We Are Little Zombies (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

24 Hour Party People (2003)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Our current Movie of the Month, the gender-defying whatsit Funeral 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).

Daisies (1966)

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.

Jubilee (1978)

Recently watching Derek Jarman’s Jubilee for 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Jubilee (1978)

“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.

-Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and the Collected Short Films of Sarah Jacobson

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet

Riot Girls (2019)

After Satanic Panic & Porno, Riot Girls is the third cheap-o genre film I’ve seen this year with confoundingly strong word of mouth despite its modest payoffs, likely due to its creator’s accumulated goodwill from years of work in the horror industry. A recent episode of Switchblade Sisters detailed director Jovanka Vuckovic’s professional background as the editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue Magazine – a beloved Canadian horror publication. On paper, the film she was promoting—Riot Girls—sounded like a revolutionary kick to the industry’s balls from a genre film aficionado who knew exactly what pitfalls of cliché & tedium to avoid or subvert in her debut as a filmmaker. In practice, the results are more aggressively ordinary than revolutionary – a pattern I’ve noticed in straight-to-VOD genre novelties like this & Satanic Panic recently. However, Riot Girls’s ordinary, familiar tones counterintuitively worked in its favor in the long run, as the film ultimately recalls the landscape of daytime syndicated television in the 1990s – a very specific corner of trash media I can’t help but remember fondly.

This post-Apocalyptic thriller is set in an alternate 1995 where all adults die of a horrific epidemic known as “gut rot.” The young children & teenagers left behind, unaffected by the disease until they reach full maturity, attempt to maintain a semblance of societal structure after this cataclysmic event. Maintaining the wealth disparity of the generations that preceded them to a petty, increasingly meaningless degree, the kids of Small Town, USA split their city into two warring halves: The Rich Side & The Poor Side. The rich run their government like a high school principle’s office while the poor dress like mid-90s mall punks who just discovered their first Bad Religion record. It’s letterman jackets vs. Elmer’s glue mohawks as the rich kids take the poor kids’ leader hostage on the wrong side of the border. A small crew of mall punk misfits (including a central lesbian couple) break in to free their bud, literalizing a class warfare that had been bubbling under the surface since long before their parents all mysteriously died.

There’s a whole lot to complain about here. The movie peaks early with an L7 needle drop and a stylish info-dump prologue designed to look like a hip 90s Fantagraphics comic. The eighty minutes of hostage-heist rescue missions that follow are astoundingly inert, no matter how many studded leather jackets or power chord guitar riffs decorate it. The worst part is that the title has little, if anything to do with the onscreen action; there are two female leads who might qualify for the “riot girl” distinction, but for the most part the movie is far too well-behaved & testosterone-addled for the title to mean much of anything. It does at least gesture to the production’s 90s setting & sensibility, but ultimately the movie isn’t feminist nor punk enough to earn that title. There’s barely a riot here and only a couple of girls around to start one, which is a shame, since the title & post-Hernandez Brothers poster art promise something very specific that cannot be delivered under those circumstances.

Fortunately, there is a media category where this That’s So 90s sensibility & mall punk posturing feels right at home: the vintage daytime syndication TV show. Riot Girls’s unrushed tempo, kids-against-the-world premise, and post-aPunkalyptic costuming recall 90s shows like The Tribe, Ocean Girl, and Animorphs. Except now those sub-Xena disposables are beefed up with blood & cusses (and the threat of sexual assault for some unwelcome lagniappe). It’s a little easier to forgive the film for its dramatic flaws & lack of urgency once you allow it to mentally transport you back to those simpler times. Don’t look to Riot Girls to kick in your teeth with a Punk Rock Kids Apocalypse; former Movie of the Month selection Class of 1999 might be your better option there. Rather, allow it to dial the clock back to when you would casually drain away entire Saturdays watching nonsense trash like Beastmaster, Highlander, and Baywatch Nights in a passive trance – drooling cereal-flavored saliva onto your Power Rangers pajamas. Every now & then a flash of gore or an onscreen bong rip will break that trance, but for the most part it comfortably fits in that exact milieu.

-Brandon Ledet

Punk and the City

Susan Seidelman’s first two feature films as a director serve as a loving, warts-and-all portrait of women’s lives in 1980s NYC. Both Smithereens (our current Movie of the Month) and its major studio follow-up Desperately Seeking Susan portray New York as a romantic (even if dangerous) alternative to a milquetoast life of domestic labor in the suburbs, wherein the survival-based life of a starving artist in the Big City is vastly preferable to the safe, sheltered alternative. They idolize the day-to-day struggles of the liberated Bad Girls of city life who bested the system by shedding their suburban safety nets to risk harm daily as free spirits in the busy streets of NYC. It’s initially surprising, then, to learn that a director so rooted in punk transgression & rejection of normalcy was later involved in the early beginnings of a much more mainstream depiction of New York femininity: Sex and the City. Seidelman directed the pilot episode of the hit HBO comedy series, as well as two additional episodes in its pivotal first season. She was by no means the main creative force behind the show (that would be series creator Darren Starr, of Melrose Place & Beverly Hills 90210 fame), but she was still a foundational element in helping the series get its footing. When you return to her three episodes that first season to consider how they communicate with her early No Wave beginnings, there’s certainly a jarring shift in sensibility (and wealth) that makes the transformation surprising, but that initial shock soon fades away and Seidelman’s DNA feels absolutely essential to what Sex and the City set out to accomplish – no matter how far it may have strayed from the desperation & grime of punk.

Sex and the City opens with Sarah Jessica Parker’s editorial columnist decrying in voiceover that she is living in an Age of Uninnocence, that her generation has seen The End of Love in Manhattan. She draws battle lines between the Unmarried Women and the Toxic Bachelors of NYC, explaining, “There are tens of thousands of women in the city. We all know and love them. They’re all alone.” This snapshot of modern NYC femininity already intersects with Seidelman’s wheelhouse in a way, at least with enough overlap to hint why she may have been considered for the project. The director does know and love the women of the city. They’ve been her auteurist obsession since the start of her career in the grimy run & gun days of No Wave. No mater how much the pilot episode (or Seidelman’s second contribution to the show, “The Power of Female Sex,” in which the series’ protagonists experiment with the power of transactional sex) complains about the lack of genuine romance in modern city living, these characters still represent a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the audience – especially for people watching from outside the confines of NYC. They traipse around gaudy nightclubs, drunken drag-brunch meals, designer clothing stores, and art galleries stacked with abstract paintings of giant vulvas in a modern-living whirlwind. No matter how much romantic ennui they experience in the alone-in-a-crowd anonymity of the Big City, their lives are far more enticing than the milquetoast suburban alternative – a trade-off you can see explored in Seidelman’s work all the way back to Smithereens. Maybe they can’t afford to pay their rent because they’re addicted to designer shoes rather than the more immediate, survival-based desperation of Seidelman’s early punks, but the sentiment is largely the same.

The most direct example of how Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City overlaps with the themes of her No Wave era is in her third (and final) episode of the show: “The Baby Shower.” In that episode all four leads of the show make the perilous journey to Hell on Earth: the suburbs. There they reconnect with an old friend who married a Wall Street banker (when she “was supposed to marry Sid Vicious”) and who is transforming into a suburbanite homemaker before their very eyes. They mock the woman for “using a child to validate her existence” rather than pursuing the “normal” comforts of casual sex & overpriced cocktails. As unfulfilling as their hedonistic lives in the Big City may feel on a day-to-day basis (the central conflict of the show), the suburban alternative is presented in the baby shower episode as far, far worse. In Smithereens, characters lament the dying days of the punk scene because it means being forced to return to the milquetoast doldrums of the burbs. In “The Baby Shower,” we get a painfully clear picture of what that shameful fall from urban grace looks like. It ain’t pretty. Seidelman’s work on Sex and the City may be stripped of the No Wave era punk & grime that flavored her early work as a young, energetic filmmaker in works like Smithereens. On a thematic level, though, the show still details the romantic allure of women pursuing defiantly selfish lives in the Big City despite their social training to raise children & support their husband’s careers from the relative safety of the suburbs. That defiance is in itself an act of punk transgression, whether or not it happens to be accessorized with designer shoes. Besides, it’s not like punk & fashion aren’t irrevocably linked anyway. If nothing else, the premise of Desperately Seeing Susan is essentially “The clothes make the woman.”

It’s also worth noting that the main rich-guy romantic interest in Sex and the City, Mr. Big, is played by character actor Chris North – who appears late in Smithereens as a teenage prostitute. That’s about as concise of an illustration of the wealth & aesthetic differences vs. the unexpected overlap between the two productions as you’re likely to see.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city, and last week’s comparison of the film to its big-budget follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

-Brandon Ledet

Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet

From the Suburbs to Smithereens

In Susan Seidelman’s 1982 No Wave classic Smithereens, our current Move of the Month, a milquetoast life of privilege in the suburbs is treated like a looming threat. The film chronicles the dying hours of the NYC punk scene after its CBGB heyday, as the few characters who’re foolishly trying to keep punk culture alive bottom out in dwindling numbers. The city’s promise of cheap living & punk rock infamy is proven to be unsustainable, which for the film’s prickly protagonist might mean a reluctant career in survival-based sex work, but for her privileged peers more likely means a return home to the artless monotony of suburban lives in their parents’ homes – almost invariably in the Midwest. It’s somewhat unsurprising to learn that the film’s director, Susan Seidelman, has more in common with these reluctant suburbanites that she does with the Bad Girl protagonist that she’s gawkingly fascinated with. However, you can’t infer much about Seidelman’s feelings towards suburbia in the film other than a defeatist reluctance to return there, as it’s a story entirely confined to the grimy concrete walls of the big city. Still, the implication that the threat of suburban living could be any worse than the rot & decay of the No Wave scene is pretty damning in itself, especially in now privileged a lot of punks were to have such a secure safety net waiting offscreen.

For a more direct, succinct rumination on the menacing privilege of suburbia from Seidelman, look to her 1992 documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl. Produced for BBC Scotland as an anthropological examination of suburban American culture, the film finds Seidelman speaking in frank, self-critical terms about her privileged childhood in a cookie-cutter “instant neighborhood” outside of Philadelphia. She paints a picture of white, almost invariably Jewish women living a life of sheltered privilege in the counter-culture era of the 1960s, interviewing a sample group of her childhood friends about their experiences in The Suburbs. At first, their complaints about growing up too loved & too protected outside the more bustling culture of The Big City rings like a shallow topic for a feature-length documentary. Eventually, though, it really digs into the Patriarchal limitations & sinister apathy of that insular world in a genuinely fascinating way. These are women who were raised to go to college specifically so they can attract a successful husband. The thin line between the pressure to be glamorously beautiful but not too sexualized and the stark contrast between the conservative community nearby & the changing world outside are maddening. Of course these pent-up young women idolized the Bad Girls & go-go dancers who were meant to be seen as cautionary tales instead of heroes who bested the system. Of course they saw living a starving-artist’s life in NYC as liberation from a life sentence to homemaking. Of course prickly, uncooperative bullies like Wren from Smithereens fascinated them as a window into a more dramatic life.

Confessions of a Suburban Girl isn’t especially relevant as a companion piece to Smithereens so much as it’s a roadmap to Seidelman’s pet obsessions across her entire career as an auteur. Clips from She-Devil, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Cookie are peppered throughout as if the documentary were produced as an extra feature for a Seidelman box set. The only clip from Smithereens featured among those more widely seen studio pictures is of the movie-within-a-movie gag where Cookie Mueller plays a fictional scream queen in a drive-in creature feature. Still, no matter how much it’s buried among the documentary’s interviews, dramatic reenactments, domestic stock footage, and clips from better-known films, the subtext of suburbia’s milquetoast menace from Smithereens is greatly enhanced by getting familiar with Seidelman’s artistic & demographic origins in Confessions of a Suburban Girl. It’s also cool to see that Seidelman had maintained her run & gun No Wave filmmaking sensibility in the project after years of working in bigger studio pictures, as she has to steal shots of her childhood home after being told by the new residents that she can’t film there. Turning a BBC fluff documentary series into a multi-media art project about the boundaries & philosophy of suburban femininity is also subversive act in itself, and Confessions of a Suburban Girl is totally worthwhile on its own terms even when divorced from the rest of Seidelman’s career, Smithereens included. It’s the kind of forgotten curio you catch on a VHS rip via YouTube (as opposed to inclusion as a proper featurette on the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Smithereens), but that humble status almost makes the film feel even more substantive as an overlooked, underestimated work of political art – like how Seidelman & her peers were underestimated as young women in their sheltered suburban beginnings.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet