Native Son (2019)

Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.

Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.

Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.

-Brandon Ledet

Empty Metal (2018)

There aren’t many ways left for small-budget indie cinema to truly upset or transgress, but advocating for direct, violent political action is certainly one of them. Born in Flames’s World Trade Center-exploding conclusion has only gotten more potent since the film’s initial 1982 release. Noctruama’s stubborn refusal to condemn bomb-setting teenage terrorists in 2010s Paris is just as morally reckless as it is invigorating. Now comes Empty Metal, a no-budget crust punk sci-fi narrative that asks why we haven’t collectively retaliated against known killer-cops who’ve executed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. We know the names of their killers; we know where they live. Why hasn’t mob justice righted the wrongs that the legal system has deliberately failed? Empty Metal’s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against these vile public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.

Where Empty Metal loses some of its tonal intensity is in its early stabs at a crust-punk scene satirical humor. A noise trio named Alien talks a big radical game about changing the world through their political but unfocused music. Yet, they can’t even hold the attention of peers on their local scene, who wander off gazing at their smartphones during the band’s debut set. The mockery of a radical-politics punk band wasting their time on a go-nowhere art project instead of direct, tangible action is on-point. However, the band’s backstage dynamic lands awkwardly with jokey crust scene inside-humor, where the comedy feels like wasted time in the lead-up to the film’s much more vividly realized sci-fi thriller elements. This intense spark arrives via a trio of militias headed by Native American protestors, Rastafarian militants, and Timothy McVeigh style conspiracy theorists. By the time these militias recruit the members of Alien into direct, useful political action (read: the assassination of real-life evil public figures), the film finds a fascinating groove all of its own; but even that momentum is occasionally disrupted by fleeting moments of amateur sketch comedy.

I admire so much about Empty Metal as an inflammatory act of political filmmaking that I can’t help but be frustrated by the other ways in which it falls short. Its collage of staged drone surveillance of radical militias, computer simulations of real-life police shootings, and seemingly authentic cellphone footage of protests of events like the instillation of the Keystone Pipeline swirls into a deeply upsetting, eerie gestalt. Telepathic communication and past-tense discussion of the Apocalypse & complete societal collapse (even though the film is set in present-day) push this real-life discussion of political unrest into the realm of sci-fi & fantasy in a consistently fascinating way. The core political messaging of “We must have an enemy to exist” remains potent throughout as well, so that all the visual aesthetic experimentation feels like it’s in service of something purposeful & worthwhile. The thing about that same radical messaging in Born in Flames, though, is that it’s too relentlessly energetic to ever lose focus. In Nocturama, it’s so richly gorgeous that its moments of loose, eerie quiet still land with intense impact. Empty Metal fails to match either predecessor on those respective, disparate terms and instead risks losing its most distinct impulses on nonstarter comedic bits shared among its punk scene performers (and, later, their macho militia counterparts). I very much appreciate it political outrage, but it would have been better served if the film were either eerier or more relentlessly energetic, as opposed to comedically meandering.

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Killers, Mall Punks, and American Idiots: The Feature Films of John Roecker

I didn’t feel at all great about our collective distaste for John Roecker’s stop-motion animated musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky! Not only is picking on a microbudget, D.I.Y. art project the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was somehow the first animated feature we’ve ever tackled as a Movie of the Month, so it was a huge letdown that we couldn’t say much in praise of one of my favorite artistic mediums on that platform. Rocker’s film felt like a morally offensive letdown by design, however, so I can’t feel too bad that we took the aging punk scenester edgelord’s bait. The South Park-era satirical brand of “Nothing’s offensive if everyone’s offended” shock humor has not aged especially well in the decade since Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release and Roecker’s own version of mall punk aesthetic has grown just as stale in tandem. The tastelessness of staging a Charles Manson-themed musical in a medium traditionally aimed at children isn’t what offends me about Roecker’s directorial debut; after all, my favorite filmmaker of all time, John Waters, was making comedies inspired by Manson’s real-life crime spree weeks after the Sharon Tate murders that I find hilarious & worthy of discussion. What’s offensive is that Roecker seems to believe his dweeb edgelord audacity is in itself a subversive act, when the work has no particular political ideology or purpose beyond the juvenile desire to offend. John Waters was politically angry; John Roecker was an apolitical clown who just wanted an excuse to show off as a Politically Incorrect subversive with friends & collaborators among the L.A. punk scene elite. Rocker’s crudeness in craft and disregard for moral decency aren’t what’s offensive about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!; what offends is the intellectual laziness of his aimless “satire” & his sycophantic need to attach his name to mall punk collaborators in high-profile bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI.

Roecker’s ideological laziness & punk-royalty sycophantry can only be further evidenced by his follow-up feature, the documentary Heart like a Hand Grenade. Presumably filmed around the same time that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was in production in the early 00s, Roecker’s follow-up is a document of the band Green Day’s recording studio sessions while making their hit 2004 album American Idiot. What’s remarkable about that timeline is that Heart like a Hand Grenade wasn’t completed & distributed until 2015, more than a decade after American Idiot’s release. That delayed release does not feel at all intentional either, as the film plays like a promotional ad for an upcoming creative project, describing at length what the album is going to be and what Green Day fans should expect from the band’s mid-career shift into politically-charged art, when it should feel like a look back at a past accomplishment. American Idiot ultimately did not need Roecker’s promotional help, as it rode the aughts’ anti-George W. Bush political rhetoric to the greatest financial success of Green Day’s then already decade-long career. Roecker would have to strive pretty hard to justify releasing a feature-length promotional ad for that record a decade after its success was already solidified, then, and Heart like a Hand Grenade fails to accomplish that on any count. Padded with full-length music videos, live performances, and studio downtime shittalking, the decade-late documentary struggles to justify its own existence beyond shrewdly cashing in on mall punks’ continued interest in the album and allowing Roecker to show off his friendship & collaboration with the band. Roecker mythologizes a phone call lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong made to him about documenting the album’s production and films himself mugging in a recording studio mirror, inserting himself into a supposedly iconic moment in mall punk history. Heart like a Hand Grenade was too late to do Green Day any promotional favors; if anything, it muddles the band’s reputation of being political instigators at the time by associating them with Roecker’s apolitical non-ideology.

2004 was a lucrative year for anti-Bush protest art. Agitated by the War on Terror, unexpected successes like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Daily Show, and Team America turned cultural unrest with the US’s empirical response to the World Trade Center attacks into major profits. Even pop-country darlings The Dixie Chicks got in on the anti-Bush sentiment, despite operating far outside traditional counterculture circles. Green Day’s American Idiot album was one of the many benefiters of that political unrest, leading to the band’s greatest period of popularity to date & even a Broadway stage musical inspired by the album. Heart like a Hand Grenade completely undermines the perception that the album was a deliberate act of anti-Bush political protest, so it’s probably best (for the band’s profit margins) that Roecker’s film arrived long after the album’s success was solidified. Multiple times during studio sessions, band members boast to Roecker’s camera “Politically on this record, we don’t really have an agenda, not against a particular politician […] The song ‘American Idiot’ isn’t really saying, you know, this politician is wrong, this is wrong. It’s saying I want to think for myself.” The band tries to have it both ways, crafting a concept album about “a lower middle class American adolescent anti-hero” named “Jesus of Suburbia”, but also keeping its “anti-establishment” politics so vague & aimless that it means nothing beyond juvenile posturing. Roecker attempted the same spineless bullshit with Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, claiming in interviews that the film had some vague sentiment about blindly-followed political leaders that likens Bush to Charles Manson, but including no actual anti-Bush satire in the work itself. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! didn’t manage to ride that vague anti-Bush protest sentiment to the heights of American Idiot’s commercial success (thankfully), but both conceptual musical pieces share a common mall punk non-ideology. They exploit a privileged position of performative subversion that looks like politically pointed satire, but actually has nothing to say once you look past the punk-costumed surface. Green Day was just slightly better at promoting their ideologically empty non-provocation to great commercial success, with no substantial help from Roecker’s camera.

I will concede that empty political non-ideology & self-promotion as a noteworthy L.A. mall punk scenester are not the only signifiers of what makes a John Roecker film. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! & Heart like a Hand Grenade share enough overlap in art direction & mall punk aesthetic to suggest that Roecker is somewhat of a visual auteur. The crude hand-drawing collage of Heart like a Hand Grenade’s intro & its mid-film sci-fi skit where Green Day is interviewed 1,000 years in the future both recall the general aesthetic of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Heart like a Hand Grenade also opens with a title card command to “Play this movie fucking loud!,” recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s similar title card warning that it is “Not for the easily offended.” The Green Day documentary even includes a tangential anecdote about a studio fire reenacted by dolls, recalling Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s stop-motion medium. This shared mall punk aesthetic looks like a preteen’s middle school notebook, just short of hand-drawn “Anarchy” & Dead Kennedys symbols being scribbled in the margins. The middle school mall punk is the perfect target demographic both for Roecker & for his Green Day cohorts, as deliberately vague political rebelliousness & desire to shock The Masses are the source of punk’s attractiveness to that age range. D.I.Y. ethos & more focused anarcho ideology are something punks grow into as they learn to look past the safety pins & hot pink mohawks that signify the culture to those outside it looking in. Roecker’s version of punk, as evidenced by his two feature films, never dug any further past those surface signifiers to achieve any of the substantial ideology or political action punk offers outsider artists & alienated youth. Maybe his mall punk ideology has deepened & gathered nuance in the 15 years since his two features were initially in production, but Heart like a Hand Grenade’s 2015 release date suggests there hasn’t been much change at all, if any. It’s a release that not only reflects the worst assumptions about Roecker you can infer from Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, but it also damns mall punk staples like Green Day through association with his brand.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made CC, Britnee, and Brandon watch Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006).

Boomer: I first saw Live Freaky! Die Freaky! nine years ago at a friend’s house while his wife (who is one half of the duo behind the on-hiatus podcast Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Undead–and yes, I gave them that title) and daughter were out of town. They’re just my kind of good people: both of them grew up in fundamentalist Christian households like I did, both rebelled and escaped that lifestyle, both are horror nerds like me, and they even got married on Halloween. My cat used to be their cat! I found the movie to be pure, unadulterated trash, but also hypnotic and impossible to ignore. I immediately went online to see what information was floating around the 2009-era internet, and there wasn’t much. There were a few Amazon reviews, but all of them had the same tone: if you liked this movie, you are a sick and twisted individual, and should probably seek medical help. While that’s certainly a valid point of view, nothing about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! really feels sinister, at least not in comparison to other films that interpret history through a rose-colored lens. We’ve certainly seen more than our fair share of historical epics that paint over the true history of slave masters as being honorable “men of their generation” and not traffickers in human misery acting with complicity and for their own gain as part of a centuries-long grievous crime against humanity, or action flicks set in places like Pompeii where, yes, real people died. The difference here is that serial killer Charlie Manson, whose little cult murdered ten people over the course of single year, is being glorified, but that’s kind of the point.

Director John Roecker said in an interview over a decade ago that he went to thrift stores all over L.A. and everywhere he looked he saw dozens of copies of Helter Skelter next to a copy or two of the Bible or the scripture of another religion. He wondered, with so many copies of the book in print, what would happen if someone in the distant future, far divorced from the murders of the LaBiancas and Sharon Tate’s cohorts, came upon a copy of Helter Skelter and considered it a religious text in and of itself? It’s not that strange an idea: the American Civil War was barely a century and a half ago, and yet even in such a short time the rise of Lost Cause theology and rapid countering of historical fact by Confederate survivors and their families means that, in 2018, we’re still dealing with the racism of the antebellum world, as anyone watching the news in slack-jawed horror can attest.

In the film, a nomad in the year 3069 discovers the aforementioned true crime book that detailed the rise and fall of the Manson Family. Mistaking it for scripture, the man reinterprets the text through a lens that is sympathetic to the Mansons and antagonistic towards their victims. (This is a concept that seems alien, but consider the Old Testament from the point of view of the Canaanites, who had a bunch of nomads show up in their land and say “God says this is ours now, get out!” then got slaughtered for not doing so. Virtually all religious doctrines have documents that give them permission to commit genocide somewhere in them under the guise of divine permission and forgiveness; the only difference is that these killings, unlike those of the Manson family, are far gone from living memory. That, and the scale of the Mansons’ destruction is a lot smaller.)

I feel like I might be coming across as too sympathetic of the Manson Family here, and that’s certainly not my intent. I just find it curious that the psychology of the general audience member allows them to frame the Manson murders as horrible crimes while ignoring other social issues. Live Freaky, Die Freaky is a purely satirical film, but I also understand that I might be a sick fuck. CC, most of the outrage that I’ve found on the internet regarding this film has to do with the fact that the villains (at least in this contextualization) are real people who were victims of a real series of heinous crimes. Do you feel like this pushes the movie over the edge into “too far” or “too soon” territory? Would this have worked better if the names were entirely fabricated and divorced from the real people who inspired the film?

CC: Ah, Boomer, this movie isn’t offensive because it is based on real-life tragedy – no, it is offensive for so many other reasons! I think the thing that I was most uncomfortable with (well, after the scenes of claymation fucking where the vaginas are literal slits cut into the puppets and you could see them fall apart from the force of said puppet-fucking) was that I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. Sure, the victims were terrible – “Sharon Hate” hates trees and her Sassy Gay Friend™ has non-consensual sex with the developmentally disabled – but “Charlie Hanson” calls all women “Woman” (or worse) and is obviously a megalomaniacal abuser. Who am I supposed to root for? Better yet, who was the director rooting for? I’m really put off by the idea that some people watching this could see it as a pro-Charles Manson propaganda piece, start wearing “Free Manson” shirts unironically, and try to lecture me on why “Charles Manson was really quite innocent of the crimes he is incarcerated for – another example of the unjust American justice system” the next time I accidentally wander into the wrong social environment. Charles Manson was a really bad person, y’all. He preyed on vulnerable people and manipulated them into giving up their individual identity to better serve his racist, misogynist, homophobic agenda. You could argue that the whole thing is satire, but I feel like in order to be satire and not a long slog through a string of loosely related, offensive “jokes” it needs to have a strong point of view. What exactly is John Roecker’s point of view? I mean yeah, it’s fun saying things that upset everyone – I think overall he managed that task – but in interviews he mumbled something about trying to show the pitfalls of following any strong leader [a vaguely post-9/11, anti-Bush message several years late to the party]. Watching this film I don’t know if I would have picked up the message to beware leaders with a messiah complex, especially in light of the framing device. Overall, Roecker may have had an easier time getting that message across if he had used a fictional story, but I probably would have still been offended.

This movie arrived in a post 9/11 cultural climate, where mistrust of government leaders was high on both sides of the political divide and the seeds of the Tea Party movement were finding fertile ground. Other works from that era like Team America, That’s My Bush, and (too) earnest albums like Green Day’s American Idiot similarly vented frustration & anger filtered through satire & metaphor. Brandon, how do you think Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fit in with this cultural milieu? Did it arrive too late to find a place at the table?

Brandon: Given how long & arduous the stop-motion animation process is, it’s highly likely the edgy humor of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! felt a lot fresher at the start of production than it did by the time the film saw a minor theatrical release. The casting of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong as Charlie Hanson likely seemed like a huge get when the film was first pitched, presumably around the time his band’s American Idiot album rode anti-Bush sentiment to the largest boon of their already decades-long career. Bush was still in office by the time the film was released, but the huge wave of protest-art pop records from major alternative artists like The Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Kimya Dawson, and The Thermals was already starting to die down. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks’ moment of on-stage Bush dissent was years in the past. The major protest-art sweet spot may have been in 2004, the year of Team America, American Idiot, and Fahrenheit 9/11; but I’m honestly not convinced that this film would have been any more politically effective even if it had arrived earlier in the anti-Bush protest era. If likening George W. Bush to Charles Manson was Roecker’s original intent with the film, then he was incredibly subtle with the metaphor, so much so that it went over my head completely. I’m having trouble believing that to be the case, since literally nothing else in the film is handled with subtlety.

What hasn’t aged well about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t the timing of its supposed anti-Bush politics; it’s, as CC points out, that it seems to have no discernible politics at all. The closest the film comes to making a clear political point is in the framing device of a possible (if not probable) future where mass pollution had completely obliterated the ozone layer by 3069, leaving Earth practically uninhabitable. The rest of the film’s political jabs are frustratingly vague, typified by snide references to The Moral Majority, depictions of cops as anthropomorphic pigs, and the transformation of a crucifix into a swastika made of dicks. Without any careful attention paid to its selection of targets, the film’s central political attitude appears to be for-its-own-sake Political Incorrectness. It’s the same “Nothing is offensive if everyone’s offended” ethos that informed the comedic approach of aughts-heavyweights like South Park, Howard Stern, and Bill Maher. The further we get away from pop culture’s Gen-X apathy hangover and instead reach for radical empathy & sincerity in more modern works, the worse these “politically incorrect” lash-outs have aged. Everything from its performative Political Incorrectness & surface-level co-option of punk counterculture to its basic understanding of sex & the female body is embarrassingly juvenile. The most embarrassing part (besides maybe its squeamishness with menstruate) is the age range of the Los Angeles punk scenesters who participated in the film’s production & voice cast, including members of Green Day, Rancid, X, Blink-182, AFI, Black Flag, and the list goes on. Based on their aimless rebelliousness & juvenile need to shock the uptight masses with their political incorrectness, you’d think the movie was made by those groups’ evergreen legion of teenage mall-punk fans, not considerably well-off musicians approaching middle age.

The only times Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s performative subversiveness worked for me was in its small selection of novelty songs (which likely shouldn’t be a surprise, given the number of musicians involved). There was something about the clash of the film’s crude animation & aggressively Offensive villainy with its weirdly wholesome, vaudevillian novelty songs that I found genuinely funny in a way I struggled to match in any scenes of spoken dialogue. Britnee, were the song & dance numbers that broke up the politically incorrect dialogue exchanges also a highlight for you? Might you have been more charmed by the film if it were more of a full-on, traditional musical (while still remaining animated with stop-motion puppetry)?

Britnee: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! made me sick to my stomach for almost its entire runtime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the gross, demeaning clay puppet sex scenes that churned my stomach. Watching the movie brought me back to a time where I was an ignorant teenager desperately trying to fit in with the cool crowd of punk kids at school. I watched the film with Brandon and CC in their lovely home, but mentally I felt like I was in my old best friend’s garage bedroom with walls covered in signatures, cartoon drawings, and offensive sayings – all written with black and red Sharpie markers. We all had grungy Converse shoes that looked similar to the walls and would blare Cheap Sex until the early morning hours. Most of the punk guys that would come over to hangout would rave about how brilliant and misunderstood Charles Manson was, and I always believed what they said because they were so much “cooler” than I was. If we would have come across a copy of Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, watching the film would have been a weekly ritual. Thankfully, a few years later I would get a mind of my own and realize how big of a piece of shit Manson was.

Despite the emotional torture I went through watching the film, I found the songs to be really catchy. I even sang along to parts of “Mechanical Man” because I was so entranced with the music. “A half a cup satanical, a teaspoon puritanical stirred with a bloody hand. A quarter cup messiahcal, a sprinkle of maniacal and now I’m a mechanical man.” The “Strangle a Tree” musical number performed by Sharon Hate where Sharon sings about how much she hates Nature while tapdancing on the hood of her moving convertible was actually my favorite part of the film. If more of the musical numbers were like “Strangle a Tree,” the film would have been much more tolerable. It’s so strange how Live Freaky! Die Freaky! is marketed as a musical and contains a full-length musical soundtrack, but doesn’t feel like an actual musical. Maybe it’s the overall lack of dancing?

I feel like I’m complaining too much about Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. Yes, I did find it to be very unpleasant, but as a fan of claymation, the rough style of the clay figures was very interesting to see. I liked how the styles of each clay character looked different. Sharon Hate and Charlie Hanson were both very detailed, while Hanson’s crew looked like they were created in an elementary school art class. Boomer, do you think the lack of consistent quality between different clay figures was intentional?

Boomer: My roommate has been studying a lot of music theory lately, and we had a discussion the other day about guitar and how, essentially, you can learn to play anything on guitar with a knowledge of a minimum of four hand shapes, just moving them around a little bit. This is reductive, but nonetheless accurate, although it ignores some of the more experimental and radical things that truly great musicians can do with the instrument. I asked him: “Oh, so that’s why so many fuckbois learn to play the guitar?” Not that everyone who learns the guitar and has three chords and the truth is a fuckboi, but it led us to the discussion that (ignoring the fact that the guitar is generally considered the defining instrument of rock and roll, for better or worse) there is a reason that the punk music aesthetic is based on guitar and not a more difficult (but rewarding) instrument like, say, piano, which requires a lot more flexibility and forethought. As much as I can look back on my younger self and consider past!me to have a tangentially punk anti-authoritarian ethos (if not a punk aesthetic in manner or dress), I was always distant from that scene strictly because so much of it was predicated upon Roecker and his ilk’s tendency to promote that identity and ideology through being, for lack of a better term, dweeby edgelords. If there’s anything that defines Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s presence in the history (or dustbin) of pop culture, it’s the film’s attempts at being “edgy.” It’s the same reason that I and most people outgrew South Park (which I have other larger social issues with, not least of all that its content normalized antisemitism for an entire generation, the effects of which we see in our current political climate): there comes a time where you just have to accept that there’s a line between satire and attempting to, as Brandon noted, offend everyone along the political and cultural spectrum. The sad thing that most punks don’t recognize is that every successive generation is going to take the progress of the previous generation for granted and push for something more. Attempting to graft the grungy, D.I.Y. dirtiness of anti-authoritarian movements past to current progressivism ends up creating something like Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: it’s not an architectural artifice upon which we can hang new ideas; it’s an artifact of attempted subversiveness, a relic of a different time.

Artists tend to get quite defensive about being surpassed by the next generation, and instead of making continual strides forward or growing and evolving, they can get stuck in doing the same old thing. The punk scene is particularly subject to this weakness, as were other modernistic art movements before them, like Dadaism. When your entire body of work is structured around the single concept and conceit of attacking and removing the mask of “the establishment,” becoming that establishment generates an existential identity crisis. Compounding this problem is that the proponents of these genres pride themselves on rejection of cultural norms, meaning that any kind of maturation or progress is automatically deemed “selling out.” With regards to examples in film, take comic book artist (and general lunatic) Alan Moore’s hatred of the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Since he wrote the original graphic novel as a screed against British Thatcherism, seeing it turned into a film that took aim at the policies of the then-contemporary Bush administration upset him, but this is nothing new. There have been several adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of them as criticism or proponents of certain political ideologies of their day (from anti-communist sentiments, to post-Watergate paranoia about observation and otherness, to fear of biological terrorism in the wake of 9/11); that’s a good thing. Making an anti-Thatcher film in 2005 would be ridiculous, but Moore’s disgust for the way that his source material was adapted to fit contemporary global politics is not a mark in his favor, but rather a demonstration that he, like many others whose political and personal identities were shaped by the politics of the past in a way that they cannot surmount, has not found a voice that transcends a particular time and place.

I’m not saying that this excuses or even necessarily explains Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, although I know I’ve gotten pretty far from your question and I promise that I have a point; I’m not apologizing for the movie either or trying to make the argument that there was ever a time when it could have been considered inoffensive or appropriate (it never was and never will be). The issue that I’m discussing here is that the potential for irrelevancy and the possibility of being left behind is something that all artists face, and I occasionally worry about this with my own writing. I’m sure that, one day, if anything I create survives, there will be those (in my self-aggrandizing fantasies, they are academics) who consider my work to be antiquated, problematic, or harmful. They’ll note elements in my work that are backward and outdated from their perspective. I consider myself to be progressive, but I also know that, if one day someone looks at something I wrote and says “Yikes, this is kinda [whatever]ist, but it was progressive for its day, I guess,” that’s also a good thing, because it means that society kept moving forward and not backward. I really hope that one day my work is considered “fair for its day,” although I also hope I’m dead by then because I don’t handle criticism well (at least, I don’t predict I’d be very good at handling public shaming).

To circle back to your question: I don’t think there’s any significance to the disparity in the level of attention to detail with regards to puppetry design, other than that some of the characters are on screen more often and thus needed to have more expressiveness and flexibility. Sometimes this works for the best in a narrative context: the general cartoonishness of, for example, Tex (who is, curiously, not renamed with an “H” like most of the characters), makes some of the better darkly comic moments in the film work; my favorite is his deadpan reaction to Charlie’s insistence that the Family take Sharon’s fetus to be raised by them. Tex’s Peanuts-esque design subverts the horror of the moment in a way that I find legitimately funny, but I’m also convinced that this is largely unintentional. I don’t think it’s a statement, I think that Roecker just . . . wasn’t very good at what he was doing. Most of the comic bits in the film fall flat, and I think a lot of that has to do with Roecker. Take, for instance, the fact that he co-owned and ran the LA novelty store You’ve Got Bad Taste, which specialized in both kitschy garbage and serial killer memorabilia. In an interview in 1999, Roecker said ”A Gacy painting is much less offensive than, say, a Nike T-shirt […] Why wear advertising for a company that doesn’t care about you? We encouraged people to think for themselves.” I may have been heavily affected by the work of Kalle Lasn and done some adbusting and culture jamming in my day (for legal reasons I will not say whether I still do), but this statement is the perfect encapsulation of Roecker’s politics and his point of view: it’s not just enough to discourage mindless consumerism and contemporary capitalism and corporatism, but by making a capital-S “Statement” about it that attracts attention by drawing comparisons to (and minimizing) other tragedies. It’s one of the most triumphant examples of edgelordiness I’ve seen outside of a high school cafeteria. It’s exactly the kind of bullshit you would expect from a self-professed punk molded by the 80s and 90s living in the relatively calm days of the end of the Clinton presidency (post Gulf War, post Iraqi Kurdish Civil War, pre-9/11): “I’m not just an agitator against authority, but also I’m a goddamned hero (for selling Gacy paintings).” The fact that anything about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! leaves a positive impression on anyone other than those who are slavishly devoted to this kind of art in general is impressive.

CC, despite the fact that I hate musicals, the one thing that I enjoy about Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without reservations or explanations is the music, which is doubly bizarre since, of the list of acts who were involved with the film, the only one I have any respect for is Henry Rollins. Britnee specifically mentioned “Mechanical Man” and “Strangle a Tree,” which are my two favorites as well. Did you enjoy the songs? Did you find anything redeemable in the movie, other than the conversation we’re all having right now?

CC: I’m definitely enjoying this conversation more than I did any part of the film, even the musical interludes. I think the only song I truly enjoyed was “Strangle a Tree;” I could easily see future Gifties (kids who went to the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts are known as Gifties; Boomer & I are among the select few) belting that one out during a cabaret performance. My biggest problem with “Mechanical Man” was how catchy it was; it sounded like a kids song and was a total ear-worm. I don’t want to carry around a recipe for Charles Manson around in my head all day, let alone tap my foot along to it. Overall, I didn’t really love the early-aughts punk scene (except for a brief, regrettable period in middle school) and hearing it again mostly just made me cringe.

Brandon, director John Roecker also released a documentary about the recording of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot . . . in 2015. I understand that stop-motion animation takes years to create so Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s tardiness could be chalked up to simple production realities, but documentary features based on a few months-worth of footage usually doesn’t take nine years to edit and mix into something cohesive. Is Roecker’s delayed, shoddy work reflective of a true dedication to D.I.Y. punk ethos, are small-minded producers and distributors conspiring to prevent his genius from reaching the public, or is it just pure artistic laziness? I’m convinced it’s the latter.

Brandon: The Occam’s Razor interpretation certainly points to laziness, even though that’s the harshest & most unfair explanation of the three. Movies are hard work! It takes perseverance, collaboration, and intense stubbornness to complete any production no matter how professional, so my instinct is to cut Roecker slack on these out of time, crudely slapped together works of dusty mall punk pranksterism. On the other hand, I respect & admire D.I.Y. punk as an ethos too much to totally let his abominations slide without critique. Punk is meant to be an anyone-can-do-it, anti-gatekeeping challenge to the systems that keep ordinary people from making Important art. The entire point is that it opens art up to the talent & training-deficient who have something to say but don’t have the proper tools to say it. As such, it’s not Roecker’s laziness in craft that bothers me so much as it’s his intellectual laziness. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! has nothing particular to say about Charles Manson or the War on Terror or climate change or anything, really. Roecker uses the crude, accessible tools of D.I.Y. punk for cheap, aimless shock value and to play pretend as an Important Filmmaker with his famous L.A. punk scene friends. That’s what most grosses me out about this film, especially when you see those bands’ young teen fans uncritically embracing its non-message through social media support & merchandise. If I believed this Manson Family claymation comedy or a decade-late American Idiot documentary had something specific or worthwhile to say, the form they choose to say it in wouldn’t matter nearly as much. As is, both the form and the message are offensively underwhelming & undercooked.

Nothing illustrates Live Freaky! Die Freaky!‘s intellectual laziness for me quite like the interminable sequence set at Sharon Hate’s house. The Sharon Tate murder is the most notorious highlight of Manson’s career in occultist serial murder, so I was shocked by how empty & lethargic the film felt once Rocker starts recreating that tragic party. It feels as if characters are stalling for time – telling long-winded stories about cocaine & sexual abuse before the murders begin, then refusing to die even after their heads are removed from their bodies. I didn’t fully give up on Live Freaky! Die Freaky! until I was locked in that house for an anti-comedy eternity, where my antagonism towards the film grew increasingly potent with each pointless minute. Britnee, did you have a similar reaction to the Sharon Hate party from the film’s latter half? Was there ever a chance that you might have enjoyed the film overall if it hadn’t stalled for so long in that unpleasant sequence or did that just feel like more of the same, at peace with the first half of the film?

Britnee: The sequence at Sharon Hate’s house felt like a prison. There was no escape, lots of garbage dialogue, and no entertainment to distract from it. It’s a shame because the set built for Hate’s fabulous celebrity home was so beautiful. There was so much potential for lots of entertaining moments to develop in the Hate house, but Roecker didn’t take advantage of it. The dialogue from that sequence sounds like something a group of disturbed 12 year olds would come up with while playing with Barbies. The joke that just wouldn’t die about the penis smelling like head cheese is one of the more prominent details I remember from the Hate house. I hated it the first time, and I hated it more the second, third, fourth time, and so on.

Like Brandon, I too was relieved when the characters got decapitated because I thought it was going to be the end. I thought the torture of watching the Hate house sequence was over, but the heads kept spewing nonsense and the scene kept going. It does eventually come to an end, but not soon enough.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Even though Live Freaky! Die Freaky! isn’t something I will watch again, I’m really glad I got to see it. I loved the clay puppetry and set designs. The style was a cross between Gumby and the cover for Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family album cover, two things I love very much.

Brandon: Intense negativity aimed towards micro-budget, D.I.Y. art projects is the exact opposite approach we usually strive for on this site, but I can’t feel too bad about ganging up on this film the way we have here. Roecker and his collaborators seem like the exact kind of Gen-X dweebs who complain that “PC Culture,” “SJWs,” and “Millennial Snowflakes” are what’s wrong with the modern world (anyone else notice how many ex-punks grow up to be “alt” Conservative goons?), so I suspect our moral outrage here is exactly the reaction they wanted to achieve. In that way (and that way only), I guess that makes Live Freaky! Die Freaky! a total artistic success.

Boomer: I would like to apologize for choosing a film that everyone found so upsetting. The glory and the tragedy of Swampflix is that we are all so similar in our tastes that finding a film that I love but that no one else on the staff has already seen is often difficult, and sometimes that leads me down the rabbit hole to find something that’s, as is the case here, not very good. Still, I think this has been productive from a discussion standpoint, and I appreciate your patience.

CC: Boomer, I fully and gladly accept your apology. I’m kinda glad we finally found something so equally reviled; I was beginning to think we all liked everything. Still, I’m ready for the reign of auteurs and edgelords to be over! Long live cooperative creation and radical sincerity!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: CC presents The Pit (1981)
November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
December: Britnee presents Cloak & Dagger (1984)
January: The Top Films of 2018

-The Swampflix Crew

Blank Generation (1980)

Sometimes you discover a movie you need in your life through the happenstance of a recommendation, a TV broadcast, or a convenient showtime. Other times, you discover an inessential but moderately entertaining picture just because you confused its title with something more substantial. While digging into background context for the Lizzie Borden bomb-thrower Born in Flames, I watched a documentary on the “No Wave” cinema scene that birthed it. Blank City was an excellent crash course in late-70s/early-80s no budget NYC filmmaking, one that credited the film The Blank Generation for inciting the movement. A short documentary compiling footage of who’s-who CBGB regulars like Blondie, The Patti Smith Group, and Television, the film seemed like an essential snapshot of the scene’s early stirrings, something I was delighted to find hosted on the library streaming service Kanopy. Unfortunately, I had gotten a film titled Blank Generation confused with the aforementioned The Blank Generation, an embarrassing mistake for which there is no excuse. Instead of profiling a wide sampling of CBGB heavy hitters, Blank Generation serves as a document of exactly one group from that scene: Richard Hell & The Voidoids. The film is also missing the D.I.Y. crudeness of earlier No Wave productions, instead adopting the European art house genre patina of director Ulli Lommel, a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Still, even without the expected no wave grime and with the documentary value of the picture muddled by its fictional plot, Blank Generation largely delivered the exact historical texture I was looking for in The Blank Generation, a film that’s not as readily accessible at this time. Even with mistaking its title with an entirely different film, I still found a fairly substantial document of NYC’s punk rock hangover.

Blank Generation is for Richard Hell what Crossroads was for Britney Spears, what Burlesque was for Christina Aguilera, what Cool as Ice was for Vanilla Ice. There’s a kind of absurdity in finding an early punk scene version of this kind of pop star vanity project, one the movie barely attempts to conceal with the flimsiest of dramatic plots. Playing the Richard Hell-like rock star “Billy,” Hell has to navigate the crises that trouble any successful rock musician on an ego trip: too much attention from beautiful women, too much pressure from record execs, too much scrutiny from the press, too many adoring fans. Poor baby. A minor romantic plot involving A Beautiful French Journalist on assignment to profile “Billy” emerges, but nothing much comes of it beside a few kinky powerplay exchanges in the bedroom and the value of promoting Hell & his band, The Voidoids. A side plot involving a monumental cameo from Andy Warhol (another collaborator of Lommel’s) functions much the same way, strengthening Hell’s brand by association. As is the case with most of these pop star promo dramas, the only reason the film works at all, then, is that Richard Hell & The Voidoids are genuinely charismatic & worthy of fascination. After being introduced to Hell’s work in The Voidoids through the CD anthology Time in high school, I‘ve always struggled with hearing cleaner, more professionally produced recordings of those same tracks on the band’s proper LPs; so it’s wonderful to hear the band in their live, rambunctious form here while also seeing them in action for the first time. Songs like “Blank Generation,” “New Pleasure”, and “Love Comes in Spurts” frequently repeat throughout the film, with Hell even selecting them on the jukebox of his neighborhood bar in the few scenes when he’s not in the recording booth or preforming onstage at CBGB. He also holds his own as a style icon, sporting his spiked hair & safety pins version of punk fashion that was coopted by Malcom McLaren and then mall punks everywhere. Yes, it’s absurd that there was ever a Richard Hell & The Voidoids promo movie in the first place, especially one this artistically pretentious, but the band is so mesmerizing in look & sound that the indulgence is justified.

Because Blank Generation adopts such a minor, surface-level plot, its staying power rests entirely in its details. The credits’ display on Times Square billboard ads, Andy Warhol’s cameo’s framing as a kind of performance art piece, and the way the journalist’s camera functions as a tables-turning phallic tool are all more interesting in isolation that anything that actually happens in the story. The movie also plays with the cognitive remove of filming videotape displays, something that would later become a huge deal in 80s indie cinema, most evident in titles like Videodrome & Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Above all, Blank Generation is valuable for the details it captures of a pre-Giuliani NYC, something that’s an integral part of Richard Hell’s DNA. It’s not quite the purposeful, all-encompassing documentation I expected from The Blank Generation, but it still navigates the city’s early punk hangover with a useful eye for cataloging the objects & people that populate it. Like in the glam rock hagiography Velvet Goldmine, Blank Generation uses the lens of music journalism as a device for capturing the moods, sounds, and fashions of a very particular arts scene for future posterity. This film’s imagination is far less poetic & lyrical than that Todd Haynes classic, relying heavily on familiar tropes of rock star excess to construct its deliberately minor drama. Still, it’s an essential document of a great, young band in their prime, including the physical & cultural context of their surroundings. Anyone looking for a European art house drama about troubled artists in love negotiating their sexual power dynamics could likely find hundreds of better films to suit their needs. Anyone who’d be interested in seeing Richard Hell & The Voidoids immortalized in cinematic posterity have few (if any) other titles to turn to, however, and that rarity is this film’s greatest asset.

-Brandon Ledet

The Red Krayola’s Anthemic Repetition in Born in Flames (1983)

There isn’t much immediately noticeable structure or organization to Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, deliberately so. Lizzie Borden’s no-wave feminist screed was pieced together over five years of no-budget NYC filmmaking, building its narrative around the disunion and lack of cohesion among separate factions of political radicals who should all be united for a common cause. That story of gradual, incremental cohesion and those means of fractured, piecemealed filmmaking make for an excitedly dense picture, but also a stubbornly messy one. Before the disparate themes and feminist factions of Born in Flames cohere late in its runtime, one of the only aspects of the film that goes out of its way to provide the audience with a structural anchor is Lizzie Borden’s use of music, especially the repetition of the film’s titular theme song. There are needle-drops galore in Born in Flames, or at least more than you’d expect from a no-budget political bomb-thrower. Among less recognizable disco, reggae, and funk tunes that soundtrack the film’s many pirate radio broadcasts, the song selection includes more numerous, iconic needle-drops than you might fist realize: The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child,” “New Town” from The Slits, etc. Less surprising is the repetition of a track from the NYC punk band The Bloods, since the vocalist for the group, Adele Birtei, is one of the two main radio DJs who provide a mouthpiece for the film’s opposing feminist factions. Birtei is shown performing in concert & “rapping” acapella on her radio show (a faux pas that made Boomer cringe), but her biggest musical contribution is providing vocals for a track by The Bloods that repeats three times in this 80min sprint of a feature film. Somehow, though, that Bloods contribution is still less prominently used than the Red Krayola song “Born in Flames,” which is the movie’s true thematic anchor in addition to being its titular anthem.

Artist attribution over “Born in Flames” is oddly iffy, as the song itself is a kind of political collaboration reminiscent of the one at a Lizzie Borden’s film’s core. The lyrics of the song are attributed to the songwriting collective Art & Language. The track also features vocal contributions from former X-Ray Spex member ­­Lora Logic, so significantly that it was included on the Essential Logic retrospective collection of her work, Fanfare in the Garden. Even The Red Krayola’s attribution is a bizarre issue in isolation, as the song arrived in an early era of their career when they were still billed as The Red Crayola. The band had a long journey form Texan proto-punk rock n’ rollers to No Wave scene peers with groups like The Bloods, but the pulsing, off-kilter dance punk messiness in their “Born in Flames” track is the exact right tone for Borden’s film, so much so that its repetition outshines the very similar use of the soundtrack contribution from The Bloods. The piano intro to The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” is the first sounds we hear in Borden’s film before a fictional news broadcast explains the sci-fi conceit of the failed socialist revolution dystopia where the story will be set. Adele Birtei warns her radio show listeners that they should get used to this political anthem, because “You’ll be hearing it wherever you go.” That’s no false promise. Each of the four times their titular anthem repeats in the film, its burrows further into your brain, making it feel like it’s the only song on the soundtrack, when that’s far from the truth. Re-watching Born in Flames specifically to pay attention to how & how often the Red Krayola song is employed on the soundtrack, this relentless repetition appears to be something much more thematically purposeful than just providing a rallying cry that echoes the film’s title. The Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” only emerges in-film in a very specific, repeated instance, one that reinforces Borden’s central themes of women’s labor & true, ideal feminism.

Every time the Red Krayola song repeats in Born in Flames, it soundtracks a montage of women performing labor. In these montages, Lizzie Borden strings together a fractured, frantic vision of what’s often dismissively described as “women’s work,” offering a varied sampling of what appears to be documentary footage of women at work. This labor is visualized in grocery store checkout clerks, office receptionists, childcare professionals, dental assistants, nail salon technicians, school teachers, and so on. The domestic labor of pouring a husband’s coffee, feeding children, and washing dishes is presented on an even playing field with regular office work. Likewise, sex work is so normalized in these sequences it’s difficult to tell if the hand-on application of a condom is categorized as domestic labor or prostitution, since it’s immediately juxtaposed with images like factory workers shrink-wrapping chicken or hands plunging into a sink full of soapy water. In these disjointed, fractured flashes of “women’s work,” the only anchor providing cohesion is the repetition of the song “Born in Flames,” a steady constant that only appears in these specific montages. The one exception might be the song’s fourth repetition, which soundtracks a montage of political organization imagery: meet-ups, radio broadcasts, punk concerns, intellectual discussions, etc. Of course, political organization is its own kind of labor that deserves to be valued just as much as any other profession represented in these montages, a point that’s only made clear by the shared accompaniment of the Red Krayola song. As Born in Flames is a film about women’s labor and radical political organization, these montages are essential to its core concerns, creating a thematic throughline that establishes narrative cohesion out of the film’s general fractured vision of feminist unrest. There’s no question why it was important enough to Borden’s work to provide her film its title.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Born in Flames without The Red Krayola’s titular anthem driving its rhythm and providing it thematic structure. There are other songs used in the film that are just as essential to the soundtrack, but none feel like they could have held the same weight in repetition, not even contributions from other punk heavy-hitters like The Slits. That’s almost an indisputable fact, given the way The Bloods’ track repeats three times throughout, but makes for a much less memorable impact. In this case, the movie & the song are one and the same: a D.I.Y. punk collaboration meant to jolt its audience into political unity & direct, radical action. Repeating that message can only strengthen its cause, as it becomes just as much a political mantra as it is an earworm.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this exploration of its place in the No Wave movement, and last week’s look at Lizzie Borden’s follow-up film, Working Girls (1986).

-Brandon Ledet

Blank City (2010) and Lizzie Borden’s Place in No Wave Cinema

One of the most difficult things to grasp about Lizzie Borden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is what cultural context could have possibly birthed it. The movie is in a temporal haze in its relation to the past, present, and future of political activism & D.I.Y. punk culture. Its dystopian sci-fi setting of an American revolution gone wrong is a warning of a plausible political future even if the good side “wins.” Its D.I.Y. punk aesthetic & political organization tactics feel as relevant to the present state of counterculture as any film I’ve ever seen, even though it was first released 35 years ago. Its vision of a grimy, nearly lawless NYC overrun by artists & radicals before Giuliani Disnified the city also could have been captured in a long gone past, solidifying the film as any kind of historical document. The past, present, and future of punk culture somehow being contained in a single picture is a lot of what’s impressive about Born in Flames’s accomplishments as a dirt-cheap game-changer. It also makes the film exceedingly difficult to contextualize, especially as its director, Lizzie Borden, has been left behind & deliberately forgotten in the decades since its release by a film industry that did not know what to do with her.

For a crash-course history lesson on Lizzie Borden & Born in Flames’s historical place in cinema, I recommend seeking out the “No Wave” documentary Blank City. While the documentary Kill Your Idols covers much of the No Wave scene’s musical projects, Blank City is an excellent, convenient primer on the scene’s cinematic output. The two mediums are impossible to fully separate, as the late 70s/early 80s reprobates who populated NYC’s No Wave movement attempted their best to be well-rounded artists in all fields available to them: painting, writing, filming, making music, etc. (no skill required, or even encouraged, for any one in particular). That means there’s a lot of overlap in the two docs’ subjects, but Blank City is especially useful as a crash course in the filmmaking end of No Wave’s accomplishments, as opposed to Kill Your Idols’s hagiography of acts like Sonic Youth, Suicide, and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Blank City is essentially a Letterboxd list in motion, assembling early clips from No Wave scene filmmakers like Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch, Bette Gordon, Richard Kern and, just-for-fun, Multiple Maniacs-era John Waters. Buried somewhere in that sky-high pile of D.I.Y. filmmakers is Lizzie Borden herself, who is interviewed briefly about Born in Flames in particular. Since Borden’s only a small part of an ever-expanding ensemble, the documentary doesn’t fully satisfy as an autopsy on Born in Flames’s time & legacy, but it does help place Borden’s work in a clear historical context by profiling the art & artists that surrounded it.

As much as Blank City aims to document No Wave as an art movement, it’s also just a document of NYC when it was cheap living. The haggard leftovers of the first wave of CBGB-era punks had free rein of a crumbling city where rent, food, and (if you didn’t do too much) drugs were affordable in a way New York will likely never see again. The first film considered to be of the No Wave cinema era was born directly of this grimy, drugged-out punk scene Amos Poe, picking up a second hand Super 8 camera, slapped together a dirt-cheap documentation of local bands like Blondie, Television, and The Patti Smith Group he appropriately titled The Blank Generation (inspiring Blank City’s name by extension, naturally). Suddenly, artists who could never afford the production values of a “legitimate” movie, but wanted to dip their toes in every available medium, saw an opportunity to turn grainy Super 8 home movies into cinema. Inspired by the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave and rejecting the plotless art house experimentation of the Andy Warhol crew that preceded them, No Wave artists filtered straight-forward, narrative filmmaking through the no-budget, aggressively D.I.Y. means available to them. Like the stubbornly unpolished sounds of the No Wave music scene that followed first-wave punk, the movies coming out of the scene were deliberately amateur & unpolished. Against all odds, they often told coherent stories, but in a way that made the audience feely like anyone could do it (which was entirely the point).

Lizzie Borden arrives later than most in both No Wave & Blank City’s runtime. Like Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (which is scheduled to get a nice Criterion spit shine this summer), Borden’s Born in Flames is framed in the doc as part of a secondary push within the No Wave movement to include more femme creative voices. That context as a feminist corrective makes total sense on Borden’s case, as Born in Flames is itself an explicitly feminist text. In Blank City, Borden briefly explains her agenda behind the film to be bringing women together across all class, race, and sexual divides together in unity, something that needed to happen within the No Wave scene just as much as in the political world at large. She isn’t afforded much screentime otherwise, except to bring up something we wrestled with in our own Born in Flames discussion: the film’s ending. Borden both recounts how exploding (part of) the World Trade Center was accomplished with miniatures & rudimentary fireworks on a slim $200 budget and admits her own mixed feelings on that conclusion in a post-9/11 climate. Born in Flames is largely passed over in Blank City except for its significance as a feminist corrective and the shock value of that World Trade Center footage, but hopefully that was enough to make it stand out for people who had not yet seen it, lest it get buried under the mountain of other titles mentioned in the doc. It’s a significant work within or without its No Wave cinema context, which makes it seem worthy of much more attention.

Much of Blank City is a mind-blowing reminder of how many no-budget films there are out there worthy of the restoration treatment recently afforded Born in Flames & Smithereens. The documentary (smartly) fixates on the stars who made it out of the scene like Debbie Harry, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jim Jarmusch, as selling points for its subject’s significance. All I could focus on really, though, was the unlikelihood that I’d ever see the majority of the films on display in any proper format. It’s a shame too, because the material product appears to be surprisingly rich for an arts scene that sneered at gatekeeping requirements like training & talent. Even in its brief screentime, though, Born in Flames does appear to be a cut above most of the films detailed in Blank City’s loving portrait of a dead arts scene. It was helpful to see that its D.I.Y. aesthetics had a very specific context within a historical moment in punk culture & D.I.Y. cinema, but also reaffirming to know that it’s still a very special specimen within that context. There’s nothing quite like Born in Flames, even within the scene that birthed it.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Born in Flames (1983)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch Born in Flames (1983).

Brandon: I first watched Lizzie Borden’s ramshackle punk screed Born in Flames shortly after the historic Women’s March that protested Trump’s inauguration last year. The film’s mere existence is incredible for countless reasons, but what struck me most at the time was how closely it resembled current, compromised news coverage of radical political resistance. Early 1980s protest footage integrated into Born in Flames’s sci-fi narrative could just as easily have been captured at the 2017 Women’s March with just the right Instagram filter to match the film’s low-fi static. It’s not that the Born in Flames’s politics were especially predictive or ahead of their time, either. What’s most striking is not the film’s prescience, but how little the world has changed in the 35 years since its release. Current concerns of respectability politics, White Feminism, Men’s Rights Activism, public sexual harassment, patriarchal rape culture, and dishonest media coverage of peaceful protests are all demonized in Born in Flames as the enemies of true social progress. The film preaches a message of Intersectionality & true feminist unity (across borders of race & sexuality) that still hasn’t been fully achieved to this day, but has become a much more commonly expressed ideal. Its vision of D.I.Y. punk culture, from bicycle gangs to alternative modes of broadcasting & press to dingy nightclubs & ripped street clothes, still feels true to how radical counterculture looks today. This D.I.Y. punk ethos also extends to the film’s form, which is a version of sci-fi filmmaking so lacking in budget & traditional craft that you’d never be able to tell it was set in the future if that weren’t explicitly stated.

Set ten years after a fictional American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

Born in Flames splits its efforts as both a document of its time in D.I.Y. political filmmaking and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to a long-gone, idealized past.  Alli, do you think either side of this divide overpowers the other? From your perspective, does Born in Flames excel more as a historical document or a living, breathing ideological manifesto?

Alli: I don’t think the idea of black lesbian punks running the streets is necessarily part of an idealized past. There are things like Afropunk and many radical Tumblr blogs right now making a lot of waves (Afropunk even has its own festival) and inspiring a lot of kids to just be themselves, loud and proud. Maybe New York isn’t the same, but other places in the country are seeing demonstrations, women trying to take care of each other, and celebrations of these kinds of lifestyles. We can yearn for the optimistic ideas of this era, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while progress is happening at a molasses pace and America feels like a “two steps forward one step back” country as far in its progress, these people are out there and are being more open.

As much as these ideals feel like a past moment looking towards an optimistic future, like every sci-fi book that predicted we’d have flying cars by the year 2000, a lot of the movie actually felt very prescient to me, but also made me feel sad for the radical movements currently at work in the country. The “suicide” of Adelaide Norris felt a little too much like the life and death of Sandra Bland, which should have galvanized many movements into action but instead most of the talk around that tragedy has quieted down. Just as sad as this movie made me feel, it also gave me hope. Radical ideas haven’t died out. Radical people have been fighting forever and are still around and kicking, even though we live in a near police state where any slightly rowdy protest is considered a riot, and the same old lukewarm liberal narrative exists that any major action is just as bad as the oppression. In this way to me, it definitely felt like a living, breathing manifesto. I have never seen a movie embrace so much of my personal ideology while also teaching me a thing or two about direct action and the power of large groups of people acting together even if they have different priorities within their shared goal. The quote about one lion versus hundreds of mice really stuck with me. There are so many teaching moments here. As you said, it’s still so relevant. We can look at the writings of people like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Marx, Engels or Bakunin and still there’s so much to take away from these works. Just because the ideas posed aren’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a call to action and even a proposed guide to how to get change started.

Of course, all the writings I just compared Born in Flames to are essays, works of nonfiction. If I had to compare this to any fiction parallels, it would be the writings of my personal favorite, the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin. She, too, looked to future utopias with a critical eye. Her works are filled with critiques of gender, capitalism, tyrannical government, religion, and, even though she identified as an anarchist, anarchy itself.  There was no ideal too perfect for her critical eye, and I think that’s also what I like about this film. None of the activists here have all the answers as to how to get things done. These characters live in a supposed ideal government system, in which people are supposedly taken care of, given jobs and housed, and yet there’s still so much wrong. We’re shown a future that many socialist activists have been working towards for years and changes still need to happen. Movements are shown as hard work worth fighting for, even though you can’t even be sure of the outcome.

Which brings me to the unfortunately dated, open-ended conclusion. Boomer, how did you feel about the ending? Do you wish the movie had shown what happened after that first major strike of taking down the transmitter of the World Trade Center?

Boomer: I think that showing what happens next would undermine the message as a whole. In one scenario of the film’s continuation, there would be sudden and efficient retaliatory action by the patriarchal government system against the Women’s Army (and associates), thoroughly knocking the uprising off its horse and reinforcing the supremacy (not the superiority) of the system in place; which would be a bummer and run counter to the film’s self-evident call to action on the part of the women and allies in the audience. On the other hand, if the film committed to the concept that The Movement would install a newer, truer, more egalitarian utopia, then that new society would have to be depicted. Not only does this lie outside the film’s budget, it also falls outside of what I would like to call its thesis, except that the term suggests a cohesive idea, which I don’t feel the film has. Its various points of views overlap in a Venn diagram of ideologies between different groups, but these groups rarely manage to put up a united front and is fractious when doing so. There’s a lot of discussion in the film about what constitutes right, proper, reasonable, and fruitful action in response to government oppression, with little conversation about what an improved world would look like in comparison to the one in which the women reside now. There are a lot of opinions, and even when there is collaboration, there are still those who are in the oppressed group whose ideals are in conflict with others. Born in Flames is, as am I, a proponent of intersectionality, but there’s no definitive answer as to what the ideal form of governance does, how it treats the members of its society, what it looks like, and how it works.

This lack of singular vision isn’t a flaw objectively; documents of reactionary art, especially those made outside of any studio system and which are iconoclastic but not necessarily reformative or restorative, are often an amalgam of different branches of critical theory that are prominent in academia or highly educated groups at the time of the text’s creation. One could argue that such a reading makes Born in Flames a kind of artifact of a bygone era just as much as the image quality, fashions, and presence of the WTC Towers dates it, and while it is a bit of a time capsule, that doesn’t make its questions any less potent or applicable, even if it never quite gives an answer. The answers, both to the question of what comes next in this world post-revolution, and what happens next in our world after having heard this film’s arguments, are up to you. I had a hard time getting with the film, despite my alignment with many of the philosophical ideals of various characters (and from which other characters distanced themselves). It’s not because it’s not “for me,” which is all-too-often trotted out as a placeholder for legitimate criticism by people who can’t or won’t inspect their preconceptions, and it’s not because of the film-making quality, as I love low-budget films and legitimately enjoy the aesthetics of this one. And I’m not opposed to films counterposing various ideological constructs and leaving it to the viewer to piece together a personal political philosophy from the constituent parts, nor am I simply depressed at how little ground we’ve advanced in some areas since 1983. But, if you put all of these things together into one movie, what remained for me once the movie was over had little staying power, even when I was in agreement with it.

One of the things that kept pulling me out of the film was the music. And I’m not just talking about Isabel’s cringeworthy spoken word/rap, although I was embarrassed for her in the moment; I didn’t care for the title song the first time it was played, and it didn’t grow on me as it was repeated throughout the film. Even when I recall the montages from the film, I mentally replace the music with Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “The Parade”. The DIY aesthetic comes through in the music, definitely, but I wasn’t feeling it. What about you, Britnee? Did the music pull you of the film or help you cement yourself in its world? Would you change anything, if you were able?

Britnee: As I was reading through everyone’s thoughts and responses to Born in Flames, I sang “We are born in flames” out loud each time I ran across the title. I cannot shake this song for the life of me. The scratchy recording with those funky yodeling female vocals were sort of like a less-polished version of a Rubella Ballet tune. It conjures up images of dirty city streets filled with young folk in denim jackets, which is what we see in Born in Flames.  In my opinion, the “Born in Flames” song perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the film. I even felt a bit more rebellious than usual after the first couple of times hearing it. Although I enjoyed the song and its presence in the film, it was a bit repetitive. I want to say that it played over 5 times throughout the films 80 minutes, and that is just way to much for a single song to be played in a movie. Getting other songs may have just been too costly for this low budget flick, but it would have been better to just have less music.

I went ahead and gave Pretty Girls Make Graves’s “Parade” a listen while keeping all of those important scenes in mind. It would definitely be a great theme song for the modern version of Born in Flames. What a modern version of the film would look like is a thought that crossed my mind when I realized that what was being portrayed in the film was supposed to be the future. Progression in our country moves at a snail’s pace, so a “modern” Born in Flames would be almost identical to the original (bicycle gangs included), but with different music.

Speaking of the bicycle gangs, I was disappointed that they appeared once when a girl was being attacked by two thugs. The whole idea of a bicycle girl gang is fabulous, and I wish they would have had just as much screen time as the “Born in Flames” song. Brandon, do you wish there was more focus on the bicycle girl gang in this movie?

Brandon: At the 2016 New Orleans Film Festival, I caught a small documentary titled Ovarian Psycos about an all-female-identifying Latinx bicycle brigade that was dedicated specifically to feminist community-organizing in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s incredible, in retrospect, how much the political tactics & D.I.Y. aesthetics of that film resemble the “bicycle girl gang” that appears briefly (but is referenced often) in Born in Flames. More than three decades apart and on the opposite American coast, the bicycle brigades in the two films feel like they’re of the same cloth, a continuation of a political organization tradition that remains constant in punk culture. Maybe it’s because I’ve already seen the intricacies of exactly how feminist biking crews aim to destroy the social norm of public spaces only being safe for men detailed at length in the Ovarian Psycos doc, but I don’t think Born in Flames necessarily needed more of their presence to strengthen its thematic fabric. I was just appreciative that they rolled into the scene at all, presented as a communal feminist alternative to the police state in cases of sexual assault, as it’s yet another detail to Born in Flames that feels true to what punk-culture-in-action still looks like today.

Most of my appreciation of Born in Flames works this way. Much like the various, ideologically-conflicted women’s movements that populate its narrative, the film itself is a kind of well-meaning, but disorganized political screed that does gradually become focused & coordinated, but starts in total chaos. The messiness of its structure is partly due to an overabundance of ideas (something that I always admire in any film), which means that no one detail is afforded a wealth of screentime (outside the repetitions of the post punk theme song). The bike brigade, the Sandra Bland foretelling, a pre-auteur Kathryn Bigelow’s presence among the White feminism journalists, etc.: Born in Flames is a collage of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details, which is something that makes your head swim in the moment, but also makes for rewarding repeat viewings.

In fact, my favorite aspect of the entire film is a single image included in one of the earliest montages set to the Red Krayola song. A series of images details labor that would be traditionally coded as “women’s work”: dental assistant labor, factory work, childcare, etc. Mixed in with these details is a woman’s hands applying a condom to an erect penis, a sly comment on the sexual labor women are expected to perform domestically. The matter-of-fact presentation of that image is also subversively funny, as it’s juxtaposed with factory workers shrink-wrapping raw chicken (among other menial tasks). I don’t think everything the film has to say about sexual labor is on-point (more on that in the “Lagniappe” section below), but I found that montage to be incredibly clever in visually defining what “women’s work” actually looks like and challenging the way it’s socially undervalued. There’s a lot of thematic power behind that singular condom application, an effect that extends to other barely-seen ideas like the bicycle brigade.

Alli, are there any other minor, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em details in Born in Flames that felt powerfully resonant to you even though they barely appeared onscreen?

Alli: You mentioned the condom scene, and that one stuck with me not because of the domestic aspect but because of the sex work positivity of the film, which is extremely interesting to me given the time period. Radical feminism of from this era didn’t necessarily see sex work as anything more than objectification and oppression, where this movie takes a more updated approach in saying that it’s just a job, which is the view intersectional feminists and what I’m going to call true radical feminists stand by these days. (True radical feminists here meaning those opposed to every institutional system to oppression and aren’t trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary.) It’s just awesome to me to see radical women of this time period embracing other women from all walks of life and not looking down on one another because of their occupations.

Another ahead of its time detail that stuck out to me is the inclusion of women from other countries in the movement. A lot of what’s lacking in modern feminism is a lack of solidarity, a focus on America’s problems (or the problems of whatever country you’re settled in), and even a focus on individual empowerment & declarations. We’ve become fixated on the commodification of self-care, buying bath bombs and the like, and celebrity identification, instead of group acts and collective action. (There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a revolutionary act, but it isn’t about buying things to make yourself feel better while setting the expectation of self-care prohibitively high for low income or houseless women.) The idea of women’s liberation being a worldwide movement is powerful to me, especially in the context of women everywhere freeing themselves and teaching each other things rather than white saviorism.

Other blink and you miss them details: queer women making love without the male gaze, women in what are thought of as traditionally male trades such as construction, and posters identifying men as rapists. Basically, I love this movie, including the Red Krayola song (but I was already a fan of the band).

Boomer, I know you mentioned that this movie had a very “not for me” feeling for you, but are there any ideas that you feel the modern era of resistance could benefit from? Are there any superfluous ideas that you feel would be detrimental to modern activism?

Boomer: I’m glad that you brought up the fact that sex work is presented in the way that more modern (and more true, non-TERF) feminism would, as this is an element of radicalism in the past that can be easily forgotten. Again, this is an unusual situation for me, in that I rarely find myself in a position where I am so completely aligned with a text’s stated and envisioned ideals while also feeling so completely cold about the text itself. I can only conclude that this is the result of the film being so cheaply (if not poorly, necessarily) made. I’ve seen films that are worse, and I’ve seen films that are cheaper, and I’ve still been able to get “on board” with those movies, but there’s something blocking that here for me, and I can only conclude that it’s because this film is just kind of . . . ugly. This is at least in part because 1980s New York was an ugly place: despite being the Platonic ideal of an the bohemian artist’s “New York” that took root the public consciousness before the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole city by stamping out and destroying many of the things that made it truly unique, this film certainly doesn’t highlight anything that makes it beautiful (and not that this has stopped the husk of New-York-That-Was from drawing countless mothlike hopefuls to beat their wings vainly against the searing flame). The philosophical theses are clear, but film is a medium that requires a confluence of different kinds of expression to adhere into a complete whole; the scenes of a woman being attacked on the street are not distinct, visually, from those scenes of women in bed together or vigorously discussing different political ideals while straddling a windowsill (metaphorically and literally): they’re all filmed in an ugly way, which is understandable given that this is an independent feature that took years to make. This lack of difference in the framing of different scenes with dissonant purposes can be chalked up to an evocation of a documentarian’s distance from the subject, but that simply doesn’t work for me here, as it attempts to graft an apolitical (at least in theory) aesthetic onto an inherently political text. As a result, the whole thing is just too muddled for me, like a painting that uses a lot of vibrant colors but mixes them together in such a way that you end up with a canvas of various muddy browns. I wouldn’t claim that any ideals in the film are backward (although there’s a questionable one I’ll get to in a minute here), but since the medium is the message, the overall palate of the film may be detrimental, at least to the general public’s willingness to empathize and get anything out of the movie.

I understand that the intent is to demonstrate that a supposed socialistic democracy can descend into misogynistic policy-making and oppression just as easily as an authoritarian, conservative-dominated society can when the figurehead at the top practices autocracy instead of representational democracy, or when representatives act as advocates for only some voices in their districts instead of all. And I applaud the film for focusing on society’s “lower decks,” as confining the presidential/governmental presence in this world to speeches and television appearances better reflects the world the characters (and we) inhabit, with the implicit distance between the working class and lawmakers made explicit, with TV screens as manifest barriers of this distance and demonstrating that power in this system flows only one way: from orator to spectator. That’s certainly an important part of the discussion of any dichotomy of power.

As I wrote back in my first part of this conversation, the most depressing thing about this movie is how much it demonstrates how little has changed. Thirty years later and wheatpasting is still one of the most powerful tools at our disposal? But with regards to the messages that modern activism can still benefit from and if any are detrimental, I’d like to circle back to your discussion of sex work. (Disclaimer: this is outside of my lane as I am a cis man.) This is an area in which many modern people who consider themselves feminists, men and women alike, consider to be inherently oppressive, which is an understandable reaction given that, historically, sex work has been dominated not only by male interest but also male violence and authority. Different people can find the same thing liberating or oppressive depending upon the horizons of each individual’s lived experience and point of view: hijabs can bring comfort to some while others find them oppressive; pride parades might give some the strength to come to terms with themselves and self-expression while others balk at the commercialization and pursuant capitalism of pride celebrations or feel unwelcome among the sea of twinks and hunks because gay culture can be just as cruel as the mainstream to those whose bodies fall outside of the “ideal” range; testing accommodations for students can make life easier for some while others resent the fact that having to make such arrangements increases attention on them. As a result, I’ve also seen certain discussions descend into angry name-calling and ad hominem attacks instead of mutual edification and respect when it comes to discourse about the topic of sex work and its place in feminist movements. As such, I would argue that the only place where I feel there’s a real disconnect between the feminism of Born in Flames‘ then and the feminism of our now is in response to the president’s proposed policy allowing for payment for domestic work for women. Although its goal is to roll back the clock on progress and push women back into kitchens (as evidenced by the fact that it is explicitly stated as a program for women instead of remaining gender-neutral in indicating who would be eligible for such a benefit), but removed from the context of the attitudes we’ve seen evinced by the men in power, a stipend or paycheck for stay-at-home domestic duties is not terribly dissimilar from modern policies that advocate for a basic universal income or even newborn supplements and allowances like those available in Australia and parts of Canada. It’s presented as a universal ill in the film (and within the context of the film, it is), but the philosophical descendants of those ideals present in Born in Flames would be less likely to reject the concept outright, but if they used the film as a fundamental and cornerstone text of their philosophy, it could be detrimental, at least hypothetically.

Britnee, I too was disappointed that the bike gang only showed up once in the film and then disappeared. Some of the issues present in the film were hammered over and over again, to the point where it felt preachy, while others were given barely a passing mention. Were there other elements that you felt could have born to be repeated more often, and was there anything you felt got more attention than necessary?

Britnee: When I hear the word “revolution”, the image of youthful, energetic beings is what generates in my mind, which is why I completely understand why there is such a focus on young women in Born in Flames. Interestingly enough, though, I really enjoyed the few moments of screen time afforded older women in the movement. Zella Wylie and The Belle Gayle Show are the only times we really see women over the age of 25, and their camera time is brief compared to the rest of the cast. Nothing gets me more jazzed than aged feminists because they have seen and been through it all and still have hope for brighter days to come. I don’t think not having women from different age groups equally present in Born in Flames hurt the film or prevented it from making bold statements; I just think it would’ve made the film a little more interesting.

As for what I felt got more attention than necessary in the film, I can’t really think I of anything. I enjoyed how there were a variety of issues that were addressed, and I didn’t feel like anything was overdone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I would have gotten so much more out of Born in Flames if the film’s main ladies saw more character development. Knowing about their background and day-to-day on a more emotional level would have helped me connect with the characters. Instead, I found most of them to be sort of annoying, as they reminded me of the mean crust punk girls in college who made me feel like I was never good enough to hang out with them. Even though Born in Flames reopened those wounds, I did enjoy the film for the most part.

Brandon: I’m going to have to contradict both Alli & Boomer on a couple points here: the effect of the ending and the film’s view towards sex work , which was wholly negative in my interpretation. I understand why someone would find the World Trade Center explosion that concludes this film to feel dated in a cringe-inducing way, but I find it at peace with its larger “All oppressed people have a right to violence” messaging. I’d even say it feels exciting as a go-for-broke call to arms, a continuation of the film’s political organization aspirations at large. What hasn’t aged so well, however, is the film’s attitude towards sex work.

While most of Born in Flames’s radical leftist ideologies feel consistent with modern politics, the way it lumps all sex work in with rape & gendered subjugation does feel out of step with political thought in the 2010s. If this film were contemporary, I suspect it would shift its stance from abolishing sex work entirely to advocating for sex workers’ rights that would protect them from gendered power-imbalances. A film’s political ideology feeling slightly outdated is more of a positive sign of real-world progress than anything, though, so that sex work-shaming attitude is more than forgivable, especially considering the striking amount of the film’s messaging that’s still on-point. Lizzie Borden’s next film, Working Girls, was also specifically about upscale NYC sex workers, so I’m curious to see if expanding on the subject makes her abolitionist stance seem more nuanced that I’m giving it credit for here (as indicated by everyone else in the crew taking away an entirely different interpretation of her views on the subject).

Alli: Discussing and viewing art is entirely subjective. Every person brings their own experiences and opinions to the table. I was predisposed to like this movie as a crazy radical. Sure, it’s not pretty, but neither is oppression or the world these women inhabit. Sure, the same song is repeated like an anthem over and over again, but as cheesy and “spiritual” as it sounds, we all need a mantra to get by in times of conflict. I’m not saying that this is a flawless movie by any means or that these aren’t valid criticisms of it. I just think that this movie lives and breathes its ideals.

One tenet of true punk radicalism that I absolutely love is the fact that you don’t have to be trained or an expert to make art. The idea of gatekeeping art to only include “intellectuals” or those who went to art school is inherently classist and against “the cause.” Many untrained people, children even, have produced movies that are gorgeous and perfectly composed. Some people can make untrained, unpolished work beautiful, like Daniel Johnston or the sisters of the band The Shags.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty to mean something and be good.

Boomer: I saw this film for free on Amazon Prime by participating in a free trial for Fandor as part of Amazon’s services; as of this writing, that free trial is still ongoing, so it’s not as difficult to find as one might expect. The Amazon reviews for the film are unsurprisingly positive or negative on the extreme ends of the star rating spectrum, from such insightful ratings as “Sucked like a lamprey” and “Looks like this was made for a college film class” (which, to be fair, it does) to more positive ratings from more thoughtful viewers like this one or this one. But my favorite simply reads “I am not sure to remember I was watch movie,” which makes me think poor Patsy Johnson had her world rocked so hard by the film that she couldn’t think straight. Nice work, Borden!

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August:
Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

Born in Flames (1983)

Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.

Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.

-Brandon Ledet