Movie of the Month: Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

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 Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Belizaire the Cajun (1986).

Britnee: My family has been living along Bayou Lafourche since the Acadian Expulsion (1755-1763), which was a time during the Seven Years’ War when the British forced the Acadians out of what is now modern day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Isle. They were put on nasty old ships and landed in Southern Louisiana. Some of my relatives were even born on those migrant ships! Of course, there’s so much to Acadian Expulsion that I’m not mentioning here, but I don’t want this to turn into a history paper. As the Acadian’s settled in Southern Louisiana, they became known as the Cajuns. Cajun life was and still is so much different than any other culture in the United States. Unfortunately, there aren’t many films that offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be Cajun. The only film that I believe does an exceptional job of grasping the essence of Cajun life is 1986’s Belizaire the Cajun. The film’s director, Glen Pitre, is from Down the Bayou (Cut Off to be exact), and his ancestral background is similar to mine. He has a true understanding of the Cajun way of life, and it shines through every second of Belizaire.

I’m so glad that I got to share this film with the Swampflix crew because it’s such an important film for folks from Down the Bayou. I used to rent it from my local library when I was a kid, and all my family talked about it like it was the best movie on Earth. Watching it recently made me realize that Cajuns have really never changed. We are still in tune with nature, and nothing in the world means more to us than our family, friends, and faith. Also, I hate wearing shoes more than anything, so it was nice to see the majority of the cast shoe-less and walking around without a care in the world.

The main character, Belizaire (Armand Assante), is such a likeable guy. He’s a goofball with a big heart, and you can’t help but root for him. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Belizaire? Would you want him to be in your inner circle or would you stay as far away from him as possible?

Brandon: The most immediately pleasing aspect of this movie for me was the tagline that accompanied its 25th Anniversary re-release. The posters and trailers for that 2011 reissue all boast that Belizaire the Cajun is “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!,” which is an amusing claim, but a bold one. I couldn’t shake this question from my head while watching the film, thanks to that marketing, and now I’m hung up on it all over again thanks to Britnee’s prompt: Is Belizaire cool? Sure, he’s likeable and we want him to succeed as the titular hero of the picture, but is he cool? Thankfully, the answer is yes . . . mostly.

The only obstacles that hold Belizaire back from being 100% cool are a result of the film’s rural 19th Century setting. We’re introduced to him in the opening scene at his nerdiest: negotiating with a priest about how many prayers he’s assigned to say as penance for the day’s confession of sins, bargaining to lower the number to loosen up some free time. This may be the lapsed Catholic in me talking, but I would not personally rate Christian Humor anywhere near the leather jackets & switchblades end of the cool scale, even if religious faith comes standard with his community & era. What’s even less cool is Belizaire’s persistence in pursuing his love interest: a married woman who has shot him down hundreds of times without him ever taking the hint. I don’t want to hold this fictional 19th Century courtship up to a 2010s standard, but there’s something severely uncool about Belizaire continually stirring up shit in an already volatile marriage out of boredom & lust, especially since the woman who repeatedly rejects him expresses fear that her husband will physically retaliate against the both of them whether or not their flirtations are consummated.

Pretty much everything else about Belizaire is cool as fuck, though. He’s a bearded apothecary herbalist who looks like he stepped off the front cover of a paperback romance novel. He plays accordion in the most popular band at the local fais do-do. He’s extemely loyal to his community, to the point where he’ll stand trial for crimes he did not commit just to buy his innocently accused friends some time to escape. His active resistance against the invading, wealthy Anglophones who aim to evict his people from Louisiana mostly involves good-natured pranks & Old Hollywood swashbuckling – to the point where he’s swinging Tarzan-style from his own execution noose to save innocent lives from danger. I’m not sure the movie that contains him is something I’d call “cool” on its own merits; its production style largely feels reminiscent of cheap TV costume dramas like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. However, anyone in any era would feel safer & cooler having a Belizaire in their inner circle.

If we accept that Belizaire is cool, then the only remaining question raised by that tagline is whether or not the world knows about him. Belizaire the Cajun cannot be “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!” if it never truly reached the outside world. Britnee has indicated that the film has a special place in the heart of folks Down the Bayou, but I have less of a sense of whether it truly resonated elsewhere. I know it experienced some financial backing & signal boosting from celebrities (Robert Redford & Robert Duvall) and film festivals (Sundance & Cannes), but that’s about all I know. CC, do you get the sense that Belizaire the Cajun reached enough people to “teach the world” anything? Is this film’s legacy more detectable as a global educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture or as a rare glimpse of local representation on the big screen?

CC: I did some very informal polling and very light research so I can say with absolute[ly no] authority that while Belizaire the Cajun certainly had an impact on the Cajun French community that still lived “down the bayou” and participated in the filmmaking process, I don’t think it had a lasting cultural impact outside of Louisiana. It’s still fondly remembered by the folks of Cote Blanche and, based on Britnee’s love for the film, is still being passed down to the next generation of proud Cajuns. However, other than a few passing remarks in (mostly local) publications citing it as part of the Cajun cultural wave that “swamped” America in the 1980s (along with Zydeco music and the food of Paul Prudhomme), it seems to have mostly faded from the public consciousness after 1990. Even in contemporary reviews that were not particularly kind to Belizaire, the traditional Zydeco and Cajun music of Michael Doucet was always given a positive nod. In fact, the only awards attention this film received in the United States was a nomination for the 1987 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Cajun food and music were essential to the sudden national interest in the regions culture in the 1980s. Belizaire the Cajun seemed to be an attempt to add filmmaking to that gumbo, but the Cajun Cinema concept never really took off the way it did in other art forms.

Even if the rest of the world didn’t “get” Belizaire, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Glen Pitre began his career making documentaries and “Gumbo Westerns” in Cajun French, filmed on location, with local volunteers as his cast and crew. It was For Us By Us situation. Belizaire was an ambitious and risky attempt to transcend his niche as a foreign-language filmmaker working in America. Even with the guidance and mentorship of the Sundance Institute, Pitre didn’t “go Hollywood;” he continued to rely on his community to help him create a film that would both celebrate their culture as it was and introduce it to the rest of the country. Belizaire definitely falls into the category of celebration of cultural representation more so than educational tool.

One of the national newspaper reviews I read in preparation for my response was confused about a major conflict between the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns. To them it seemed very abrupt, like the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns had lived side by side and all of a sudden the Americans turned on the Cajuns. Why exactly did the Anglo-Americans seemed so intent on taking the Cajun land? Did they hate them for being Catholic? Were they greedy for land? Were they just plain evil? The answer seemed pretty straightforward to me as someone who’s lived here and knows the history, so I suspect outside reviewers were only confused because they lacked proper context. Boomer, was the motivation for the conflict confusing to you, as a fellow local? Did the movie do a good enough job explaining the larger clash between the Cajuns and the Anglo-Americans before getting into the specifics of Belizaire’s own personal conflicts?

Boomer: Although I grew up in Louisiana and took the Louisiana History class that I assume everybody did when they were in eighth grade, that course’s coverage of Cajun history was pretty underdeveloped. Even with regards to this film that taught “the world,” when I called my local video store, it was still only available on VHS, from Key Video of all companies, essentially locking it away in a format that only we diehards could access, like some kind of arcane knowledge. I don’t really think that any more information than what’s provided is needed to understand the film, since anyone living in 2019 who paid attention to any history class at any point in their lives with a textbook that wasn’t written by Rupert Murdoch knows that the narrative of Western history is invade, kill, and overtake, endlessly, as far as our species has maintained records. That contemporary reviews seemed to need more context than this really only highlights how recently any awareness of historical atrocities has penetrated the mainstream. That being said, it’s not terribly surprising that they may have been confused, as I was, by the focus on anti-Cajun vigilantism in a vacuum. Halfway through the film, when we see Matt’s family’s plantation–and black people onscreen–for the first time, I asked myself what year this was again (1854) and immediately thought “Those are slaves.” It may be that the film critics who came before us thought it was unusual that this went completely unremarked upon when the film’s sympathies lie so firmly with the displaced Cajuns that there’s none to spare for anyone else suffering under Anglos.

I found myself charmed by this one in a way I wasn’t expecting. I loved that Belizaire was essentially a larger-than-life mythical figure who wanders around the swampside doling out folk wisdom and folk medicine at the same time, pulling a reverse Moses (“Let my people stay”) with the local government on behalf of his fellows in diaspora, performing a Samsonian labor by using his ball and chain to break out of jail, and his Messianic archetypicality is solidified when he spends the film’s finale being (not quite) executed between two real criminals, one of whom even accepts his shenanigans. All that’s missing is the cry of “Give us Barabbas!” Britnee, do you see these themes as well, or am I only in a Biblical mood because, as of the time of this writing, it’s Easter weekend?

Britnee: I think you’re on to something with this Biblical connection. Belizaire is a traiteur, which is essentially a faith healer. Traiteurs use their gifts from God to perform miracles and can cure just about anything with prayer and a little help from Mother Nature. My granny actually used to bring my dad and his siblings to one when they were kids! Belizaire is basically Swamp Jesus. Other than performing “miracles,” some of his other Christ-like qualities include his willingness to sacrifice his life to bring peace to his community and his attempts to use reasoning to avoid violence (for the most part). Also, he has the look of Jesus down to a T with his long brown locks, facial hair, loose fitting clothes, and dirty bare feet. It’s obvious that Pitre had Jesus in mind when creating Belizaire’s character.

Something that I wanted to touch on with Belizaire is the murder mystery that’s thrown in the latter half of the film. I think it’s incorporated well and doesn’t disturb the film’s flow, but it’s still pretty surprising as the beginning of the film is more of a historical drama/love story. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the whodunit within Belizaire? Did you like how the film was a mix of genres or was it too much for one movie?

Brandon: Based on the opening text scrawl that quickly explains the historical context for Cajuns (once again) being evicted from their lands and the film’s first-act depictions of that very conflict, I did not at all expect this to turn into a murder mystery. I suppose the more expected route would be for Belizaire and his romantic rival to gradually come to an understanding that unites the two opposed communities and saves the Cajuns from being pushed into Texas, tidily resolving the conflict forever. That more traditional plot would have ensured that this film would be a VHS-era classroom standard throughout Louisiana, an educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture that doesn’t vilify Anglos in the process. Instead, we suffer through a shockingly violent whipping, a subsequent murder seemingly committed in retaliation, and a death-row criminal trial where the accused repeatedly escapes imprisonment to prove his innocence and expose the true killer. I don’t know that the murder-mystery plot was my favorite aspect of Belizaire the Cajun, mostly because it’s clear who the killer is long before their identity is revealed. I do love that the film was able to surprise me with that genre shift, though, since I felt like I already could see the pattern it was going to follow ten minutes into its story only to be proven very, very wrong. It also helped the picture feel like a legitimate Hollywood production on a scale far above its locally-funded indie cinema budget, especially in moments where Belizaire is allowed to attempt some swashbuckling stunts (punching his rivals, jumping off of buildings, swinging Tarzan-style from his own noose, etc.). It’s the aspect of the film that most makes it feel like a major motion picture instead of a classroom teaching tool and, thus, it’s the one that most subverted my expectations.

As strange as the introduction of a murder mystery halfway into the film feels from a narrative structure standpoint, the resolution to that mystery is almost even more unexpected. Belizaire reveals the true killer to his community and their oppressors from the vantage point of his own execution platform the very minute he’s meant to be hanged. It’s a lengthy, dialogue-heavy climax that plays directly into Cajun superstitions about gris-gris in a fascinating way, while also working hard to tidy up every disparate subplot in a single maneuver. CC, was the execution sequence a satisfying conclusion to this story for you? What did you think of the tactic of allowing Belizaire to hold court for a lengthy period of time as a climax to this picture?

CC: That third act, woof. I think that climactic scene took way, way, waaaaay too long to play out. Belizaire insists on executing his entire last will and testament at his actual execution. The scene grows comically and exasperatingly long as he hands out each and every bottle of medicine, bundle of herbs, and pinch of dirt he can conjure up before building to his big finale. Then, at his own hanging, in front of each and every gathered individual of the community, after giving each person a gift, after they begin to chant that they love him and don’t want him to go, he starts to build the case that perhaps he was not the murderer after all. His method for circumventing his own death is a rather neat trick, but one that should have been achieved in half the time.

Boomer, the only major facet of the film we haven’t discussed so far is the music, even though that seems to be its most enduring legacy outside Louisiana. Does that longevity surprise you? Did the music stand out to you as exceptional?

Boomer: I watched this with my best friend, and every few minutes, I would turn to her and say something along the lines of “I’m surprisingly charmed by this, Kat.” As has been mentioned, although I had never seen this movie and don’t remember ever even hearing about it, the title Belizaire the Cajun immediately transported me to elementary school movie days based on its name alone. Kat and I got into a discussion and, although I have always thought that I just don’t like period pieces, we came to an agreement that period pieces were fine-to-great, as long as they weren’t cheaply made (this is the difference between something like Barry Lyndon or The Favourite and every lousy western you’ve ever sat through). I watched this on an original domestic 1987 Key Video VHS release (my dear beloved Vestron handled the international release, operating out of West Germany) rented from the wonderful people at Vulcan Video, and the grain of the video combined with the lack of any immediately recognizable actors put me in the mindset of a rainy day recess, and I was pretty resistant to what seemed like a bargain basement period drama at first, until I gave myself over to it and was carried away. All of this is to say that, to be honest, the music didn’t leave much of an impression on me, unfortunately. I was more captivated by the bizarre nature of the story and the twists. I remember zydeco music, to be sure, especially during the scene at the dance, but even then I was more invested in some of the minor but impressive aspects that made sense (like the fact that the dance starts during daylight, which it would have to, as pre-electricity night travel was dangerous even before the Anglos started their little vigilante bands) and the fun little moments from the minor characters (“I’ve only got two rules: the drunks stay outside, and the drinks stay outside”). The only other times that I noticed the music were when it felt out of place; the jaunty jig that plays during one of Belizaire’s escapes really breaks the mood. There were moments when the sound editing really struck me, like the ambient animal noises of the bayou and bayou-adjacent in many of the night scenes, but the music just didn’t stand out to me.

Another little moment of verisimilitude worth pointing out in conclusion: my best friend recently finished law school at LSU, and when Willoughby is being told off by Rebecca, there is a moment where she tells him that he’s not in Mississippi anymore and that, per Louisiana law, she will inherit half of Old Perry’s property. Kat turned to me and said that this was true and had always been true, and that the French had been pretty progressive with regards to the inheritance and property rights of daughters. So score one for Louisiana for once.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It amuses me to no end that we are releasing this conversation during the madness surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, considering how much of that conflict also revolves around estates, the relative rights of bastard children, and last minute legitimizations of heretofore unrecognized heirs.

CC: I really liked the scene where Belizaire negotiates with the brother-in-law of the man he supposedly murdered to get an increasing number of his farm goods in exchange for a false confession that he has no intention of delivering. It’s a classic Br’er Rabbit-type con.

Brandon: The sound quality on the 25th anniversary DVD wasn’t exactly impeccable, so we ended up watching most of this film with the subtitles switched on for clarity. I highly recommend the experience. For some reason, the captions translated the Cajun French phrasings into English instead of merely transcribing them as-is, which means that while you’re watching Belizaire solve a murder mystery you also get to learn a little French as lagniappe.

Britnee: A large number of Cajuns from Down the Bayou are very hostile towards immigrants and refugees. There’s even a huge billboard in Cut Off with a photo of a victim of a car accident from over 20 years ago that says something like, “My son was killed by an illegal immigrant” (the car that hit the victim was driven by an undocumented shipyard worker). I’ve always hated driving along the beautiful bayou side and seeing that ignorant eyesore. Re-watching the reenactments of violence against the displaced Cajuns in Belizaire just added to my confusion of anti-immigrant sentiment Down the Bayou. I’ve had countless arguments with my elder family members about the similarities between modern day refuges and our own ancestors, and I always get the same response: “It’s not the same.” Perhaps it’s time for them to give Belizaire another watch.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Strangely Imperfect Trinity of Top-Billed Laura Dern Performances

