Podcast #181: Swiss Army Man (2016) & 2023’s Best Director Nominees

Welcome to Episode #181 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Hanna discuss the earlier works of this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees, starting with the Daniels’ gallows-humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man (2016). Enjoy!

00:00 Welcome

04:33 Son of the White Mare (1981)
08:11 Take Out (2004)
13:16 U Turn (1997)
16:00 A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018)

23:25 Swiss Army Man (2016)
41:44 War of the Worlds (2005)
59:58 Little Children (2006)
1:16:50 In Bruges (2008)
1:34:55 The Square (2017)

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-The Podcast Crew

Táriangle of Sadness

I am wildly out of sync with the consensus on the two highest profile movies making their way through arthouse theaters right now, which means it must be Awards Season again.  Both Todd Field’s Tár and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness emerged from the festival circuit with plenty of praise & accolades, but now that they’re hitting wider audiences, the Correct Opinion to have on both has drastically split: Tár is genius, and Triangle is vapid.  I can only halfway agree.  Whereas most media-smart people I follow online see an exquisite, perversely funny treatise on #cancelculture in Tár, I only see a slightly better tailored version of Aaron Sorkin’s self-satisfied political fantasies, now shot with all the elegant refinement of a Lexus car commercial.  Meanwhile, Triangle of Sadness won this year’s Palme D’or, and it’s being received among people I generally trust as if it’s the European equivalent of Green Book.  I can at least get behind the consensus that the surface-level things Triangle of Sadness has to say about the grotesqueness of the wealth class are blunt & unsubtle.  I just also found it to be delightfully, cathartically cruel to its satirical targets to the point where subtlety & insight had nothing to do with its merits as a class-conscious comedy.  Speaking as someone who prefers entertainment to nuance, there is no doubt in my mind that Triangle of Sadness is the better film of this unlikely pair, and it’s been jarring to see that conclusion so relentlessly contradicted by every take I’m stumbling across in the wild.  I haven’t felt so out of touch with what cinema obsessives value since . . . almost exactly one year ago.

In the broadest terms, both Tár and Triangle are political provocations about how power quickly corrupts the marginalized.  Two (soon-to-be three) time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett stars as the titular orchestral composer Lydia Tár, who has risen to the top of her field despite the macho gatekeepers above her, only to use, manipulate, and discard women lower on the ladder in the exact predatory ways men in her position have for eternity.  The lesser-known character actor Dolly De Leon goes on a similar journey in Östlund’s film, when the luxury yacht she scrubs toilets on sinks into the ocean, leaving her worshipped as an abusive tyrant on the island where her privileged, unskilled employers depend on her blue-collar work ethic for food & shelter.  Neither woman wastes much time abusing their positions of power to squeeze sex & adulation out of their underlings.  In Tár, that abuse prompts provocative questions about the moral conflict between appreciating great works of art and appreciating the great pieces of shit who make them.  In contrast, Triangle of Sadness asks no questions.  It’s more a grotesque boardwalk caricature of the ultra-wealthy at their most obliviously evil, followed by a cosmic comeuppance of Titanic proportions.  Depending on a minimum-wage toilet scrubber for daily survival is just one indignity among many as their luxury-yacht voyage is disastrously derailed.  At one point, they’re made to roll around on the floor like pigs in their own puke & shit while a drunken Woody Harrelson reads Karl Marx quotes over the yacht’s loudspeaker.  We were invited onboard that yacht to point and laugh, not to ponder the complex power dynamics of modern living.  That may be the easier, cheaper route to take in this kind of Awards Season art film about wealth & prestige, but that also means it’s the quicker road to success.

