire planet in mere hours. His fixation on the obscure punk single “Fish Story” (which plays at least a dozen times throughout the film) turns out to be more relevant to Earth’s impending doom than the record store burnouts could possibly imagine. The movie splits its time between seemingly unconnected characters in the decades since that single’s recording in 1975. We meet nerdy record collectors on a sleazy road trip in 1982, a Nostradamus-worshipping death cult awaiting the apocalypse in 1999, a martial-artist “champion of justice” thwarting terrorists in 2009, as well as the band who recorded the song that improbably connects them all (and the post-WWII author who directly inspired its lyrics). It’s all very sprawling & complicated and in no rush to connect its disparate dots until the very last minute before the meteor is supposed to strike.
If I had to guess why Fish Story feels so bogged down by its sprawling narrative, it’s because it’s adapted from a novel. This feels like the kind of adaptation that chose to keep Everything from its source material rather than thoughtfully translating it to the more expedient, visual qualities of its new medium. It does admittedly tie all its loose-end timelines together in a satisfying way with an uncharacteristically concise, powerful ending, but that only amounts to about five minutes of relief after two hours of mediocre build-up. To be honest, the film works best as an advertisement for it source material. I can totally see how its everything-is-connected story structure and pop-culture-obsessive references to media like Power Rangers, Gundam, Under Siege, and Armageddonwould be a blast to read on the page, even as they feel a little too weighed down on the screen. The movie itself is fine, I guess, but I can’t imagine ever watching it again when much punchier Japanese punk films like Wild Zero& We Are Little Zombies are sitting right there.
Our current Movie of the Month, the new-wave musical Starstruck, plays both like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom& Muriel’s Wedding and a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Usual. Produced in the early days of MTV broadcasts, the film deviates from the break-from-reality song performances of the traditional movie musical by presenting them in the visual language of early 1980s music videos. It’s particularly reminiscent of the shared-storyline music videos from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album cycle, despite being released an entire year before that landmark pop debut. There are some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s bubbly, working-class avatar a year later. And it’s just as satisfying in the movie as it is in those more widely-seen, celebrated videos.
I’d most recommend Starstruck to people who are skeptical of movie musicals as a medium but also find themselves watching marathons of 1980s music videos on YouTube in their idle time. Its MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema might speak to you in a way most musical theatre can’t. The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, anyway, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys). It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic. To that end, here are a few more recommended titles if you are generally skeptical of musical theatre but found yourself enchanted by our Movie of the Month’s new wave, proto-Cyndi Lauper patina.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
It’s shocking in a lot of ways that I did not wind up a genuine musical theatre nerd, considering that one of my favorite films growing up was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the greater cultural understanding of Rocky Horror is as a communal ritual among theatre kids, I never really experienced it that way. Watching my VHS copy on loop as a kid was a solitary hobby, but it taught me everything I love about art, from B-movies to glam rock to drag. It remains an all-time fav, which I can’t say for many full-blown musicals of its ilk.
Besides a shared glam-rock sensibility in their musical numbers and costuming, Rocky Horror and Starstruck also directly share a production designer in Brian Thompson (who also worked on the Rocky Horror stage show). You can especially feel that shared DNA in Starstruck‘s opening musical number “Temper, Temper”, which is set in a music video nightclub made entirely of neon lights & 1950s kitsch furniture, resembling a new-wave update to the Rocky Horror aesthetic even more so than its spin-off sequel Shock Treatment (also designed by Thompson). The dance choreography in that scene also directly references the “pelvic thrusts” of Rocky Horror‘s “Time Warp” routine, as if to underline the connection.
Maybe recommending The Rocky Horror Picture Show at all is as obvious & redundant as recommending Citizen Kane (good movie!), but I still think it’s worth highlighting here anyway. It’s especially worth revisiting if you’re only familiar with the movie as a raucous theatrical ritual among the most annoying kids at your high school. The songs, the costumes, and the absurdist humor work much better at home than they do in that environment, and they feel like a direct influence on the punk-musical theatricality of our Movie of the Month.
Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
My biggest personal revelation watching Starstruck for the first time was that my ideal version of a movie musical is just a feature-length string of music videos held together by as little narrative tissue as possible. There have been plenty of great examples of that format in recent years in the form of “visual albums”: Dirty Computer, When I Get Home, Lemonade, etc. None of those modern examples overlap with the explicitly 80s-retro pleasures of Starstruck, though. For more of that vintage music video musical appeal, you have to time travel back to Voyage of the Rock Aliens. That mostly forgotten curio presents 1950s atomic sci-fi kitsch in the format of a post-MTV music video musical. It plays like a crass attempt to reverse-engineer “the next Rocky Horror” (updated with some DEVO flair among the space aliens), but it instead crash lands as its own uniquely adorable oddity.
The titular Rock Aliens are a gaggle of new-wave weirdos from outer space who comb the galaxy for rock music in a guitar-shaped spaceship. That search quickly leads them to Earth, where they engage in an intergalactic battle of the bands with some local rockabilly types. Pia Zadora stars as a young Earthling rock singer whose boyfriend won’t let her join his band. Ruth Gordon is hilariously miscast as a small-town sheriff. Jermaine Jackson, a giant octopus, and a chainsaw-wielding Michael Berryman all pop in for chaotic bit parts with barely any connection to the plot. Voyage of the Rock Aliens should be a total embarrassment along the lines of The Apple or Xanadu, but it somehow walks away with the D.I.Y.-glamour charm of a Vegas in Space. It traffics in the same early-MTV music video escapism of Starstruck, but with almost no dialogue scenes between the musical numbers and with the production budget of a small-town high school play. It’s super silly, super cute, and worthwhile for Pia Zadora’s 10,000 costume changes alone.
Since this is ostensibly a list of recommendations for people who don’t generally care for musicals, I figured I should include a movie that isn’t a musical at all. Like our Movie of the Month, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is about a young woman’s frustrating struggle to break out of her the confines of small working-class town and break into the urban punk scene, despite the macho gatekeepers determined to lock her out. Both Starstruck and The Fabulous Stains operate as cynical satires of the record industry’s embarrassing mishandling of punk counterculture as a pop media commodity, and both are extremely critical of how minimized women creatives are on both sides of that corporate/artistic divide. The only real difference is that Starstruck is a bubbly new wave musical fantasy, while The Fabulous Stains is a grittier, proto-riot-grrrl road movie with all of its musical performances grounded as realistic, on-stage concerts.
The one exception to The Fabulous Stains‘s reality-grounded stage performances is its insane filmed-after-the-fact coda that does break from reality in musical theatre tradition. Thanks to an extended period of post-production studio-notes tinkering wherein Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understand, the version of late-70s punk The Fabulous Stains thumbed its nose at had become outdated before the movie was theatrically released. That stasis inspired the producers to tack on a wildly out-of-place music video epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music TeleVision. That temporal & tonal jump both enhances the film’s satirical themes and rapidly ages the baby-faced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It also helps define the exact early music video language that Starstruck indulges in throughout, highlighting how that version of break-from-reality theatrical fantasy diverges from traditional movie musicals of the past.
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 Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britneewatch Starstruck (1982).
Brandon: I’ve been thinking a lot about movie musicals lately. Not only are the releases of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake threatening to dominate online film discourse all the way through next Oscars season, but we also recently discussed the grim, reality-grounded stage musical London Road as a Movie of the Month selection. In his intro to London Road, Boomer mentioned a few reasons why the movie musical is a medium he struggles to connect with as an audience—its awkward rhyme schemes, its Declared Feelings, its emotional artificiality, etc.—a few of which I bristle at myself. The real reason I struggle with most musical theatre, though, is that I often just don’t care for its music. The singing-for-the-back-row emotional projection of most traditional, stagey musicals strikes me as a kind of false, strained earnestness that takes me out of the promised fantasy of the artform. When I think of movie musicals I do love—Rocky Horror, Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig,The Lure,etc.—they’re often the ones that indulge in the punk, glam, synthpop, and new wave musical tones I already listen to in my idle time.
In that respect, the 1980s new wave extravaganza Starstruck is perfectly suited for my movie musical tastes. Not only does it operate like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—all huge tastemaking discoveries for me as a young film nerd—but it also plays like a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s landmark debut She’s So Unusual, one of the greatest pop albums of all time. If you’ve ever found yourself watching a marathon of Cyndi Lauper music videos on YouTube (if you haven’t, who are you?) you’ll notice that there’s a vaguely defined storyline from that She’s So Unusual album cycle wherein Lauper is a bubbly, working class teen desperate to escape her restrictive household to find other artsy weirdos like her in the big city outside her reach. Starstruck was released at least a full year before that album but follows a remarkably similar storyline: a bubbly teen who’s tired of working the counter at her family’s local pub maneuvers her way into fronting a new wave punk band, then a Top 40s pop career (thanks largely to collaborating with her younger, manically ambitious cousin) where she excels as her So Unusual self. There’s some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s avatar a year later. And it’s just as satisfying here as it is in those videos.
Speaking of music videos, I think the main reason Starstruck works so well for me as a movie musical is that its break-from-reality performances are presented in the visual language of early MTV broadcasts. Given how much of my idle time is still spent YouTubing videos from 80s icons like Lauper, Kate Bush, and Madonna, that MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema speaks to me in a way most musical theatre can’t. The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys). It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.
Boomer, was Starstruck able to sneak past your own genre biases, or did its new wave-ification of the artfrom still fall flat in the face of your general movie musical skepticism?
Boomer: I was initially resistant to giving in to Starstruck‘s allure in much the same way that the first time I saw God Help the Girl; despite my absolute and utter adoration for all things Belle & Sebastian (a close friend gave me a copy of The Life Pursuit for my recent birthday and it hasn’t left the turntable yet), I had a hard time surrendering to Stuart Murdoch’s twee vision until the first non-title musical number well and truly won me over. With regards to Starstruck, I had the same hesitancy, and was also immediately set a bit off-kilter by its odd opening that dispensed with the normal film structure–there’s no studio or distributor logo, we’re simply thrust straight into the opening credits. From there, we meet our two leads in a brief intro scene that’s mostly taken up by a phone call that obscures both of their faces. Before the film even hits the three minute mark, Phil Judd from The Swingers is staring straight into the camera and singing “Gimme Love,” and by the seven minute mark, Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is doing her own musical number, singing “Temper Temper.” And I … wasn’t really having a great time, if we’re being honest. As I’ve noted before, the two things that I dislike most about typical Western musicals are the artificially earnest “musical voice” that’s a hallmark of “classically” trained singers and the belabored nature of musical lyrics, as plot points and exposition are beaten into submission in order to match a rhyme scheme and rhythm. As to the former, I much prefer the raw earnestness of your average local garage band to the operatic diaphragming of the university, and although Kennedy’s untrained and—frankly—confrontational vocals certainly aligns with my preferences, the strong-armed rhyming lyrics are very much in the style of those of traditional musicals: So trigger happy you get vicious / Also getting malicious / And you throw the dishes. I know that those are real lyrics because The Swingers were a real band, but they’re painful.
But then … as soon as “Temper Temper” ends at about 8.5 minutes in, the “musical” part of this musical dries up for nearly 30 minutes, and we just get to enjoy the antics of Angus (Ross O’Donovan) and Jackie as they try to make Jackie famous. When Jackie first starts to tightrope walk in the family pub, the film was giving such strong The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking vibes that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, because I realized that what I had initially interpreted as just another “teenager wants to be a star” narrative, with all of its well-worn waypoints that we know from previous films in the genre, was actually a fantasy for children (the nudity, swearing, and smoking notwithstanding). The elaborate set piece that follows, in which Jackie dangles precariously from a wire between two buildings, was a genuine thrill in which there’s no real danger, unless you put yourself into the accepting mindset of a child who thinks Jackie may actually plummet to her death. That this is prelude to “Body and Soul,” which was the best and most energizing musical number to that point, only makes it that much more fun. The song itself wasn’t necessarily better than the dead-in-the-water tracks that frontloaded the picture, but that it’s not framed as an on-stage performance lends itself to a feeling of genuine spontaneity, and the frenetic energy of the family and the ever-present barflies as they dance around and sing is infectious, and the backing band gives it an effervescent quality that was lacking in the first two numbers. It’s genuinely catchy!
And then we have our first (and only) song that’s a showpiece for Angus, and even though Angus is by far the most fascinating and magnetic character in this movie, it’s also … not very good. However, as musical producer/host Terry (John O’May) says to Jackie at one point after she botches a show, “There’s only boring and interesting, and you certainly weren’t boring;” and Angus is never boring. This is about the point where the movie really started to lose my interest: Angus’s number, “I Want To Live In a House,” fun as it was, ends at 55:05, and it’s less than two minutes before Jackie does her disastrous rendition of “My Belief in You,” which lasts over three minutes of screen time (56:45-59:48), and then it’s less than ninety seconds before Terry and Jackie perform “Tough,” which itself clocks in at five long minutes (60:07-65:07). Five minutes later, we’re in another musical number (“It’s Not Enough”), this time a sappy ballad, but it’s mercifully short. When looping back to take notes about those time codes, I think that “I Want to Live in a House” works fairly well in isolation and suffers primarily from its proximity to several consecutive stinkers, and although it’s not a good track, I was thoroughly charmed by the performances and dancing of Donovan and the backing band (mostly comprised of members of The Swingers minus Phil Judd, but also our love interest Robbie, as played by Ned Lander). It’s interesting, not boring, like the tracks that follow it. After this overstuffed middle section, we head into our final act, in which we spend a goodly amount of time with the Mullens family, as they have what may be their last Christmas together in their apartments above the pub and commiserate about the possibility of losing their business and home. After that, the last performances at the opera house are pretty fun, counterposed with the Mullens et al watching the performance and doing their little old people dances, and I was pleased in spite of myself.
So I would have to say that, yeah, the New Wave nature of the music did do some of the legwork of making the musical part of this musical more palatable. The lyrics of the songs were still very much in line with what annoys me about the traditional musical—It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to do it / It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to chew it is a lyric written by an alien trying to imitate human music after only having heard “Rock Lobster”—but the energy and unadulterated, unpolished performances really made up for it. The musical sequences would perhaps be better served from being more spaced out, rather than happening in multiple clumps, but there’s an argument to be made that putting all of the worst ones in the middle and lumping them together helps you get through them more efficiently.
Britnee, a few weeks back my best friend and I were sitting around and watching Cyndi Lauper videos (as one does), and she asked me if I thought a woman with Lauper’s lack of “traditional” talent would be able to make it in the current musical market. I’m of the mind that it’s possible, since it’s more difficult for most people to sing along with a classically trained vocalist as opposed to someone whose range is “whatever range the listener is in” (Lindsay Ellis once made this comparison between Christina Aguilera, who is inarguably a better vocalist, and Britney Spears, who is the better performer; Aguilera has something in the range of four octaves that she can dance between, while Spears has a broader appeal because it’s a lot easier to keep step with “Toxic” than, say, “Beautiful”). I have no interest in shaming Jo Kennedy, but she’s in the latter camp, with a sound that’s very similar to Lauper’s high, nasally own. Do you think that if Jackie were a real person, she would have had a real chance to make it big in 1982? Do you think she would have a chance now?
Britnee: I honestly never made the Cyndi Lauper connection with Jackie, but that definitely makes sense. I don’t think that Jackie would have made it big in the world of mainstream pop in 80s though. She’s too cool for any of that nonsense. She reminded me a lot of Kate Fagan (especially with Kate’s hit “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool”), but with a little more quirkiness. At most, she would have been more on the popular side of underground 80s pop/punk. I actually think she would find more mainstream success today. With social media being a huge component to the success of musicians, especially in the world of Pop, she would be a hit! If nothing else, her tightrope stunt would be all over TikTok and the Gram, reaching millions around the globe.
I do agree that Jackie’s strength lies more in her performance than her voice, but my god, this soundtrack is so damn good. I love pretty much every song, especially “I Want to Live In A House” and “Body and Soul”. And all of the outrageous performances that go along with the songs are chef’s-kiss spectacular. That’s something that musicals don’t always do as well as Starstruck. The wacky hijinks and action constantly happening around the musical numbers add to the entire feel of the movie. It’s so high energy and fun without falling into any boring slumps.
Other than the fabulous tunes, I think the other component of this movie that blows it out of the water is the eccentric pub crowd. The lady covered in leopard print, her Lifetime movie mom, Nana, the bird, and the rest of the gang could have had their own TV show that I would have watched without a doubt. Not to mention the gorgeous pub décor and tiling. While that part of the film was a huge win for me, I did have some difficulty following along with some part of the plot. Especially the drama in her family. I knew that Angus was Jackie’s cousin, but I was so confused by the dynamics between her mother, father, and uncle. I honestly thought that her uncle was her widowed/divorced mother’s boyfriend for a bit. It was just hard for me to keep track of that story while focusing on Jackie’s journey to stardom.
Hanna, what do you think about Jackie’s family drama happening in the background? Was it necessary or added anything extra to the movie?
Hanna: I also had a hard time understanding the family dynamics; I consistently mixed up brothers, cousins, uncles, and romantic partners up until the very end of the film. I definitely thought Pearl was having a fling with her brother for a minute. I have pretty terrible hearing, so I would blame 80% of my confusion on the thick, wondrous Aussie accents. I wasn’t that invested in the particular relationships as a result, but I think the haze of confusion actually complemented everything I liked about the film; it added another little another little layer of chaos over the dance numbers and bare-breasted publicity stunts. On top of that, I enjoyed each family member so much (Nanna is a sweetie, Pearl’s outfits are A+, and I’m a sucker for Uncle Reg’s cockatoo) that I was happy to watch them saunter around Sydney and Pearl’s beautiful pub without quite knowing what was going on.
Besides, the film with or without the drama is absolutely delightful. I was totally charmed by Jackie, Robbie, and the weird little pub community. There are so many delicious visuals that have stuck in my mind: the seafoam barmaid dress! The pool boys with their big inflatable sharks! The big red kangaroo outfit! Jo Kennedy’s performance alone makes Starstruck worth the watch; she carries her plucky new-wave energy with an effortless joy, and her rabid determination to stardom give the film a fantastic backbone. Basically, Starstruck is a whole lot of fun, and you should watch it; I love watching musicals when I’m in the mood for a visual feast with a bare minimum of conflict, but I never dreamed that the pop-punk version of musical escapism was out there waiting for me.
Hanna: I am completely in love with the sweeping curved bar and the splashes of tile Pearl’s pub, which was filmed in the Harbour View Hotel in Sydney. It’s one of the most unique locations I’ve seen in a long time (Hilly Blue’s mansion in Trouble in Mindgets second place; I would love to go on a Swampflix MOTM location tour). It looks like the bar was renovated with wood paneling, and all of the beautiful colorful tile is gone. It’s still gorgeous, but I’m crushed that I’ll never be able to see the pub in its kitschy prime.
Britnee: Jackie’s cousin Angus had a look that reminded me a lot of AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young. They both wore blazers with shorts, both were named Angus, and they both were Australian. I don’t think this means anything, but I thought it was interesting and worth mentioning!
Boomer: It’s worth noting that the lead singer of The Swingers, Phil Judd, was much more handsome than Ned Lander, who plays the love interest, Robbie (for what it’s worth, I think Lander looks much cuter now in his older age). I can only imagine two reasons why they didn’t use him in the film outside of his appearances at the beginning and end during the “Gimme Love” and “Starstruck” musical numbers, respectively: (a) at nearly 30, it was too creepy to have him act as love interest to the supposedly teenaged Jackie, or (b), he refused to stoop to doing the “litter box” choreography for the “I Want to Live in a House” segment.
Also, if you’re a sci-fi fan and saw the name “Melissa Jaffer” in the credits and recognized Mrs. Booth and weren’t sure from where, it’s because she’s Noranti! From Farscape!
Brandon: While Jackie’s fashion sense and persona both strongly resemble Cyndi Lauper’s, I think her vocal style lands much closer to Lene Lovich’s, especially in the song “Temper, Temper”. If Jackie were a real-life performer in the 1980s, I think she could have easily “made it” on the level of Lovich’s minor-league version of success: a few decent new wave albums on a mid-card record label like Stiff, followed by decades of obscurity in the shadow of more memorable performers of the same ilk like Kate Bush, Nina Hagen, and Siouxsie Sioux. As an eternal sucker for new wave kitsch who owns most of Lene Lovich’s output on vinyl, I can almost guarantee I’d have Jackie Mullins records on my shelf right now if they existed. I’m actually frustrated that I don’t own the Starstruck soundtrack, as it’s wonderful from start to end (contrary to some outrageous claims made elsewhere in this conversation).
Upcoming Movies of the Month August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992) September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987) October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)
If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max. Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.” In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair. In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary. The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure. It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers. That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge. There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.
Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch. We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón. Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom. Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice. It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence. Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera. Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks. It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.
Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto Jubilee. Pepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life. Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated. Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same. Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them. The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks. Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street. And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline. It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.
I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise. I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile. You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”. Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach. The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget. Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop. Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.” If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.
Long before Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet attempted to modernize Shakespeare merely through hip choices in casting & costuming, Derek Jarman did much the same for The Tempest . . . with much uglier results. The arthouse British auteur interpreted the classic Shakespeare play as a series of gorgeous & grotesque tableaus set against a Gothic horror backdrop. The Tempest is a little drier & more text-faithful than I would have wanted from Jarman tackling such familiar, academic material, which might be the major way in which Luhrmann’s over-the-top Hollywood Spectacle excess has it bested. Still, the lurid imagery & spiritual decay that flows throughout all of Jarman’s films manages to make the Bard’s culturally over-saturated work his own distinct interpretation.
It would be beside the point to recap the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest here, at least not when a link to a Wikipedia article or CliffsNotes refresher would get the gist across just as well. This is less a re-interpretation of the text than it is a 70s-contemporary staging of its exact dialogue. Something I always appreciate about Jarman’s films (especially in my recent watches ofThe Garden & Jubilee) is how they feel like watching punks play dress-up: a muted, grotesque pleasure that The Tempest dwells on from start to end. I can’t say that any of the performer’s line readings reinvigorated Shakespeare’s words with any newfound fervor, but watching Jarman-regular Jack Birkett eat raw eggs & cackle at his own fart jokes as Caliban is the exact kind of Royal Theatre Geek Show you’d want out of this kind of material. It’s a very dry, calm, by-the-books production for the most part, which only makes its punk-scene casting & occasional absurdist outbursts more of a grotesque intrusion on the material by contrast.
I’ll be honest and admit that the well-behaved, academic approach to Shakespeare’s original text was somewhat of a letdown for me here, as I’m sure I would’ve fallen in love with the film if it were a little more blasphemous in the face of tradition. I’ll even admit that the shamelessly corny glam rock musical interpretation of The Tempest in Hunky Dory was a lot easier for me to latch onto as an audience; ditto Luhrmann’s empty-headed excess in Romeo+Juliet. If you have any affection for Jarman’s arthouse abstractions & debaucherous punk provocations, though, this is an interesting curio within that larger catalog. Just don’t bother with it if you haven’t already fallen in love with the much sharper, more wildly playful Jubilee.
I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.
Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.
In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu,Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.
Usually, historical biopics about artists & musicians are a waste of time for anyone not already in love with their work, as they’re often kids-gloves hagiographies only meant to promote their subjects’ cultural significance without any genuine interrogation or nuance. 24 Hour Party People is a major exception to that rule. A meta-historical comedy tracking the unlikely transformation of the Manchester music scene from punk to new wave to raves, 24 Hour Party People is just as impressive for its multimedia playfulness as it is for its willingness to portray its cultural icons as total buffoons who had no idea what they were doing. Its protagonist, an obnoxiously pretentious record producer played by Steve Coogan, is booed and called a “cunt” in practically every room he enters, despite being majorly responsible for fostering the U.K. punk scene’s post-punk longevity. Seemingly untouchable, tragic icons like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis are equally razzed for being music-scene dorks who’re absurdly full of themselves, despite the saintly aura cultivated over the decades since their professional flameouts or deaths. It’s easy for biopics to lose track of the recognizable humanity of long-canonized artists when attempting to capture what made them special. 24 Hour Party People pulls off an amazing trick of portraying its music-scene legends as highly fallible buffoons while also maintaining the enigmatic Cool of their art. You don’t have to already be in love with New Order, The Durutti Column, or Happy Mondays to love this movie. It’s about something much more universally relatable than those bands’ cultish fandoms suggest: how all human beings are self-centered fuckups, especially artists.
I did wonder for the first third of this film whether it was appealing to me solely because I was such a sucker for the soundtrack. I can only hear so many Siouxsie, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division needle drops before my punk-youth nostalgia outweighs my critical skepticism. That question was answered decisively by the time the punk scene melted away into new wave and then was usurped entirely by rave culture, something I personally know nothing about. While the first half of 24 Hour Party People tracks its asshole protagonist’s involvement in the recording & promotion of Joy Division—a band I very much love—its back half does the same for an ecstasy-flavored jam band called Happy Mondays — a band I frankly had never heard of despite their apparent popularity. That shift in subject did not throw off my interest at all, though, since the film was less about recounting the Wikipedia highlights of its music-scene legends than it was about the unfocused, self-destructive hubris of Coogan’s would-be record label tycoon (Tony Wilson, figurehead of Factory Records). 24 Hour Party People mixes in enough real-life archival footage, winking cameos from People Who Were There, and glowing memoirs of poorly-attended Sex Pistols shows that inspired dozens & dozens of legendary disciples to appear to be the exact kind of for-fans-only historical biopic that bores the shit out of anyone not already on the hook. With time, it proves itself to be a much sharper, more incisive peek into the kinds of high-ambition, low-empathy buffoons who drive those legendary flashes of music-scene youth culture. And it turns out that getting to know the bullies, lushes, and narcissists behind the scenes doesn’t make the music sound any less cool; it just makes the story behind it a lot more believable and relatable.
No amount of praise for this film’s radical honesty or messy multimedia formalism could fully capture what actually makes the whole thing work: it’s damn funny. Even though nearly every single character is a self-centered asshole, they also come across as charming goofs. The biggest moral conundrum at the center of the story—as defined by Coogan’s suffocatingly narcissistic narrator—is how to make a name for yourself without “selling out”. Every character wants to make it big without losing their hipster cred, which only becomes more absurdly amusing as they age out of the adolescent years where that kind of pretentiousness is acceptable (the ones who survive into adulthood, anyway). Every gag is at the expense of one of these beloved artists’ self-serving quest to become beloved. Not for nothing, every gag is also successfully hilarious. Maybe the key to making a decent historical biopic about an arts scene is having a critical sense of humor about the legends you’re trying to depict. That’s at least a good first step in the direction of acknowledging their humanity, and one I can only recall being repeated in the recent black metal satire Lords of Chaos. Even that example isn’t nearly as impressive, though, as it’s poking fun at fascist metalheads who commit literal murder, whereas 24 Hour Party People profiles seemingly affable chaps who just happened to not be as Cool as you’d expect based on their classic records.
Our current Movie of the Month, the gender-defying whatsitFuneral Parade of Roses (1969), is a chaotic portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast mostly consists of trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in hippie-era Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary-style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself and high-fantasy fables that pull direct, violent influence from Oedipus Rex. 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. It is, without a doubt, one of the most audacious queer films of all time.
There are a couple obvious titles that immediately jump to mind when considering what films to pair with Funeral Parade. As Britnee mentioned in our initial conversation about the film, Stanley Kubrick cited it as a major stylistic influence on his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. There’s also a recent documentary titled Queer Japan that appears to be a vital primer on the Japanese youth culture depicted in the film (even if only as a half-century-later check-in). Neither of those films really fit the bill for me here, though, as Queer Japan is not yet available for home-streaming and I have no real desire to return to Clockwork Orange anytime soon (at least not voluntarily). Instead, here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema on its sensual, chaotic wavelength (even if their connection to it is less obvious or direct).
Stylistically, the movie that Funeral Parade of Roses most reminded me of was the surrealist Czech classic Daisies, directed by Věra Chytilová just a few years prior. In Chytilová’s film, a pair of young, misbehaving women commit childish, hedonistic acts with seemingly no purpose other than to upset the status quo of Civilized Living. In what feels like an arthouse precursor to Freddy Got Fingered, they aimlessly prank their way through every social encounter, creating a trail of chaos out of sheer boredom. When men attempt to sexualize them, they concoct elaborate dine-and-dash schemes and tauntingly dismember phallic-shaped foods with sharp pairs of scissors. When allowed into a restaurant or banquet, they stomp the food before it can be enjoyed, seemingly in defiance of upper-class excess at a time of national food shortages. By the end of the film, they’re literally hanging from the chandelier, a cartoon embodiment of childish misbehavior. The sex workers at the center of Funeral Parade of Roses are much more insular & subdued in their subversive behavior—having been pushed out of proper society by bigotry not choice—but they share the Daisies brats’ outsider status nonetheless.
The real connective tissue here, however, is in how Daisies allows its characters’ disruptive behavior to dictate the film’s visual language. Chytilová cuts her frames into Cubist shards, wildly alternates between highly saturated color tints, and allows the images & sounds of War to sour the childish pranksterism on display with a deeply sickening undertone. Funeral Parade is equally prone to indulging in new, exciting stylistic tangents from scene to scene, behaving just as wildly as its outsider characters. Both films also share a willingness to allow anti-war protest sentiments to hum loudly in the background, informing the narrative without fully overtaking it. They’re energetically abstract art pieces with little regard for properly Civilized behavior, and it shows in their form just as much as it does in their content.
Recently watching Derek Jarman’s Jubileefor the first time reminded me a lot of catching Funeral Parade’s 2015 restoration in theaters, in that both films have been around my entire life and are 1000% in tune with my personal interests, but seemingly arrived in my lap out of nowhere. How could two films that speak so directly to the way I internally experience life & art have been floating out in the cinematic ether since well before I was born?
In particular, Jubilee thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk stage dressing & nihilism of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked-concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest.
Funeral Parade of Roses lands much closer to the hippie era of youth culture, if not only because it was released a decade earlier than Jubilee. Instead of thrashing around to Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Slits, its own characters stage their psychedelic, pot-addled dance parties in front of an almighty Beatles poster. Its spirit is punk, though, which carries over into the messy, abrasive stylization that distracts it from telling a linear story in any given scene just as much as Jarman’s work. Both films are gorgeously grotesque portraits of youth on the fringe, and both deserve to be listed at the top of any all-time-greats film canon.
Wild Zero (1999)
I can’t personally name many other films that directly touch on Japanese youth counterculture as a subject, much less any that prominently feature queer or trans characters. Only Wild Zero really comes to mind, mostly because it’s closely tied to the youth culture of my own era and, thus, has earned some notoriety as a cult classic among movie nerds my age. Despite proclaiming itself “wild” in its title, the film is much better behaved than Funeral Parade in a stylistic sense, mostly playing as a straight-forward, retro zombie comedy that happens to have an exciting garage rock soundtrack. Still, despite its lack of arthouse credentials, it shares a certain street-youth cool with Funeral Parade, as well as a refreshing disregard for gender boundaries in sketching out its central romance.
Wild Zero is a rock n’ roll themed B-movie throwback about an extraterrestrial zombie invasion. It’s also a love letter to the Japanese garage band Guitar Wolf (the unlikely inspiration for the legendary Memphis label Goner Records). Wild Zero promotes & worships Guitar Wolf the same way that The Ramones are religiously revered in Rock ‘n Roll High School. They’re essentially a magical force for Good in the movie, guiding our hero (their biggest fan) in his fight against an extraterrestrial zombie horde and eventually saving the world through the power of rock ‘n roll. The plot is frequently interrupted to check back in on Guitar Wolf at a series of nightclub gigs, so that the band’s loud, punishingly fast guitar rock soundtrack is entirely responsible for keeping the audience’s energy up, as opposed to the energetic editing & imagery experimentation in Funeral Parade.
As undeniably cool as their music is, however, where Guitar Wolf really shines as a force for good in Wild Zero is in their spiritual guidance of the film’s hero. When he has a transphobic freak-out after discovering that his femme love interest has a penis, the band magically appears to encourage him that “Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders. Do it!” The movie is generally a fun, playful genre film throwback with a hip punk soundtrack, but none of those merits feel quite as unique as that unexpectedly wholesome, trans-friendly moment of encouragement. Admittedly, Funeral Parade of Roses is much bolder in both its boundaryless transgender sensuality and in its indulgences in violent horror genre tropes, but that’s somewhat of an unfair comparison. There are few films that are as bold as Funeral Parade by any metric. Still, it’s admirable that Wild Zero made a similar effort at all, however small. We could use a ton more movies like either of them.
“If the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.”
The only Derek Jarman film I had seen until recently was his AIDS-haunted arthouse whatsit The Garden, which was just as depressing as it was confoundingly anarchic. I was prepared, then, for the doom-and-gloom overtones of his late-70s punk epic Jubilee, but I was not at all prepared for the film to have an actual plot – you know, with named characters and a linear progression of events. The Garden trained me to think of Jarman as an experimental artist who worked more in provocative, disjointed tableaus than in anything resembling narrative. By comparison, Jubilee feels like his version of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. His reverence for potent, abstracted imagery still overpowers his interest in telling a purposeful story, but there’s just enough narrative structure in Jubilee to hang those provocative images off of without ever feeling like the film is treading stagnant water. It’s only well-behaved when considered in juxtaposition with Jarman’s more experimental work, but that slight accommodation was the exact leg up I needed to fully get on his wavelength.
To be fair, Jubilee likely also resonated with me because it thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story here, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk nihilism & stage dressing of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest. Crass already declared that “Punk is dead” in 1978, only a year after the scene had broken out of its urban subculture dungeons to reach a wider audience through proper record distribution (and magazine-promoted fashion trends). Jarman seems to be on the same page but finds his own sense of beauty while gazing at the movement’s rotting corpse.
To access this futuristic vision of punk rock rot, Jarman first looks to England’s past. Out of idle boredom, Queen Elizabeth I tasks her royal alchemist to entertain her with a vision of the future. With the help of a goth theatre angel, the black magic ritual is a rousing success, transporting the queen to a near-future London that had been doomed by the prophetic Sex Pistols to have No Future at all. All art & culture has been decimated except for Top of the Pops & The Eurovision Song Contest, which have swapped out traditional Top 40s pop music for first-wave punk acts like The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Adam Ant. She mostly observes this dystopia through the daily goings on of one core group of female rebels: unrepentant degenerates with social ties to the pop music scene but anarchic personal politics that make them a target for police state oppression. There’s no sense of communal cohesion among these street-punk lowlifes, outside their disdain for wealth & the old-guard. One is a nymphomaniac; another would rather burn the entire world to the ground than ever have sex. One is a self-appointed fascist historian; another is an idealistic leader who believes their punk enclave is the future, etc. Their communal desires & politics are just as obscured as the intent of their pointless daily antics; the only clear message is that there truly is no future (and England’s dreaming).
I can’t pretend that I understand what Jarman was attempting to say with Jubilee any more clearly than what I picked up from The Garden. Both films are extremely difficult to decipher in the moment as they indulge in opaque images & dialogue, but both still communicate a personal & cultural feeling when considered in their entirety. In The Garden, that feeling was one of devastating post-AIDS grief. In Jubilee, it was a punk rock brand of nihilism that could only have been built on cultural foundations as fashionably hedonistic as The Sex Pistols and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which are both quoted in-dialogue with the hushed reverence that straight circles save for Bible verses. John Waters’s own femme punk dystopia, Desperate Living, was released a year earlier than Jubilee and made much more overt strides to turn the abrasive anarchism of punk subculture into populist entertainment (at least in a midnight circuit context); it very well may be my favorite film of all time. Jubilee falls more towards the experimental art end of that academic/populist spectrum, but it’s just as abrasive & (literally) trashy in its own jumbled nightmare interpretation of the time. It hit me right in my femme-punk sweet spot, and I’m more excited than ever to see what other stomach-turning tableaus Jarman’s filmography has to offer.
We don’t often review short films here, outside occasional film fest coverage on the podcast. That’s not a bias against the format per se, but rather a result of shorts being remarkably difficult to market. I personally love catching a well-curated slate of shorts at a film festival or being surprised by one as a programmed appetizer before a theatrically-screened feature, but outside those contexts it’s not something I actively seek out. After festival circulation, most short films are hung out to dry on their directors’ YouTube or Vimeo pages, largely unwatched by the general public (who somehow have time to binge-watch an entire Netflix dating competition show in three days, but no ten-minute blocks of free time to spare for bite-size cinema). I imagine the fate of most shorts were even worse before the days of the D.I.Y. internet distribution too; without platforms like Vimeo they’d effectively just disappear.
It makes sense, then, that someone who would declare themselves to be “Queen of the Underground Film” in the 1990s would deal mostly in shorts, perhaps the most underground film medium of all. Bay Area D.I.Y. filmmaker Sarah Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature in her (tragically short) lifetime: Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, a no-budget teen melodrama that subversively aimed to provide healthy sex education to unsuspecting 90s punx. The recent AGFA Blu-ray restoration of Mary Jane includes a small collection of shorts from Jacobson’s forgotten catalog in its bonus features, though, loosely sketching out a portrait of a truly independent filmmaker who was never afforded the resources needed to break out of the underground even if she wanted to. As a collection, these assembled works register as lost, no-budget cinema artifacts of the riot grrrl era. Individually, they serve as the diary entries of an underground filmmaker doing her best to create personal art within a system stacked against her.
The most significant short included on the AGFA disc is Jacobson’s landmark, calling-card work I Was a Teenage Serial Killer. An iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is not nearly as accomplished nor as polished as Mary Jane, but it persists as Jacobson’s most recognizable work to this day. Its premise is unapologetically, confrontationally simple. A 19-year-old West Coast punk is sick of men’s rampant sexism, so she murders as many of them as she can. One man drunkenly inundates her with a misogynist rant, so she poisons his beer. Another catcalls her on the street, so she pushes him into oncoming traffic. Another removes his condom during sex without her consent, so she chokes him to death while continuing to ride his body to achieve her own orgasm. As the title suggests by calling back to 1950s B-pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, there’s a playful sense of humor to this misandrist bloodbath. For instance, there’s a sickly-sweet dating montage our protagonist shares with a fellow serial killer while they cutely bond over cannibalism & genital mutilation. There’s also a seething, long-simmering sense of anger behind that playful façade, however, which mostly spills out in a final monologue where the teenage serial killer explains her motives to her last would-be victim. It’s the same anger that fueled most of the zines & records of the riot grrrl movement, a communal feminist frustration that rarely made it to the screen in any genuine form.
I Was a Teenage Serial Killer might very well be the only movie that feels fully, authentically submerged in riot grrrl aesthetics & ideology. Its black & white chocolate syrup gore and its cut & paste block text collages directly echo the visual patina of the Xeroxed zines that sparked the movement and gave it a name. Its misandrist serial killer premise that lashes back at the misogyny of its own punk community plays like a faithful adaptation of the Bikini Kill track “White Boy.” It even has bonafide riot grrrl cred on its soundtrack, which includes contributions from the seminal band Heavens to Betsy (which featured Corin Tucker, later of Sleater-Kinney). It’s not a perfect film, but it is a perfect time capsule of the exact frustrations & aesthetics that fueled the feminist punk movements of its era.
Unfortunately, none of the other shorts included on the AGFA disc are as essential nor as substantial as either Teenage Serial Killer or Mary Jane. The only one that comes close is an early-2000s documentary short about the bungled release of Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains(a movie that was highly influential on 90s feminist punks, thanks to a few scattered cable TV broadcasts). The rest of the shorts are a smattering of scraps: a student film about a road trip, a comedy sketch about disco fever, a home movie about Jacobson bra shopping with her mom, and music videos for 90s bands Man or Astro-Man? & Fluffy. Jacobson’s D.I.Y. filmmaking brand Station Wagon Productions could only do so much on its own volition without major financial support pulling the cart. I’m not sure if the films collected on this AGFA release comprise the entirety of what she managed to complete while alive (her IMDb page only lists Mary Jane, Serial Killer, and the Fabulous Stains doc), but their collective nature as discarded scraps indicate that there can’t be much left out there waiting to be recovered.
It’s undeniably sad that Jacobson wasn’t afforded more opportunities to break through with completed, long-form projects while she was alive & working (you can hear her frustration with being broke in the bra-shopping short, where she relies on her mother’s pity to get by), but that doesn’t mean her career wasn’t an overall success. Managing to fire off two subculture-defining works within one lifetime is more than most filmmakers on any financial level can hope for. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer managed to fully, authentically encapsulate the moods & aesthetics of riot grrrl punk within the span of a short, which is no small feat for a cinematic medium no audience seems to want. Her claim for the crown as the Queen of the Underground Film is questionable, but her impact of her short reign remains undeniable.