In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.

If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.

Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.

I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast: Olivia (1951) & Lesbian Boarding School Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon discuss three classic lesbian melodramas set at boarding schools: Olivia (1951), Mädchen in Uniform (1931), and The Children’s Hour (1961).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (2020)

The recent Finnish drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants shamefully stumbles into some major Kink Movie clichés that I would love to see abolished entirely. This is a movie about an icy dominatrix who—surprise—allows her heart to melt for the first client who shows her romantic tenderness. That client is a father who—shocker—cannot fulfill his familial responsibilities because of his all-encompassing obsession with kinky sex. Other well-worn clichés about pre-scene negotiation and non-simulated violence also apply. And yet, I still very much adore this film, if not only because it follows what might be my all-time favorite plot template: Our protagonist is obsessed with something they know is going to eventually kill them but they keep returning to it anyway because it makes them super horny.

A widower processes the grief of not being able to save his wife from drowning by hiring a dominatrix to help him explore an emerging kink for breath play. As a respected brain surgeon, he logically knows just how dangerously irresponsible it is to have your air supply cut off by choking, even if through consenting to erotic asphyxiation. However, once he accidentally stumbles into a dominatrix’s play dungeon and experiences his first euphoric blackout by choking on her whip, he can’t help himself. The man spirals out from low-key depressed widower to depraved stalker who won’t let women be until they literally choke the life out of him so he can re-experience his near-death euphoria. The problem is that the dominatrix (besides not wanting to participate in his death wish) grows an unexpected soft spot for the doomed soul and can’t safely give him what he wants in a controlled environment. Breath play is already a dangerous enough risk under the best circumstances; his obsession with the most extreme end of that risk is absolutely terrifying to anyone unfortunate enough to be pulled into his self-destructive orbit.

As kink-misinformed as Dogs Don’t Wear Pants can be in terms of its fictional clichés, it at least takes genuine erotic delight in its femdom dungeon sessions. Giallo-esque red gel lights reflect off the dominatrix’s patent leather catsuits with an eye-searing intensity as she issues commands to her latest, most troubled client as if he were a lowly dog (thus the title). The actual kink sessions are long, lingering, and genuinely erotic. While the breath play itself is essentially assisted suicide, the way the widower masturbates to his wife’s left-behind perfume & wardrobe within and outside the sessions registers as genuine fetishism. The movie even has a positive outlook on kink as a therapeutic tool once he experiences a personal breakthrough that shakes him out of his rut (even if he takes a long, dark road to get there). Personally, I would have loved to see that breakthrough occur in the second or third act so we could experience the peculiar romance that develops once the film pushes past its genre’s most often repeated clichés. But, hey, maybe I’ll get my wish and this indie Euro fetish drama will somehow land a sequel. It ends at its most interesting point, and I would love to see that trajectory pushed even further.

I assume that if you leave a movie wanting more, it must qualify as some sort of a success. I may be frustrated by the way Dogs Don’t Wear Pants repeats the worst sins of the kinky erotic thriller genre, but it’s more than peculiar & stylish enough to be forgiven for the transgression. Or maybe I’m just too much of a sucker for neon lights & form-fitting leather to get hung up on its faults.

-Brandon Ledet

Weathering With You (2020)

Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai earned so much international success with his supernatural teen romance Your Name. that he unintentionally sparked an entire subgenre of imitators. Watching blatant Your Name. knockoffs like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas in the few years since Shinkai’s breakout hit has been amusing, but also a threat to dilute & over-familiarize the director’s schtick before he could deliver a proper follow-up himself. The first hour or so of Shinkai’s Weathering With You seemed to confirm that fear – essentially landing like an amusing-but-weak echo of what Your Name. had already accomplished. However, with time it eventually gets somewhere truly incredible that Shinkai’s imitators have failed to replicate, pushing its plot further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at a stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. It by no means bests Shinkai’s previous highs, but it does break far enough away from that precedent to justify its own existence as a bizarro YA romance tale.

In terms of plot & aesthetic, Weathering With You shares a lot of DNA with Your Name. Its tale of two star-crossed teens who yearn for each other so earnestly that their bond defies the limits of real-world physics is as shamelessly derivative of that predecessor as Fireworks or Pancreas. Shinkai seems to have a genuine weakness for that realm of teenage yearning as a storyteller, however, given how his debut feature 5 Centimeters per Second was already hinged on teenage runaways throwing caution to the wind for love. In this update, a small-town boy runs away to the big city with no money to his name and a vaguely abusive past homelife behind him. While working odd jobs as a “journalist” for a paranormal investigation rag (think Weekly World News), he falls in love with a similarly emancipated teen who happens to be a “Sunshine Girl.” Amidst record-setting, unrelenting rainfall that keeps Tokyo under a constant downpour, this “Sunshine Girl” has the ability to produce small patches of sunlight as a temporary, hyper-local relief. The pair form a small sunshine-for-hire business around this phenomenal ability, developing feelings for each other along the way, but alas her gift is gradually revealed to come with a price that could ruin their life together before it has a chance to blossom.

As fun as the heart-on-sleeve teenage romance & small-town angst can be in these supernatural heart-tuggers, that’s not really what stood out to me in Shinkai’s previous work. What I’ve been especially enamored with in his modernized anime aesthetic is the way he applies a Miyazaki-style reverence for Nature to Big City urban environments. With Your Name., I was struck by how Tokyo skyscrapers were flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same sense of majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for an undisturbed forest or the miracle of flight. Weathering With You pushes that Natural wonder for Modernity even further in its third act as its rainstorms continue to flood the streets of Tokyo. This is a film where Nature reclaims the Big City as part of itself, a big-picture phenomenon that sneaks up on you as you get lost in the intimate, insular teen drama in the foreground. I don’t believe the soaring romance or the small-town angst gave me anything I didn’t already absorb from pop punk anthems in my own youth (dutifully replicated here by returning Shinkai collaborators Radwimps), but the way the film captures the Natural beauty of the Big City in traditional animation flourishes will likely stick with me for a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a downtown rainstorm the same again.

If you’re looking to shoot Shinkai down for the sin of repeating himself, he’s willing to supply more than enough ammo. Weathering With You even features the definitive calling card for the Your Name. knockoff: a CG fireworks display. It also indulges in shameless product placement (most egregiously in a scene where the main character declares that a Big Mac was “the best meal of his life”) & gun violence sensationalism that drags its teen drama down into a much trashier stratosphere than its predecessor occupied. Still, the intrinsic pleasures of the supernatural YA romance & Shinkai’s visual majesty remain intact enough here that repeating the exercise is a pure joy, despite your better judgement. Most importantly, the way Shinkai pushes his interest in the border between Nature & Cityscapes into new, grandly bizarre directions in the film’s third act feels like an entirely new growth sprouting from the foundation of his previous work. Thanks to its full-hearted commitment to its own outlandish premise, all that overlap feels less like a redundancy and more like an expression of auteurist preoccupation. I would pay to watch Shinkai warp the basic outline of Your Name. into new, weird shapes forever, whether or not I’ve already gotten a little exhausted with his paint-by-numbers imitators.

– Brandon Ledet

I Lost My Body (2019)

The 2D-animiated French oddity I Lost My Body is an economic bargain, especially if you consider an audience’s time & attention to be the true currency of cinema. This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.

One movie is a thrilling action adventure starring a sentient severed hand (think Thing from The Addams Family) who bravely travels across the city to find its former home — a still intact, living human body. The other is a wistful twee romance starring the awkward man who used to be attached to that hand. That melancholy romance angle is obviously the more familiar narrative track — especially considering the twee pedigree of the film’s co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, who also penned Amélie. An excruciatingly shy pizza delivery guy falls in love with a customer who is seemingly unaware that he even exists. Instead of simply introducing himself, he devises an elaborate scheme to insert himself into the woman’s life that he believes makes himself out to be a hearthrob romantic, but instead makes him out to be a total creep. As cosmic penance he loses his hand. Thankfully, that means we gain better cinema.

While our lovesick anti-hero is an overthinking, neurotic mess, his severed hand is a creature of pure action. From the moment it flops onto the hospital floor to teach itself to walk until when it attempts action hero stunts ziplining between buildings to reach its far-off destination, the hand is in constant motion. High-risk train rides, adopting a soup can as hermit crab armor, brawls with rats & pigeons: there’s no denying the hand’s adventures across the city are more exciting to watch (if not only for their novelty) than the frustrating, self-sabotaging inaction of its former human partner. Despite that glaring contrast, however, it gradually becomes clear that both of these protagonists are suffering from the same emotional ills: grief & purposelessness. As they both yearn for intimacy & a sense of purpose that’s been violently removed from their lives, the man and his hand become clearly linked thematically (as well as anatomically).

A bolder, more idiosyncratic film might have fully committed to the severed hand as the sole POV protagonist. In its most transcendent moments, I Lost My Body ponders what a hand’s fantasies & memories might look like. Through the hand’s “eyes,” we’re invited to ponder all the various tasks the tools at the ends of our arms are useful for: violence, art, tenderness, sex, labor, play, etc. It also never stops being wonderfully bizarre to see a world of infinite dangers animated from the hand’s low-to-the-ground POV. A melancholy twee romance & tale of ennui cannot compete with that kind of novelty. Still, the two contrast-and-compare narratives make for a delightfully strange combination, and their pairing makes for a remarkably efficient 80min stretch of traditional animation entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Daddy Issues (2019)

How far can costuming & production design alone carry a movie for you? I don’t know that I’ve ever had those two metrics tested to a further extreme for me personally than they were in the recent low-budget indie drama Daddy Issues, which is majorly flawed as a complete picture, but continually fascinating to look at. This is a kind of pastels-tinted Instagram Era erotic thriller for the Gen-Z set. It hits my exact sweet spot in its melted ice-cream makeup & costume design and in its horned-up fixation on Social Media, but its subprofessional dialogue & performances are cringey enough that I can’t readily recommend it to anyone else. At least, I can’t without knowing how much of a well-applied pink pastel eye shadow or an infantilized baby-blue sex dungeon means to you – since the film doesn’t offer much else to chew on.

This is a delayed coming-of-age melodrama for a young 20-something who still lives with her parents in her pastels & glitter-coated childhood bedroom in Los Angeles, unable to move on with her life because she cannot afford her dream art college program in Italy. She’s somewhat broken out of this rut in a Gen-Z wish-fulfillment fantasy sequence where her #1 Instagram crush takes her under their wing as a lover & an artistic collaborator. The two women—Insta-famous fashion designer & Deviant Art-level webcomic cartoonist—settle into a fairy tale routine of wholesome queer bliss as young artists in love, but the fantasy is short-lived. It turns out the Insta crush our cartoonishly naïve protagonist is “cybersessed” with has an undisclosed side hustle as a sex worker for an older man with an age-regression Sugar Baby kink. The twisty details of this revelation blow up their romantic tryst in a spectacular meltdown of hurt feelings & psychosexual discomforts, almost all revolving around their titular daddy issues as young women with far-less-than-perfect familial backgrounds.

The main hurdle in appreciating Daddy Issues on its own terms is that it’s much more in tune with the mildly eroticized melodrama of a Lifetime Original Movie than it is with the tense atmospheric horniness of a proper erotic thriller. This same combination of high-femme art design and dangerously horned-up cyber-romances has been achieved much more convincingly in recent titles like Cam, Nerve, and Braid. Here, the shocking love-triangle revelations and awkward vocalizations of Very Online queer-theory speak feels like an alternate dimension (or perhaps a glimpse of the future) where Lifetime Movies are designed for young people who’re always staring at their phones, as opposed to the Boomers & Gen-X’rs who love to complain about how young people are always staring at their phones. It’s over-lit & devoid of any atmospheric tension, like a Disney Channel: After Dark feature that was allowed to include strap-on sex & mid-coitus choking in its thin, immature melodrama. And yet, I was personally compelled throughout on the strengths of its costuming & set design alone, despite obviously being way too old for this shit.

Daddy Issues is a debut feature for director Amara Cash, who clearly as an eye for visual aesthetics even if she’s a little shaky on tone & dramatic tension. Maybe a heftier work with more to chew on in its premise & messaging than this outrageous Dear Abby letter plot might lead her to make better work in the future. Then again, maybe, from a Gen-Z sensibility standpoint, she’s already doing perfectly fine as is. Our own Millennial-flavored version of this erotic melodrama schlock fueled hundreds of episodes of MTV’s Undressed in the early 00s, after all, and I watched every single one I could sneak past my parents on late-night cable. Why shouldn’t the next set of horned-up indoor kids get their own generational update to The Red Shoe Diaries to keep that time-honored tradition alive? If nothing else, their superior D.I.Y. fashion sense has earned them the indulgence.

-Brandon Ledet

P.S. I Love You (2007)

If you read a plot synopsis for the 2007 chick-flick oddity P.S. I Love You without any other context, you’d likely mistake the film for a heart-wrenching melodrama, a romantic weepie. This a movie in which a careerless New Yorker (Hillary Swank) loses her young, brash husband (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor before the opening credits. As a final grand romantic gesture, the husband had arranged for a series of posthumous letters to be delivered to his wife from beyond the grave, each prompting her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the past. The obvious, default tone for this narrative would be Sirkian sentimentality & heightened emotional catharsis. What makes the movie fascinatingly perverse is that it isn’t a drama at all, but rather an impossibly dark, morbid comedy that plays its tragic premise for yucks instead of tears. All its surface details convey a commercial, conventional “woman’s picture” about a young widow mending her broken heart. In practice, though, it’s a pitch-black comedy that plays the trauma of losing a romantic partner to brain cancer as an opportunity for some jovial gallows humor.

Not only does P.S. I Love You play like a subversive black comedy despite its conventional surface, it specifically plays like a morbid subversion of the romcom format. The only difference is that in this scenario The Wrong Guy that the lovelorn protagonist must get over so she can better herself happens to be her husband’s ghost. His letters from the afterlife prompt her to revisit memories & locations from their shared past as a proper last goodbye, but they also allow his sprit to re-enter the picture and comfort her as she feels his presence in these old haunts. His letters even push her to find new potential beaus (or at least one-night boytoys) in bit-role hunks Harry Connick Jr. & Jeffrey Dean Morgan (whose naked butt is ogled at length for straight-lady titillation). Like in all romcoms, the best characters are the ones with no stakes who’re only there to lighten the mood, with no real plot-related obligations; in this case it’s Gina Gershon, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Bates as Swank’s family & gal-pals, a stellar lineup by any standard. Unlike in most romcoms, though, her personal success in the film is not defined by finding a replacement husband, but rather finding the fine art of Shoes. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s unusual for a joke-heavy romcom to open with the protagonist’s husband dying of a brain tumor.

Besides being shockingly morbid for a romcom (and borderline supernatural), P.S. I Love You is also certifiably drunk. That choice is questionable, given the harmful cliché it propagates about its characters’ Irish & Irish-American communities, but the sea-legs alcoholism of the film does afford it a distinctly human, relatable tone that’s often missing from these mainstream romcoms. Characters drink past blackout, raising their glasses to the dead while slurring along with the most vulgar Pogues songs on the jukebox. When the widow imagines in a flashback that her husband is “the only person in the room,” the number of beer bottles & plastic cups strewn about the empty bar they’re in is astronomical. The film even opens with a drunken late-night fight a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Returning home from a party, Butler & Swank argue vehemently about children, money, careers, romance, and sex in an off-puttingly drunk communication meltdown, then immediately kiss & makeup. That’s our only taste of the husband before his untimely death. It’s like the movie itself is drunk along with its characters, which is why it’s so carefree about making light of brain cancer & young widowhood. It’s a little jarring tonally, but certainly a lot more fun than a straight-faced, sober drama with this same tragic story would be.

I don’t want to oversell P.S. I Love You as a dark subversion of commercial filmmaking. If anything, the perverse pleasures the film has to offer are in how cookie-cutter & familiar its surface details are despite the tragic humor & borderline magical realism of its premise. That means that a lot of the usual romcom shortcomings apply here: characters complaining about having no money despite living in multi-million-dollar Manhattan lofts; shockingly regressive treatment of anyone who’s not straight or white; reinforcement of Patriarchal standards of femme beauty & health, etc. Worse yet, because the film at least somewhat pretends to be a romantic drama it has the gall to stretch on for a full two hours, which is at least 20min longer than any romcom should ever dare. That’s likely because it drunkenly stumbled into functioning as a romcom by mistake. It over-corrected in lightening its pitch-black tone with proper Jokes and subsequently transformed into a bizarrely fascinating object as a result. P.S. I Love You is too long, politically muddled, and hopelessly confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. Still, it’s well worth putting up with those shortcomings just to witness the novelty of a romcom about a woman who must break up with her drunk husband’s ghost so she can find her true love in Shoes.

It’s also worth it for Lisa Kudrow. She’s very funny, no matter how morbid the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Ginger & Cinnamon (2003)

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 CC made Britnee & Brandon watch Ginger and Cinnamon (2003).

CC: Ginger and Cinnamon is an early-aughts Italian romcom that centers on a thirty-year-old woman, who is reeling from a recent break-up with her long-term boyfriend, and her fourteen-year-old niece, who is unabashedly horny and determined to lose her virginity ASAP. The film combines traditional elements of a romcom and an odd-couple comedy. The aunt, Stefy, is neurotic and repressed. She constantly struggles with the extremely unhealthy body issues our toxic culture promotes to women her age; this mostly manifests in an obsession with losing weight and a delusional belief that eating chocolate will help her achieve that goal. Her niece, Megghy, is her exact opposite. She is entirely confident in her own skin, unconcerned with her own baby fat and convinced that she is an irresistible sex goddess that every man desires. When the two polar-opposite women escape their messy lives in Italy to vacation on a Grecian island, the niece unknowingly attempts to seduce the aunt’s adult, uninterested ex, Andrea. Meanwhile, the aunt is also pursued by a virginal boy half her age who is just as hormonally charged as her niece. A farcical comedy of errors ensues, complete with mistaken identities and near-connections, until all appropriate couples are re-scrambled correctly in a classic manner.

When I first saw this film in the early 2000s, I was the same age as the niece. While I didn’t fully identify with her maniacal level of horniness, I do remember being impressed by her pragmatic ideas about sex. While her delusion that she was going to orgasm three times during her very first sexual encounter was impractical (and points to toxic societal ideas about sexual performance in its own way), I did like the way she reasoned that she shouldn’t lose her virginity to someone she loved because she was likely not going to be very good at it and needed to practice while the stakes were lower. Returning to the film now, I’m much closer to the aunt’s age. Again, I don’t identify with the aunt’s particular hang-ups, but I do feel for her in how she’s so damaged by toxic societal ideals, especially in her neurotic fears of gaining weight. Both then and now, I appreciate the two women’s dynamic. The aunt never passes her own harmful ideas about bodies or sex down to her niece. She keeps an eye on her niece’s disastrous attempts to have sex, but she mostly thinks it’s a bad idea on a practical level, not a moral one. Usually in a romcom where one character is too horny and the other is too frigid, the pair must learn a lesson and meet in the middle, but there’s no real moralizing about sexuality in that way here. Instead, the film mostly plays as dumb, fun summer fluff – as long as you can get past the self-inflicted fat-shaming.

Between its fantastical musical interludes and its island full of maniacally horny young adults, this almost has the same bizarre energy as the first Mamma Mia! film, released just a few years later. At the same time, it often interrupts its Grecian romcom fantasy with realistic documentary touches, like ethnographic interviews with real life people on vacation on the island where it was filmed. Brandon, do you think these cinema verité breaks from the fantasy served any thematic purpose? How did it feel to have the romantic fantasy elements of the film interrupted with reminders that its island setting is a real place that real people visit? By contrast, you never get that with Mamma Mia!, which does not feel like it’s set in a real-world place you can actually visit.

Brandon: The island of Ios, where Ginger and Cinnamon is set, self-brands as “the Island of Love,” so even in real life its reputation as a tourist attraction is built on romantic fantasy escapism. This film’s earliest scenes establish a classic romcom dynamic where the audience is primed to expect that fantasy to be fully indulged, Mamma Mia! style. Our adult protagonist’s profession as a bookstore owner is one of the romcommiest jobs imaginable; her differences with her ex are traditionally gendered to an absurd degree (when they go to the video store to pick out date night rentals, she likes romcoms but he likes gialli); the ex is a bit of a callous brute, but he makes absolutely divine chocolate cakes that melt her heart. We’d fully expect a film with that first-act foundation to dive into the deep end of wish-fulfillment romcom fantasy once it reaches Ios, but Ginger and Cinnamon is stubborn in its decision to show the island as it truly is. Instead of “The Island of Love,” Ios is portrayed here as “Crazy Teenager Island,” a hedonistic hell-pit swarmed by horned-up youths from around the globe. All the background extras look like they’re tertiary members of dirtbag 90s bands like Sublime & Sugar Ray; they’re all delirious from day-drinking in a punishing overdose of sunshine then partying late into the night, fueled only by a dangerous cocktail of hormones & sugary liquor. Even the long-distance ferry ride to the island is about as unromantic as it gets, with dumbass kids sporting hideous aughts fashions hooking up in an endless sea of sleeping bags – like a hostel on the water. As jarring & obtrusive as the interviews with real-life vacationers in Ios sometimes felt, they helped reinforce a greater contrast between romantic expectation vs grotesque reality that runs throughout the rest of the film. Our two lovelorn (and/or sex-starved) leads struggle to reconcile the fantasy of what’s in their heads with the disappointing reality of the men they have to work with, and the romantic fantasy of the island clashes with its slimy reality in a similar way.

That’s not to say that Ginger and Cinnamon doesn’t find traditional romcom escapism elsewhere. If nothing else, the movie concludes on two different romantic fantasy topes: the last-minute sprint to the airport (or, in this case, the ferry dock) to stop the love of your life from leaving without hearing your true feelings and the break-with-reality Bollywood dance number. While I did eventually come to understand how that romcom conclusion fit in with the film’s general contrasting of expectation vs. reality, the Bollywood fantasy that followed was much more of a surprise. That might just be because the music choices throughout the film were so scatterbrained & erratic that I had no idea what to expect from minute to minute, much less where it would conclude. Whereas Mamma Mia!’s own romantic escape to Horny Teenager Island is tonally anchored to its function as an ABBA jukebox musical, the needle drops in Ginger and Cinnamon are all over the place. Italian opera, romantic sitars, Boy George, The Village People, Wire, and theme songs to Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s all clash in a spectacular tonal gumbo that’s just as jarring as the film’s mix of fantasy & reality. Concluding on a Bollywood-style dance number set to an Italian pop song about smoking cigarettes displays just about as much tonal consistency as it would to conclude with black metal, polka, or Miami bass; it’s all chaos anyway, so practically anything could fit. Britnee, were you more delighted or distracted by Ginger and Cinnamon’s erratic soundtrack choices? Did any one musical moment stand out to you as a particular favorite?

Britnee: The soundtrack for Ginger and Cinnamon was like setting your music library on shuffle, which is how I already listen to music for the most part anyway. I’m typically never in the mood to listen to the same genre of music for longer than an hour or so, and shuffling songs keeps the music fresh and exciting. In Ginger and Cinnamon, the mystery of what song could be lingering around the corner and whether or not it would include a dance and lip sync performance was very enjoyable. Although the songs didn’t have much in common as a collection, they were all very fitting for each individual scene. For instance, the Ios bar crowd drunkenly singing along to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in the wee hours of the morning was so spot-on with reality. As for my favorite musical moment, the kooky “Ta Ra Ta Ta” musical number at the end of the film between Stefy and Andrea was my absolute favorite. It was so much fun in that Mamma Mia! sort of way (it seems like we are all on the same page with the Mama Mia! similarities). Their performance had me bopping my head and smiling to a song that I never heard before and couldn’t understand whatsoever. I’ve actually been listening to “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by Italian pop singer Mina Mazzini on repeat every day since, and I’ve fallen in love with Mina’s music and scandalous presence in the Italian pop music scene in the 1960s. Ginger and Cinnamon is the gift that keeps on giving.

I really enjoyed the fabulously random music’s contrast to the tranquil Grecian background. At first, I was a little confused as to where Stefy and Megghy were vacationing. I assumed that because this was an Italian film that the two were heading to the Amalfi Coast or some other Italian beach destination. I was surprised to find out that they were going to the Greek island of Ios, which is quite a ways away from Italy. No wonder that ferry ride looked so miserable! I know that Mamma Mia! has been brought up a few times in our conversation, but it’s so bizarre how the two films share so many similarities – mainly horniness and musical numbers on a Greek island. CC, is there just something about the white sands and white buildings of Greece that serves as a great blank canvas for quirky romcoms? Would you have felt differently about Ginger and Cinnamon if the setting were different?

CC: I think the only absolutes required for this setting was that it was a beach and that it was far enough away from Italy that they couldn’t just go home when they stopped enjoying themselves. I think any “Horny Teen Island” would have done. I’m not familiar with European beach-party culture, but surely Ios isn’t the only beach where people sunbathe all day & club all night. (Isn’t Ibiza a thing?)

Nevertheless, we’ve now got at least two quirky romcoms set on Greek islands, Ginger and Cinnamon & Mamma Mia!, so what about that setting is a siren song for the genre? Perhaps it’s a little bit of snobbishness from Mainland Europe? A major aspect of the plot in both romcoms involves our protagonists traveling to a remote locale where communication with the “real world” is limited and life is lived at a slower pace. And, as Greece didn’t really have a strong economy even before the recession, perhaps the stereotype of being backwater had some truth to it? I couldn’t see any romcom, unless it was about the 1%, being set on the French Rivera; romcoms usually feel the need to appear at least semi-attainable as wish-fulfillment. The affordability and the supposed Old World authenticity of the locale make it a perfect place for a dream vacation where European women can imagine themselves being swept up in a grand, passionate romance, so of course it’s enticing to set romcoms there.

Brandon, we’ve talked a lot about the music and the ambiance of the movie so far, but we haven’t really gotten into the interpersonal drama. There are two types of relationships depicted in Ginger and Cinnamon: the romantic bonds between men & women and a familial bond between aunt & niece. Did you find either category more satisfying or compelling than the other?

Brandon: I found them almost equally compelling, but in entirely different ways. The romantic tension of Ginger and Cinnamon is compelling the way that a horrific car accident can be, as we cringe through the colossal mistake of a teenage girl believing her only path to happiness would be to seduce an adult man. To make matters worse, we know something she doesn’t: the specific man she’s after is the same scoundrel who broke her aunt’s heart, the same one who she’s been hearing complaints about the entire vacation. That’s what makes the near-connections of the two ex-lovers almost running into each other in Ios such an effective throwback to the type of Old Hollywood farces that were usually set in fancy hotels. We know that as soon as everyone realizes that the aunt & niece are pining for the same man there’s going to be an awful mess of hurt feelings & mangled relationships to clean up, but the film obviously prolongs that release of tension for as long as it can.

In the meantime, while we’re holding back the urge to scream, the familial dynamic between aunt & niece is much more compelling & satisfying in an emotional sense. As toxic as the aunt can be when tearing herself down with body shaming & sexual repression, she doesn’t weaponize that cruelty towards the teen in her care at all. If anything, the horned-up niece is allowed almost too much bodily confidence & sexual freedom in a potentially dangerous environment where they can get her in trouble. At least, that’s what the aunt allows her niece to believe as she keeps a close, protective eye on her. The men that could potentially stand between them are useful for generating comedic & dramatic tension, but the curious relationship between repressed aunt & carefree niece (and how they gradually become more like each other in positive ways) is the true heart of the film.

For all of this film’s wild sexual energy and over-the-top farcical mishaps, a lot of what stands out to me are its small grace moments of pure, wholesome sweetness. Besides the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” & “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” dance numbers previously mentioned, I also thought it was sweet when the aunt buys a slice of chocolate cake (made with ginger & cinnamon, of course) that was, unbeknownst to her, made by her ex. She enjoys the familiar taste of the recipe, but remarks that her ex made it better. Since we know that he made the exact same cake she’s eating in both instances, using the exact same recipe, she’s effectively just saying that food tasted better when he was around to enjoy it with her. I found that disarmingly sweet, especially considering how callous & raunchy the film can be elsewhere. Britnee, were there any other moments of Ginger and Cinnamon you could single out as being especially sweet or endearing, despite the film’s hedonistic surroundings?

Britnee: I found just about all of the heart-to-heart talks between aunt and niece to be especially sweet. The one that stuck out the most in my mind was when Stefy and Megghy were lying in the bed with their legs resting up on the wall, talking about all the issues weighing on their hearts. It’s the sort of thing that young girls do at a sleepover when talking about their school crushes. In that moment, there was no age difference between the two. They were just two girls sharing their thoughts with each other, and it was incredibly heartwarming.

I also found the moments when Megghy was desperately trying to get Andrea’s attention surprisingly charming. The obnoxious teenage qualities of Megghy reminded me so much of myself when I was her age, and I cringe to even think about it. Andrea’s reaction to her chatter is something I found to be both funny and sweet. He knows that she has a crush on him, but he doesn’t make her feel stupid or embarrassed. He responds to her without feeding into her advances, which I was so thankful for. I really didn’t want this movie to be about a 14 year old girl having a summer fling with a grown-ass man.

Lagniappe

CC: So many embarrassing final thoughts! Okay, so my chocolate cake recipe—for years—was the hot-water Hershey’s cocoa powder recipe with added powdered cinnamon & ginger (and I never let on that I got the idea from a romcom). And my other confession (oh god, why am I admitting this on the internet?) is that in high school I would walk up and down the halls singing “Ta Ra Ta Ta” even though I do not have any vocal talent. At all. I should apologize to those who had to endure me in that period of my life, but I don’t want to remind them.

Britnee: I always thought that the terrible Smash Mouth look that so many teenage guys sported in the early 2000s was strictly something that existed in the USA. According to crowd on Ios (aka Horny Teen Island), it was a tragedy that spread across the globe. I am forever thankful that it’s over.

Brandon: My favorite throwaway detail of the film is that even the pet animals of Ios are overcome with maniacal horniness. In a café scene, the film foregrounds a hamster cage where two animatronic puppet hamsters continually hump throughout the aunt & niece’s conversation, as if we could pay attention to anything anyone’s saying while the little rodents are going at it right in front of us. It’s such a delightfully bizarre detail for the film to distract itself with, especially once you pause to consider how much effort must’ve gone into creating those literal fuck-puppets.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)
September: Britnee presents Blood & Donuts (1995)
October: Boomer presents Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

-The Swampflix Crew

Long Shot (2019)

In a lot of ways, the Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron two-hander Long Shot is a traditional, by the books romcom. Two socially mismatched idealists spark an unlikely romance after a chance meeting in the first act, then gradually learn to be more like each other through the ups & downs of their early months together (most romcoms bail before the real work of building a relationship starts, once that early emotional rush cools down). It’s arguable that Seth Rogen’s overgrown stoner-bro humor is a little out of place in that context, but the Apatow style of modern comedies where he cut his teeth were basically just romcoms with some lagniappe improv takes, so even that influence isn’t much of a subversion. If you find it comforting to watch two characters fall in love over a series of quippy one-liners and farcical misunderstandings, Long Shot is more than willing to deliver the formulaic romcom goods, building an amiable romance between two adorable leads with oddly believable chemistry. What’s really interesting about the film is how it manages to pull that off while discussing something most formulaic romcoms actively avoid: politics.

Charlize Theron plays a US Secretary of State who’s poised to make her first presidential bid in an upcoming election. Against the guidance of her campaign advisors, she hires Seth Rogen as her speech writer for the early stages of the campaign trail – both because she respects his leftist idealism and because she thinks he’s cute. In apolitical romcom tradition, the unlikely couple inspire each other to edge closer towards the political center from their extremist starting points. Theron relearns to stick to her guns ideologically without giving up too much in political compromise, while Rogen learns that compromise & reaching across the aisle are sometimes necessary to accomplish larger goals. It’s a relatively safe, careful approach to modern politics – an arena defined by increasingly violent extremes. As such, the movie leaves little room to make clearly stated, concrete political points without risking the fun-for-everyone charm of romcoms. Its only clear political stances are detectable in Theron’s campaign platform that centers The Environment, and in the way working in the news media spotlight is unfairly difficult for her as a woman. As far as modern political topics go, gendered scrutiny & saving the trees are about as safe as the movie could have played it, and you can feel it struggling with how political is too political for a romcom when addressing nearly every other topic.

One major way Long Shot avoids alienating half of its audience with its political stances is avoiding declaring which political parties it’s actually talking about from scene to scene. Theron’s environmentalist crusade and the feminist lens through which she views media coverage of her public persona both suggest that she’s a registered Democrat, but the movie is careful to never make that association explicit. Her role as Secretary of State is in service of a bumbling president (Bob Odenkirk) who is even more amorphous in his declared politics. Neither Democrat nor Republican (at least not explicitly) Odenkirk is a cipher for more universally acceptable jokes about how all politicians are more obsessed with celebrity than policy and how they’re all corrupt goons in lobbyists’ pockets. The only time I can recall the words “Democrat” or “Republican” being verbally acknowledged in the film is when Rogen is mocked for being horrified by the revelation that his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a member of the GOP, when he supposedly should be willing to find common political ground with his best bud. That’s a tough pill to swallow in a time when Republicans are actively trying to outlaw abortion access and in a time when, as acknowledged in the film’s opening gag, many “Conservatives” are literal Nazis hiding in plain sight. Still, it’s the only position the film can really take without risking its traditional romcom cred.

For a more daring example of how the romcom template can productively clash with modern politics, the Jenny Slate vehicle Obvious Child is commendable in the way it plays with the genre’s tropes while also frankly discussing Pro-Choice stances on reproductive rights. The closest Long Shot gets to saying something specific & potentially alienating about modern politics is in its parodies of Fox News media coverage (complete with Andy Serkis posing as a hideous prosthetics-monster version of Rupert Murdoch), which is a joke that writes itself. The difference there is that Obvious Child is a subversion of the romcom template, one that nudges the genre closer to an indie drama sensibility. By contrast, Long Shot is more of an earnest participation in the genuine thing. It is, for better or for worse, a formulaic romcom – with all the charming interpersonal relationships & tiptoeing political rhetoric that genre implies. I can say for sure that the romantic chemistry between Theron & Rogen works completely. The gamble of bringing modern politics into an inherently apolitical genre template is a little less decidedly successful, but at least makes for an interesting tension between form & content.

-Brandon Ledet

Obsession, Whimsy, and Mayhem in the Early Aughts Romance

Our current Movie of the Month, the menacing twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, fits a story template I never tire of seeing repeated in entertainment media: the paired couple of doomed souls whose violent attraction to each other is discouraged by and dangerous to the world at large. As in other properties like Sheer Madness, Heavenly Creatures, Thoroughbreds, and Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare profiles a young couple who are harmless enough in isolation but whose mutual, near-supernatural obsession with each other causes widespread mayhem. If there’s anything that distinguishes Love Me If You Dare from other examples of its ilk, it’s how it attempts to adapt this template to a cutesy romcom aesthetic. Early-aughts, Amélie-flavored twee whimsy starts the film off as a kind of romantic fairy tale, where a childhood game of escalating dares & pranks causes adorable mischief in the rigidly structured lives of adults. It isn’t until the central couple grows into adulthood themselves that the scope of their mayhem is truly alarming. For a glimpse at what that same story might look like if their dynamic were immediately off-putting from their childhood beginnings, there’s no better place to look than the 2001 stage play adaptation Disco Pigs. Featuring a young Cillian Murphy acting like a total creep in a thick Irish brogue, Disco Pigs is a little too nasty to match the twee-whimsy romance of Love Me If You Dare; it functions more as a drunken, sadistic melodrama than anything resembling a romcom. Still, it follows Love Me If You Dare’s exact story structure: introducing us to two mutually-obsessed weirdos who are menacingly inseparable until puberty hits and love complicates their peculiar relationship. The only difference is that it wastes no time making these strange creatures off-putting, whereas Love Me If You Dare holds off until they are adults.

It’s not fair to say there is no whimsy or romance to Disco Pigs’s central relationship. The film starts in the same realm of youthful fantasy as Love Me If You Dare, stretching even further back in establishing the childhood bonds of its treacherous pair. The story opens in the womb, narrated by a character we come to know as Runt. She explains that she was born in the exact same hospital at the exact same moment as her next-door neighbor & obsessive partner in crime: Pig. There’s a whimsy to the way their dual lives on opposite sides of their bedroom walls are synchronized, like a horrific Busby Berkeley routine, complete with matching pajamas. The film opens with the standard fairy tale greeting “Once Upon a time . . .” in its in-utero prologue, promising a much sweeter picture than what’s ultimately delivered. The childhood fairy tale fantasy element of their relationship continues into their adulthood, represented in mental escapes to a mystical Palace where Pig & Runt reign as The King & Queen of Everything (recalling the Kingdom of Borovnia escapes in Heavenly Creatures and the Adam & Eve pop-up book fantasy of Love Me If You Dare). As Disco Pigs opens, these unsavory twins from different mothers are 17 days away from celebrating their 17th birthday on the 17th day of the month – the most golden of birthday festivities. It all sounds as if it would be in service of a cutesy romance, but Pig & Runt’s dynamic is more grotesque than idyllic. They spend most of their teen years staging increasingly dodgy pranks, just like the lovefools of Love Me If You Dare: pantsing strangers in dance clubs, robbing liquor stores, singing British karaoke songs to the IRA, etc. As their self-given names suggest, they also develop unsavory forms of communication with uncomfortably childlike phrasings like “We man and woman now. We ain’t babbas no more,” and telepathic exchanges that don’t even require that base of a level of spoken dialogue. Much like Love Me If You Dare, Disco Pigs is the kind of fairy tale that invites you to bite into a pristine apple only to find that it’s mostly made of worms.

Besides sharing the false promise of fairy tale whimsy, Disco Pigs also uses the same device to separate its once-inseparable protagonists: the pangs of love & lust that accompany puberty. Almost as soon they reach sexual maturity, Pig crosses an unspoken boundary by kissing Runt in an alleyway behind a nightclub, mistakenly assuming that the impulse is mutual. It’s a rejection that disrupts their synchronicity permanently and the world around them is increasingly in danger the more violently Pig attempts to jolt them back into sync. The main difference between that dynamic and the trajectory of Love Me If You Dare is that the synchronized menaces of Disco Pigs are off-putting long before the pangs of lust harsh their vibes. Yes, it’s even more grotesque when they intone childlike half-English as adults in lines like “Why I kiss the honey lips of Runt?,” but even as children their privately shared language reads as deranged & unhealthy. There’s no true-life violent crime to attach to that sensation to either, like in how Heavenly Creatures ultimately results in an infamous from-the-headlines murder. It’s a more abstract, subliminal menace in this case – the way stage plays are often psychologically troubling without having to state their menace in-dialogue. The contrast of the fairy tale whimsy and unsettling romantic undertones is apparent here as soon as the characters announce themselves under the names Pig & Runt. Even their shared fantasy of ruling the world as The King & Queen of Everything feels oddly sinister, as long as you take a second to imagine what the world might be like under their rule. In Love Me If You Dare, by contrast, the central relationship doesn’t really become a menace until the couple refuses to give up their childhood game of dares once they become adults. It’s the difference between immaturity being the culprit vs. the kids themselves being a menace through the violent reaction of their chemistry.

There are some unfortunate indulgences in early-aughts aesthetics that keep Disco Pigs from joining the upper echelon of titles in its mutual-obsession genre (namely cheap techno & some unfortunate choices in choppy frame-rates). Much of the psychological menace of its stage play source material shines through in the production, though, if not only through Cillian Murphy’s slack-jawed, dead-eyed (and, honestly, still kind of hot?) portrayal of Pig – a character he originated onstage. Anyone with a fondness for stories of this ilk – Heavenly Creatures, Wuthering Heights, Love Me If You Dare, etc. – should find plenty of delicious menace in that performance, which paves over a lot of the film’s more glaring faults in craft & budget. If nothing else, we can all take solace that we don’t live in a world where Pig & Runt are crowned The King & Queen of Everything. It’s difficult to imagine many hells worse than the one we currently dwell in, but that one sounds like it might qualify.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993), and last week’s look at its prankish twee predecessor Amelie (2001).

-Brandon Ledet