These two films aren’t tethered by theme so much as they are by their dark, transgressive senses of humor.  Lydia Tár’s monstrous behavior is the same as any macho anti-hero’s; once it is narratively condemned, the audience is invited to take delight in its moral transgression.  When Tár crosses the good-taste boundaries of safe space, trigger warning, and identity politics rhetoric in her lecture to Zoomer students, the audience is supposed to find her offensive to a point . . . but then also take delight in her freedom to speak “the truth” (apolitical Gen-X nonsense) to “power” (idealistic Gen-Z children) without fear of being #cancelled (because that’s already inevitable).  It’s an Aaron Sorkin political rant coated in a couple thin layers of moral-distancing armor.  Outside the classroom, her elitist disgust with the uncultured “robots” of the world work much the same: both a stain on her personal morality and a transgressive thrill for an audience who partly agrees with her, against their better judgement.  It’s basically French Exit for the most boring people alive (i.e., subscribers to The New Yorker, which is name-checked in the first few lines of dialogue).  Triangle of Sadness has no such pretensions.  It picks out an easy, agreeable political target, strips them of their finery, slathers them in shit, and isolates them as far as it can from their bank-account safety nets.  Its humor is rooted in Jackass & John Waters-style scatology; its schadenfreude is worthy of a Femdom Island reality TV show; it’s a loud, braying joke told over one too many bottles of whisky.  I just personally found that joke much funnier than the understated musings of Tár, which aims more for droll chuckles than full belly laughs.

I know that I’m in the wrong here. I’ve seen enough intelligent people roll their eyes—in exasperation at Östlund’s film and in ecstasy at Field’s—to know that I’m just too impatient & too uncultured to “get it.”  I’ve been paying attention to The Discourse long enough to know when I’m out of my element.  So, just go ahead and disregard anything I have to say about Film Twitter’s punching bags & pet favs until, let’s say, the evil-doll horror M3GAN hits theaters in January.  Until then, I’ll be searching for the scraps of crass entertainment I can find in the arthouse darlings that eat up marquee space this time of year, which is probably why I’m overly grateful that Östlund was willing to meet me halfway.

-Brandon Ledet

The Square (2017)

Last year when I was putting together my list for the Best of 2017, I lamented that my roommate’s phone dying prevented us from seeing The Square during its all-too-brief run in Austin. While searching for something to watch this past weekend, we discovered that it’s finally found its way to Hulu, and we were overjoyed! Although there was some hemming and hawing about its 151 minute run time (especially as we had watched the 141 minute Bad Times at the El Royale earlier that same day), this was definitely worth the wait.

Christian (Claes Bang) is the divorced curator of the X-Royal modern art museum in Stockholm, which hosts such exhibits as a room full of identical piles of gravel, stacks of commonplace objects, an exhibit in which people must declare through the push of a button whether they trust other people or not (we do not see what happens if you admit you don’t, but entrants who go through the “I trust others” door must leave their phones and wallets in an open area), and the newest exhibit, Lola Arias’s titular “The Square.” Arias’s piece consists of a lighted square, four meters on each side, that is “a sanctuary of trust and caring” and within which “we all share equal rights and obligations.” After he is pickpocketed and loses his phone and wallet (and perhaps his cufflinks) as part of a con by a few people in a public space, Christian’s barely-together life falls apart completely. He sleeps with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a slightly deranged American art journalist who he previously met professionally and runs into again later at a party, and their next interaction goes . . . poorly. His plan to retrieve his stolen belongings, encouraged by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), involves tracking his GPS to an apartment building and stuffing all of the mailboxes in the complex with a threatening note. He succeeds, but not without affecting an innocent boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents assume the letter is about their son and punish him severely; the boy then demands Christian apologize and clarify the situation, or he will “make chaos” for the curator. His inattentiveness to the work of two young PR men (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder) to increase the public’s interest in “The Square” results in their creation of a viral marketing attempt that manages to upset just about every person in Sweden; his daughters are constantly fighting; and to top it all off, one of the cleaners manages to vacuum up part of the gravel pile exhibit, meaning that the piles are no longer identical.

