Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.
– The Podcast Crew
Welcome to Episode #127 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, and Brandon discuss the 80s Nostalgia romcom Music & Lyrics (2007) and other gems in the romantic comedy genre.
– The Podcast Crew
Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.
A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.
In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.
In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.
Since the city’s stay-at-home orders took effect this March, I’ve watched no fewer than six (six!) fashion-related reality competition shows: Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Glow-Up. A major part of these shows’ appeal to me during the pandemic has simply been the pleasure of watching someone routinely complete an artistic project from start to end without taking a second’s pause. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting a lot of the downtime I’d usually dedicate to writing & illustrating by staring slack-jawed at my phone, endlessly scrolling through the same three or four apps long after I’ve drained them of their entertainment or informational value. These runway competition shows would have eventually snuck into my media diet with or without a global pandemic, however, since fashion is an artform I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in general. It’s probably the most vital artistic medium I’ve overlooked & undervalued throughout my life – an oversight I’ve been actively striving to correct in recent years. After tiring out on podcasts & documentaries, fashion competition shows have been an excellent crash course in the terminology & history of fashion as artform, but they aren’t the only resource that have guided me through this personal journey in recent months; they had a little help from a mid-00s romcom.
The Devil Wears Prada is more overtly about the fashion industry as a business rather than fashion as artform. Based off the memoirs of a disgruntled former assistant to longtime Vogue editor & industry tastemaker Anna Wintour, the film is presented as a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how stressful & cruel the industry can be for unsuspecting artsy types who get sucked into its orbit. It’s hardly the tear-it-all-down exposé that dating competition shows like The Bachelor got in the similar tell-all series Unreal, however. Instead, its peek behind the Vogue Magazine curtain is utilized as a backdrop for some fairly straightforward romantic comedy storytelling, which both helps & hurts its value as fashion-world insight. To its detriment, The Devil Wears Prada suffers the classic romcom problem of cornering its lead (Anne Hathaway, playing a fashion-ignorant academic who improbably lands a job at the fictional Vogue surrogate Runway Magazine) into choosing between two dweebs who don’t deserve her (a snobby line-cook who believes fashion is for vapid rubes and a publishing industry bigshot who believes she’s outgrown her former social circle). However, since the film mostly focuses on her terrified admiration of her boss (Meryl Streep as the tyrannical Anna Wintour avatar), it more or less gets away with that cliché. This is mostly a story about a woman falling in & out of love with fashion itself; the men she dates along the way are just accessories.
Hathaway may be the least convincing dumpy-nerd-next-door casting since Sandra Bullock play a l33t hacker in The Net. She’s a perfectly cromulent choice for a romcom lead, though, especially as the fashion-ignorant academic turns up her nose at an entire artform for supposedly being beneath her intellectually. By contrast, Streep is without question perfectly cast as a tyrannical auteur who barely speaks above a whisper but still has an entire industry groveling at her stilettoed feet. There’s rarely a crack in her emotional armor that reveals any vulnerability or trace of humanity, but she’s consistently the film’s most useful keyhole into the power of fashion as an artform (in her confident editorial eye) and its destructive nature as an industry (in the fear-based environment she runs as an employer). Streep is fascinating to watch, so much so that you never question why her least fashion-aware employee would stick around for the daily abuse – even when her closest friends do. In the film’s best scene, Streep delivers a distinct, cutting monologue about the couture to ready-to-wear pipeline that influences Hathaway’s dumpy lead’s daily life while she naively believes fashion to be an inconsequential frivolity that does not affect her personally. It affects & influences us all, maybe more so than any other modern artform, and the journey Hathaway goes on here is mostly in learning how to accept that inescapable truth and use it to her full advantage.
There’s nothing especially novel about The Devil Wears Prada in terms of craft; it looks & acts like almost any post-80s studio romcom you can name (which is especially apparent in its refusal to challenge the fashion industry’s addiction to weight-shaming). Its earned foundational respect for fashion as an artform is what really saves it from falling into total tedium, an accomplishment it could not manage without Streep’s steely presence as an industry figurehead. Hathaway holds her own as an audience surrogate despite her naturally glamorous beauty (in a role that makes her image-subverting turn in Ocean’s 8 even funnier in retrospect), as does Stanley Tucci as the fashion insider who teaches her that clothes equal confidence (a role that feels like the birthplace of Modern Tucci). This is somehow still Streep’s movie, though, even if she barely ever lifts a finger or speaks above a whisper. I’m not well-versed enough in fashion industry lore to comment on whether she captured Wintour’s specific persona accurately, but she’s effortlessly electric throughout the picture the way all enigmatic auteurs are within their own artistic fiefdoms. If nothing else, that monologue about the ready-to-wear pipeline really is an all-timer, maybe the most succinctly insightful summation of fashion’s undetected importance I’ve come across so far in my scramble to play catch-up.
If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.
Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.
The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.
Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.
Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.
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.
One of the most purely joyous moments in our current Movie of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, is the climactic musical number on the bus where the main couple lip-sync to the Italian pop song “Ta Ra Ta Ta” by 1960s icon Mina. It’s the moment when the film fully blossoms into the proto-Mamma Mia! jukebox musical it’s been teasing for its entire runtime and, thus, plays like more of a major emotional payoff than an out-of-nowhere indulgence. However, it’s a moment that I completely misinterpreted when we first discussed the film. At the time, I believed the big “Ta Ra Ta Ta” dance number to be an homage to the similar romantic conclusions of a typical Bollywood production. That made enough sense to me at the time, given the wistful sitars that pepper the soundtrack and the film’s general scatterbrained approach to eclectic musical tastes: Boy George, Wire, The Village People, Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, etc. I was wrong, though. That climactic dance number was meant as an homage to an entirely different film genre: the musicarello.
Instigated by the 1958 musical comedy Regazzi del Juke-Box (directed by Lucio Fulci, who would later become infamous in the sleazy world of gialli), the musicarello was an Italian genre of rock n’ roll pictures meant to exploit teenage culture & promote rising pop acts. Combining the rebellious teenage energy of Roger Corman’s drive-in era with the variety show rock performances of television programs like Ed Sullivan & American Bandstand, musicarelli were mostly irreverent slapstick comedies that enabled youngsters to see their favorite pop groups on the big screen in proto-MTV music videos. It was a shamelessly commercial version of teenage rebellion, one that’s lightly anti-conformist & anti-bourgeois messaging did not survive the more radicalized politics of the late 1960s. Ginger & Cinnamon’s climactic homage to miscarello tradition would have been a distinctly nostalgic indulgence, then, which lines up perfectly with its main character’s nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons & club music from the 1980s. It’s the exact kind of outdated fluff entertainment that would have been in heavy rotation on Italian television when she was a kid.
If I had been more familiar with Italian pop culture of yesteryear, I would have known instantly that the “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence was a nod to musicarelli, not Bollywood. That’s because the song choice of a Mina tune in particular has strong ties to musicarelli of the 1960s, so that any Italian Woman Of A Certain Age would have recognized the reference. Mina was famous in Italy (and internationally) for many reasons. Her three-octave vocal range as a soprano made her a standout in her field. Her public image as “an emancipated woman” and the mistress to a married man made her a popular topic for tabloid coverage. Her rambunctious stage presence and predilection for song topics like sex, religion, and (in “Ta Ra Ta Ta”) smoking cigarettes earned her the nickname The Queen of Screams. However, one of the biggest boosters for Mina’s career were her starring roles in musicarelli. Mina performed her 60s pop tunes in over a dozen musicarello titles, making her one of the most popular figures in one of Italy’s most popular film genres. Unfortunately, I can’t find any musicarelli featuring Mina available with an English translation in the US, but thankfully there’s plenty performances from them hosted on sites like YouTube.
Below are a few of my favorite Mina musicarello performances that are available on YouTube, a 60s rock ‘n roll primer I wish I had discovered before we discussed our Movie of the Month.
1. “Ta Ra Ta Ta” from Totò Ye Ye (1967)
2. “Mandalo giu” from Pere amore per magia (1967)
3. “Nessuno” from Howlers of the Dock (1960)
4. “Tintarella di Luna” from Juke box – Urli d’amore (1959)
5. “Io bacio… tu baci” from Io bacio… tu baci (1961)
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.
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
Years ago, I came across a movie clip of a middle-aged woman yelling out of an open window, “I’m going to Greece for the sex! Sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea, and sex for supper!” I thought it was hilarious. Recently, I found out that this was a snippet from the 1989 British rom-com Shirley Valentine. Well, I finally got around to watching it last night, and I absolutely loved it. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Alfie, The Spy Who Loved Me), so I expected nothing but the best to start with.
Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins) is a bored, middle-aged housewife in Liverpool. Her marriage has lost its spark and her children are no longer living at home. This is an archetype we’ve seen time and time again, but Shirley is different. She’s a wild and witty woman at heart, and she reveals this side of herself when breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the film. This technique worked well for me because I felt like Shirley was having a genuine conversation with me over a cup of tea. I love that sort of intimacy in a film. It gets me personally invested in a character, and the film gets my full, undivided attention until the very end. During these intimate little conversations with the audience, Shirley reveals that she always wanted to travel, and her dreams come true when her feminist friend Jane (Alison Steadman) wins two tickets to Greece and wants to take Shirley with her. The way the film pokes fun at “feminist” Jane has not aged well at all. Jane comments that “All men are potential rapists” and is paranoid of every man that is around her. It’s probably the only aspect of the film that I disliked.
Traveling to Greece without telling her family, Shirley fills the gap in her life that was making her so miserable. She gains the confidence she so desperately needed, and she even has a fling with one of the locals! When her trip comes to an end, she bails on her flight back to Liverpool and returns to Greece. At this point, the film makes it seem like she is in love with her Greek beau and wants to be with him, but that’s not what happens. She runs into him sweet-talking another tourist with the same pick-up line he used on her, and just when I thought she was going to slap him or break down crying, she puts a big smile on her face and asks for a job at his restaurant (I’m not sure if he owns it or just works there). I loved this little twist so much. It’s nice to see women in late 1980s film doing things for themselves and recognizing their worth.
Apparently, the film Shirley Valentine is based on the play of the same name that also starred Pauline Collins. The play was an international hit and had a successful run on Broadway and London’s West End. The world of Shirley Valentine is much bigger than I expected, and I plan on exploring every bit of it.