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When we were discussing July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s mid-90s abortion comedy debut Citizen Ruth, I noted how rare of a treat it was to see Laura Dern receive top bill in a film, any film. I didn’t realize at the time exactly how rare that treat was. Although the child of two well-renowned, actors, Laura Dern has only starred top bill in three theatrically released feature films. That’s less than one film a decade in a professional career that spans back all the way to 1973. I’ve always thought of Dern as an enigmatic, striking screen presence capable of stealing any film she stars in, from Jurassic Park to her various David Lynch collaborations to her odd childhood appearance in the Cher melodrama Mask. It seems so strange to me, then, that the actor would be afforded so few opportunities to anchor a film with that idiosyncratic, attention-commanding presence. Even stranger still is the bizarrely imperfect set of roles that make up her top billing trinity. Dern commits herself whole-heartedly & with great humility to each lead role she’s allowed, but the nature & number of those roles suggest that she’s working in an industry that’s unsure what to do with that sense of commitment.

I’d say, far and away, the best performance in Dern’s top billing trinity is the one we’ve already discussed extensively here in Citizen Ruth. A homeless, pregnant addict who cares more about huffing household chemicals for a cheap high than engaging with the political debate that surrounds her unborn fetus, Ruth is one hell of a protagonist, a deeply damaged character that pushes past anti-hero into something much more disturbing. As I said before, the character she most closely resembles in my pop culture data bank is Stranger with Candy‘s hellishly cruel protagonist Jerri Blank, an undeniably bad person whose corrupt moral center is in far worse shape than a simple explanation of chemical dependency. In Citizen Ruth, Dern is charged with embodying a Jerri Blank archetype worthy of an audience’s sympathy. It’s no small task. On the one hand Ruth is a victim of an imperfect economic system, one reduced to a political talking point in an abortion rights debate she wants nothing to do with in the first place. On the other hand, she’s an aggressively air-headed subhuman willing to lie, cheat, steal, and gut punch children as much as needed to achieve her never-ending, immediate goal of huffing herself high. Alexander Payne constructs a dangerously dark line of humor in Ruth’s troubled character & Dern finds a way to make the blistering mess of a human being somehow, improbably endearing. It’s incredible how much joy you get watching Ruth pull off her (absurdly modest) heist of the century at the film’s conclusion, especially considering the morbid circumstances that lead to that moment & the grim implications of that character’s most logical future. Dern deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a heist of her own with the audience’s sympathies in that role & it stands as an easy choice for her best top bill performance to date.

Dern’s very first top bill performance predates Citizen Ruth by a five year gap, but her titular characters in both films share a surprising number of similarities. 1991’s Rambling Rose was an early high point in Dern’s career in terms of accolades, but maybe defines a low point in the context of artistic adventurousness. Filmed after her early David Lynch collaborations Blue Velvet & Wild at Heart, but years before her peak moment of popularity in Jurassic Park, Rambling Rose finds Dern starring top bill in some blatant, uninspired Oscar bait. She almost landed that Oscar, too. The film marks the first time a mother & daughter were nominated for a single work (her mother Diane Ladd stars opposite of her as the film’s matriarch) and at just the age of 24 Dern was one of the youngest actors ever nominated for the Best Leading Actress Academy Award. In the film she plays even younger, depicting a teenage girl in the Depression-era South who’s taken in by a charitable family attempting to save her from forced prostitution. In essence, Rambling Rose is a watered-down version of the Brooke Shields shock drama Pretty Baby. However, by casting an adult Dern as its underage sex worker (who never actually does any sex work) and reducing her dangerously vulnerable place in the world to a source of melodrama & light humor, the film makes its teenage-prostitute-in-peril story all the stranger. Rambling Rose portrays a long gone South where kids innocently play Cowboys & Indians and “Girls don’t want sex; girls want love” in an overly saccharine way that leaves no doubt that the film believes its own bullshit, all while hilariously mistackling hefty topics like budding teenage sociopathy & forced hysterectomies as a “cure” for an “overactive” libido. It’s a singularly strange, uncomfortable work, one that’s more than a little amusing in its ineptitude.

The strange thing here is how little Dern is given to do. Diane Ladd chews scenery as an anachronistically progressive matriarch that allows her to appear noble at every possible turn. Robert Duvall stars as the paterfamilias, known simply as “Daddy”(*shudder*), who is similarly, hilariously noble in his thwarting of the young, misguided Rose’s various sexual advances. I particularly enjoyed Duvall’s Southern drawl delivery of the line, “Put that damn tit back in your dress! Replace that tit.” A young Lukas Haas lights up the screen as a proto-Norman Bates preteen creep, one that convinces Rose to allow him to get her off with his little boy hand, a moment he emotionlessly accompanies with the line “Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating experience of my life.” Yuck. The boy hungers for Rose. Rose hungers for his father, a sexual desire that’s communicated largely through body language & intense eye-fucking (before she moves on to find beaus outside of Daddy’s home). She isn’t afforded much room to do anything else. Laura Dern is amusing & dorkily sexy in her titular role as Rose, but she isn’t given much to do outside indulging in some unsure, girlish lip-biting, delivering the film’s only on-screen orgasm, and proudly disrupting an entire town’s routine by parading in a flagrantly feminine strut while wearing a skin-tight flapper costume. Although Rose is much sweeter than the violently selfish Ruth, she’s got a similarly hedonistic view on life, a one-track mind that supplants Ruth’s quest for huffing spray paint with a quest for sex, something I have a hard time believing she doesn’t enjoy no matter how much moralizing the film does in lines like, “Sex ain’t nothing but a mosquito bite.” Rose is, of course, much sweeter than Ruth, but she’s just as humorously air-headed, as typified by her assertion, “I am only a human girl person!” Both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose use this (to put it generously) naiveté to their narrative advantage, constructing scenarios where Dern’s protagonists have little to no say over their own bodies & personal freedoms in a world full of men & political pundits looking to manipulate her to their own will. The difference is that Rambling Rose makes the mistake of telling its story through the men’s POV. Citizen Ruth actually centers its conflict on Ruth’s POV as she’s caught in the middle of others’ meddling, and it’s a much better film for that choice (among so many others).

The most recent entry in Dern’s top billing trilogy provided her a character much more active in her own destiny. The question of what that destiny is or what it means is largely up for interpretation, though, as David Lynch’s Inland Empire is an entirely incomprehensible work of deliberate art house obfuscation, a complex puzzle in which there is no possible answer to be found. To date, Inland Empire is Lynch’s latest & most incomprehensible work (a very crowded field on that latter point). It’s also the ugliest movie I’ve ever endured, a confusing experiment in standard definition photography that recalls the flip phone videos from last year’s documentary Amy, except stretched to feature length. In her third collaboration with the increasingly stylistically hostile director, Laura Dern plays a wealthy, confident actress that more closely resembles her personal life than her lead roles typically do. That’s about the only thing that resembles reality in this deliberate mess of Lynchian self-parody, a three hour (and some change) long masochistic trudge through Mathew Barney-esque art gallery nonsense. At times I enjoyed trying to wrap my head around its sprawling, yet insular narrative experimentation, but another part of me kept praying for David Yow’s shotgun-wielding psychopath from Southbound to crash the scene & yell “Quit being so fucking mysterious!” I like a little genre film formula mixed in with my art house abstraction & Inland Empire feels very little need to meet me halfway on that expectation of entertainment value.

I don’t mean to make the film sound like it’s entirely unhinged from any semblance of an A-B narrative. There is a central story at work here in which Dern’s successful actress protagonist is cast in a “remake” of a fictional film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, that was never completed because the original cast was murdered. At first this premise sounds like it’s setting up Lynch’s version of a Maps to the Stars style Hollywood satire, one riffing on a famed “cursed” script like Don Quixote or Confederacy of Dunces. The truth, of course, is much stranger than that as Dern’s troubled actress experiences a Persona-esque psychological break where she becomes unstuck in time & reality, alternating between her “real” life as a wealthy actress & the movie-within-the-movie role as an impoverished sex worker/adulteress in an art house narrative swirl that somehow lands between Slaughterhouse FiveThe Last Action Hero. Hardcore Lynch fans often list Inland Empire as one of the best films of the 2000s & Dern’s lead role as the artistic high point of her career. Although I find the film structurally fascinating, it’s hard for me to match the enthusiasm there. Between all of the film’s sex worker dance parties, pet monkeys, and humanoid rabbit sitcoms, I feel like Dern’s performance is mostly lost in the chaos & Lynch’s vision is similarly lost up its own ass. You could argue that Dern is afforded a wide range here, playing both a gussied up movie star & a violently discarded sex worker, but I think she knows a similar range in both Citizen Ruth & Rambling Rose and those films both have the added benefit of not looking like they were filmed on the unwashed backup cam of a used SUV.

There are a few narrative similarities you can draw across all three of Laura Dern’s top bill performances. For starters, all three works cast her protagonists as hopelessly stuck in a world dominated & controlled by men, whether it be the national politics of abortion rights, the Old South, or the Hollywood industry gossip machine. Oddly enough, all three roles also include an uncompleted pregnancy in their narratives, a coincidental, but telling detail that reveals a lot about the vulnerable kinds of lead roles Dern typically lands. Much like a lot of details in Lynch’s Inland Empire, Dern’s portrayal of a top-of-the-world actor is unfortunately detached from reality. Dern has had much more success headlining projects on television (an environment that’s a lot less hostile to women in general), including several made-for-TV movies and the well-regarded HBO series Enlightened. In cinema, it seems the industry is less sure what to do with her. By no stretch is her career at all flailing. In fact, she’s slated to appear in Episode VIII of Star Wars next year and has been consistently working as a lead actor for decades. It’s just weird to me how few roles in that time span have been top-billed and how the three that have aren’t quite sure what to do with her Shelley Duvall style of offbeat, dorky femininity. If you need any proof that Laura Dern should be headlining more feature films, you needn’t look any further than her devastating & humorous turn in Citizen Ruth. The deeply flawed Rambling Rose & Inland Empire do little but support that idea by proving she can remain charming & competent in even the most confounding productions. As a trio, Dern’s top billed performances typify a career that Hollywood could be serving far better in the way in the way it utilizes her talents. Dern is too capable of a performer to be so often cast as a supporting player. I’d love to see more roles for her where her name is perched at the very top of the movie poster. She’s earned that slot many times over.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 3: Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Apocalypse Now (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Apocalypse Now is referenced on page 2. Roger mentions that when “The Ride of the Valkyres”plays during a helicopter attack in the film, he got a rare, tingling sensation of “reality realigning itself,” the same feeling he had when he proposed marriage to Chaz & the day his father announced he was dying of cancer. In the film version of Life Itself, Ebert is shown arguing the merits of Apocalypse Now to a nonplussed Gene Siskel on two separate occasions. He seemed especially aggravated that Siskel enjoyed Full Metal Jacket more than Apocalypse Now.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Years and years from now, when Coppola’s budget and his problems have long been forgotten, ‘Apocalypse’ will still stand, I think, as a grand and grave and insanely inspired gesture of filmmaking — of moments that are operatic in their style and scope, and of other moments so silent we can almost hear the director thinking to himself.” – From his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Other important films such as ‘Platoon,’ ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Casualties of War’ take their own approaches to Vietnam. Once at the Hawaii Film Festival I saw five North Vietnamese films about the war. (They never mentioned ‘America,’ only ‘the enemy,’ and one director told me, ‘It is all the same–we have been invaded by China, France, the U.S. . . .’) But ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” -From his 1999 review for his “Great Movies” series

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It’s near impossible to tell whether or not I’ve seen Apocalypse Now before. Surely, there are plenty of scenes in the film that are vivid to me out of context, but I might’ve picked those up incidentally by catching them on a Greatest Movies of All Time clip show or playing on television while channel surfing. The reason I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now in its entirety before is that I feel like I’d more clearly remember a viewing experience as weighty as the film’s 3+hour runtime. I hate to be the kind of cinematic philistine who knocks a slow-paced “classic” for testing my patience, but Apocalypse Now is too damn long. There is a wealth of individual scenes in the film that carry a forceful impact in isolation, but when they’re broken up by a slow trudge upriver & Batman-gritty narration about “the horror, the horror” of war, Apocalypse Now reveals itself to be a huge commitment of time & effort that might not deliver everything it promises. As a literary adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness I think the film is a fresh, interesting take that reveals new truths about its source material by shifting its setting & narrative detail, but the truth is I found Heart of Darkness to be just as much of a chore as consuming Apocalypse Now in one sitting. This is a great adaptation of a novel I don’t care for & a runtime that spiraled out of control even before its extended “Redux” treatment. There’s no denying that the film is packing several powerful punches, though, and it’s all too easy to see how someone could fall in love with the film as a massive whole.

A lot of Apocalypse Now‘s imagery & one-liners are perhaps a little too over-familiar after years of reverent repetition: the ceiling fan blades fading into helicopter sounds, Martin Sheen’s mud-painted face emerging form the bog, the utterance of “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, etc. However, it’s clear as day with two stretches of the film still play freshest in 2016. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the film’s war-is-Hell grittiness covered thoroughly in other works. the alcohol-fueled PTSD, overbearing narration, and off-hand soldier quips like, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain” all feel like old hat at this point, whether or not they were groundbreaking representation in 1979. What does feel important & unique still is the film’s approach to representing madness among soldiers. Robert Duvall’s colonel might be remembered most for what he likes to smell in the morning, but his emotionally detached obsession with surfing under fire is what stands out most in modern viewings. While dodging bombs & bullets from the Viet Cong, Duvall orders his terrified young men to surf the incoming tide as if they were kicking back beers on a California beach instead of fearing for their lives under fire in Vietnam. It’s a perfect representation of how the war left many men emotionally detached & downright deranged.

Of course, Duvall’s colonel is just a small taste of wartime madness before the main feast: Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. It takes a three hour effort for Martin Sheen’s broken shell of a captain to make it upriver to meet Kurtz & decide whether or not to complete his mission of assassinating the defected madman. A lot of anticipation is built by the time Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando share their infamous face to face in the film’s third act and it’s amazing just how much Brando delivers under that pressure. His intensely weird performance as Kurtz is a tangible, skin-crawling kind of madness that feels inseparable from Brando as an actor, especially in light of the recent documentary Listen to Me Marlon that hits a lot of the same deranged, hypnotic notes. A lot of audiences in 1979 believed that, like Kurtz, Brando “had gone totally insane & that [his] methods were unsound.” However, if his performance were indeed a work of madness, it’s undeniably of the mad genius variety.

As Ebert points out in this review, any movie is lucky to have one or two great scenes & Apocalypse Now has many. The film gets on a particular roll in its final sequence once Kurtz’s mania graces the screen and the imagery & music combine to create a sort of wartime tone poem that just screams “art house darling” in every frame. There was a lot made of the troubled, over-budget production that plagued Apocalypse Now at the time of its release & there was indeed enough snafus during filming to support a feature length documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The prevailing wisdom of the time is that director Francis Ford Coppola, was in the middle of a winning streak that included titles like The Godfather & The Outsiders might’ve bitten off more than he could chew with Apocalypse Now & the resulting film was somewhat of an untethered mess that couldn’t quite match its ambition with a unifying sense of discipline. Discerning critics like Ebert, who heralded the film like a masterpiece, had a completely different take, lauding the film as an impeccably visualized descent into madness, an entirely new & powerful way of representing war’s savage effect on the fragile human mind.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere between these two takes. The third, Kurtz-focused hour of the film really does feel like it taps into a troubled soldier’s plight in a way that few film scan claim to do, with much of the credit for that accomplishment resting firmly on Marlon Brando’s beyond mad shoulders & Coppola’s eye for haunting visuals. However, the film’s sprawling runtime & three separate versions (including the “Redux” & an infamous bootleg of a workprint) point to a director who may have flew a little too close to the sun to fully realize his vision. I respect Apocalypse Now‘s ambition & find its messy approach to Vietnam War cinema to be a lot more satisfying than more cookie-cutter examples of the genre, but I also find the idea of the film being a masterpiece to be a somewhat flimsy argument. It really does have more truly great scenes than most movies could dream to bring to the screen, but the film itself never feels like more than the sum of its parts. Much like Sheen’s protagonist, Apocalypse Now goes on a dangerous, mind-threatening journey upriver to seek great existential truths, only to discover it’s not sure what to do once it reaches its destination.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

-Brandon Ledet