There’s a lot going on in this film, which functions more as a series of vignettes than as a complete whole, but it manages to be stronger than merely the sum of its parts, and even with two and a half hours of screen time, there are still answers left unexplored – for instance, if you’re hoping for an explanation of the bonobo that appears in the trailer, you’re still going to be unclear by the time that the credits roll (per the IMDb trivia page, director Ruben Östlund said in Cannes, “Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears in an apartment. Everything should have a monkey in it.”). In the U.S., when a film or TV show mocks the world of modern art, it’s usually mean-spirited and lacking in humor or depth, focusing on the apparent ridiculousness of the artistic sphere and their arch removal from the earthy, grounded nature of “normal” folk (see: any episode of King of the Hill in which Bobby becomes temporarily obsessed with anything other than clowning). In The Square, the mockery is still present, but less abrasively, as epitomized in the early, tone-setting scene in which Christian asks Anne if putting her purse in the museum would make it art. She waits for him to continue from what appears to be a rhetorical question, until the silence between them grows deafening.

Instead, The Square mocks not the artifice of haute culture and instead revels in needling the shallowness of artistic expression when self-important artists attempt to make broad social commentary while lacking any real depth of insight. In the introduction of the concept of “The Square” to the museum’s wealthy patrons, Christian’s assistant thanks two donors for their contribution of fifty million kroner (about 5.85 million USD); following this, Christian launches into a practiced speech before a minor interruption offers him the opportunity to make an “impromptu” request to go off-script and begin again, a specific strategy to appear more personable and relatable, and which we have already seen him rehearse in the previous scene. “Lola Arias compares ‘The Square’ to a pedestrian crossing,” he says. “In a pedestrian crossing, drivers are to look out for pedestrians. In a similar way, there is a contract implied by ‘The Square,’ to look out for each other. We help each other. If you enter this space and ask for help, anyone passing by is obligated to help you. ‘I’m hungry. Can you help me with a meal?'” This comes after several scenes in which Christian himself expresses reticence to leave his Tesla while visiting a poor neighborhood (you can tell because the building he enters has flickering lights in the hallway on every single floor), and in which requests from those experiencing homelessness are ignored by the characters we have been following. Immediately after this monologue, Christian yields the floor to the museum’s chef, who attempts to describe the meal that has been prepared for the patrons in attendance but has to shout at them in order to finish describing the menu as the horde ignores his description as they herd themselves to the dining room; this contrasts with Christian’s interaction with a homeless woman who asks specifically that he buy her a sandwich with no onions. The rich, despite being financially able to meet all of their needs until the end of their lives, are oblivious to the food they plan to shovel into their mouths; the poor, for whom every meal could be the last one for a while, have sincere desires that they may find difficult to explicate, and any desires that are specific are met with derision. Christian buys the sandwich, but throws it at the woman and says that she can pick out the onions herself, treating her with socially and economically enforced disdain, despite his pretensions toward equality that he espouses in the art that he curates. This motif repeats itself throughout the film: Christian the curator embraces the importance of charitable humanity and the need to support the poor and the weak; Christian the person ignores the plight of people around him, writes a threatening letter to an entire apartment complex with reckless abandon, refuses to apologize to a child for the havoc in the boy’s personal life for which he is directly responsible, and when he does try to make things right, it’s both too little and too late.

European art films also tend to highlight the beauty of centuries-old architecture and frame their outdoor sequences in such a way that captures their beauty, both that which is pristine and that which is distressed in an attractively antique way. The Square is instead comprised of harsh, gray, buildings that seem born out of the era of architectural brutalism. The museum itself consists of the former palace of the Swedish monarchy, but more often than not we see 711 convenience stores tucked away under concrete blocks or the aforementioned apartment building with its endlessly flickering lights. We see the sumptuous world of the rich more rarely, like in the dinner scene featuring Oleg’s performance (which gets out of hand) or in Christian’s apartment, which is haunted by the shouting of the boy he has wronged and his own screaming following a tantrum at his daughters. It’s no surprise that, near the film’s climax, Christian finds himself digging through the trash for something that he desperately needs, and that this is the moment where he finally realizes that he has responsibilities to make reparations to the people he has harmed.

This all makes the film appear more somber than it really is. It is at turns deeply discomfiting, hilarious, and charming. And now that it’s on Hulu, you can check it out. Please do.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond